ABSOLUTION? ABSOLUTELY! SHROVE TUESDAY NOW AND THEN

 

And on Shrove Tuesday when the bell does ring

we will go out at hens and cocks to fling

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Today is Shrove Tuesday. A propitious time for hanging laundry according to English tradition, which holds that whites will dry to yield an even brighter white on this day.  There are 46 days between tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and the Holy Saturday at Easter. If the abstinence required of the faithful is relaxed for each of the coming Sundays then Lent will last for 40 days. Today marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the three-day period of indulgence and revelry known since 1530 as Shrovetide, culminating in the tossing and sharing of pancakes, formerly a way of using up the sinfully fattening contents of the larder prior to fasting.

In old tradition believers were summoned by a bell rung at eleven in the morning to be ‘shriven’, that is given confession by a priest and forgiven for their sins. The verb to shrive, meaning impose a penance, was Middle English shriven, scrīfan in Old English, and is related to modern German schreiben, to write. Old Germanic borrowed the Latin verb scribere, to write, (itself descended from Proto-IndoEuropean *skribh -, to cut) in the form *skrībaną on the basis that, even for an illiterate community, religious proscriptions were written down. The confusion of penitence and indulgence resulted in the old phrase to ‘go a-shroving’ denoting not seeking confession but making merry and misbehaving.

By the 19th century the shriving bell had become the pancake bell, which in Toddington in Bedfordshire brought village children to Conger Hill to put ears to the ground and listen for the sizzling of the local witch’s pan. In Chester the wild communal street games played on Shrove Tuesday were said to have originated when the townsfolk decapitated a Viking prisoner and used his head as a football: in Derby in 1839 the army had to intervene to stop, once and for ever, the mayhem occasioned by this annual festivity. Other communities celebrated with bull-baiting and tugs-of-war, or as in Brighton played variations of ‘cock-in-the-pot’ or ‘cock-squailing’ whereby weighted sticks were thrown at a captive chicken (or in Somerset at a ‘Lenycock’ – not a bird but a daffodil). Cocks and chickens, though, had a hard day of it almost everywhere. In Scotland children could bribe their teachers with a ‘cock-penny’ to abandon lessons in favour of a cock fight – the dominie was allowed to claim and eat or sell any bird that fled from the ring.

The name of the coming period of penitence, Lent, is a shortening of Middle English lenten, from Old English lencten, coming from  *langatinaz,  a ProtoGermanic word for springtime using the prehistoric ancestor of ‘long’ and evoking the arrival of longer days.

 

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…at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily

-John Taylor c.1642

 

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‘POOR TOM’S A-COLD’

 English below freezing

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Writer Melissa Harrison was intrigued when I posted on Twitter last night that ‘It’s pretty nipply out there.’ I was referring in facetious fashion to this January’s latest cold front – ‘cold snap’ has described a cold spell or sudden sharp frost since the 1740s – but the more literal nipply has been substituted by wags for the colloquial nippy (used in this sense since the 19th century) only since the 1990s.

We are bombarded at this time of the year by journalese hyperbole –  the threat of thundersnow, the imminent arrival of The Beast from the East, the Siberian blast or even Snowmageddon, but the need for Brits to try and keep abreast of their capricious and wayward climate changes, coupled with our love of flippancy and understatement has thrown up a number of quaint and folksy expressions treating the notion of ‘bloody freezing’, some of which risk leaving foreigners at a loss.

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‘It’s a bit taters out there, I can tell you.’ Can still be heard, as I related in my Dictionary of Slang, in the ‘respectable jocular speech’ of older people, though it’s a shortening of the archaic Cockney rhyming slang ‘taters in the mould’ as rhyme for cold, originally describing a dish of potatoes, probably basted with dripping, in preparation for roasting. From a similar age-group and given the notoriously bad insulation of British buildings, you might still hear ‘There’s a terrible George Raft in here!’, the rhyme for draught borrowing the name of the Hollywood actor of the 1940s, famous for his stylish tough-guy roles on and off screen.

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More modern colloquialisms for ‘cold’ are arctic and Baltic, the latter sounding like a slightly rude double entendre. Common in Scotland, it might just reference the cold weather systems that sweep towards the UK from that region, but since the 1990s has been heard on US campuses too, and in Northern Irish slang where it means both freezing and fashionably ‘cool’ or ‘chilled.’ More obscure is brick as adjective for chilly, cold, freezing, heard in American English, where the better known cold as a witch’s tit and colder than a well-digger’s ass originated.

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On being met by a blast of freezing air the expression, or exclamation, brass monkeys is entirely appropriate. Baffled hearers will likely be told that this is a shortening of the vulgar expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ and, if their informer is better informed, that the brass monkeys in question were the racks of cannonballs stored on the decks of warships. This is, though, almost certainly a false, folk etymology. A more likely source is that novelty brass monkeys were sold in sets of three as desk or mantelpiece decorations from Victorian times. Each monkey’s hands were clasped to hide a part of the body and in some cases one was covering his – or her – genital area.

Another very British way of understating the intense, unbearable cold is ‘it’s rather parky isn’t it.’ The word has been used, particularly in middle-class speech since before the First World War, but its origin remains obscure. It might be a dialect pronunciation of ‘perky’ in the sense of sharp and fresh, or from the word ‘park’ as used by gamekeepers to mean ‘(the cold) outdoors’. Nowadays in lighthearted family conversation it’s sometimes elaborated to parquet-flooring or Parkinson – the name of a well-known elderly TV presenter. The more emphatic perishing used to be rendered by Peregrine Worsthorne, the name of a journalist cruelly nicknamed ‘Perishing Worthless’ by Private Eye magazine. @the TuesdayMan on Twitter tells us that it’s Perez de Cuellar in his household.

 

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Out in the frozen fields, away from the southern conurbations, another old dialect term still flourishes. Nesh can mean cold, or weak and susceptible to cold (hence also cowardly or contemptible) and still crops up in northern conversations. In Old English it was hnesce, weak or infirm and may derive ultimately from a Proto-IndoEuropean word for scrape or scratch. In the Potteries district  in Staffordshire they still use starvin’ to mean feeling cold, and my friend and colleague Jonathon Green reminds me that the English Dialect Dictionary also lists as synonyms for chilly airish, chillery, chilpy, coldrife, cuthrie, dead, lash, oorie, rear, snelly and urly.

If you’re familiar with any other slang, dialect or humorous, colourful terms for this season’s weather, please let me know. You will be gratefully credited.

CHRISTMAS, ON THE CARDS

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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

 

The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.

 

 

Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.

 

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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)

 

 

The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…

 

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POOR GUY – a Fawkesian miscellany

Tonight is Bonfire Night, Firework Night, nowadays usurped by Hallowe’en as the most popular celebration of autumn-to-winter transition, but still a folk festival of note. Many people are aware that the fires and fireworks commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, but few know more than the name of the terrorist whose effigy we burn on Guy Fawkes night.

 

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The catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, who came from from Yorkshire, spoke French when captured and signed himself  ‘Guido’, using the Italian or Spanish form of the name (his autograph, before and after torture had been applied, is below). He may have begun the practice when fighting in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, although Italian names were considered fashionable and were sometimes adopted by English gallants. Guy is the French form of old Germanic Wido, either meaning ‘dweller at the forest margin’ or a nickname from ‘wide’ as bodily description or location (an open, flat region).

 

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The English surname Fawkes, also archaically spelled Fauks, Faukes and Fakes, derives from the German name or nickname Falco which probably originally referred to a person thought to resemble a falcon. Falco became Faulques in Norman French and was adopted after the Conquest, the first attestation coming from 1221.

 

While in London preparing to blow up parliament, Fawkes posed as a servant in the entourage of Thomas Percy, a fellow conspirator who had access to the parliamentary precincts. Fawkes’ less than imaginative choice of alias was ‘John Johnson.’

 

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Guy’s wide-brimmed headgear, crudely imitated on effigies and now caricatured as a ‘V for Vendetta’ hat, is correctly termed a ‘sugarloaf hat’, since its high, flat-topped crown resembled the sugarloafs imported from the colonies in the Stuart period.

 

Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island is actually two small uninhabited islands and two smaller rocks lying in the Pacific Ocean off the Galápagos Islands which are owned by Ecuador. The name might have been given after a fiery volcanic event had been witnessed, but was more probably bestowed by buccaneers who viewed Guy as a hero and one of their own.

 

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Fireworks did not just take off (pun intended) in England after the Gunpowder Plot. They first became popular in the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I loved them and appointed a ‘Firemaster of England’ to arrange displays.

 

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Bonfire (first recorded in 1483) is not, as Dr Johnson and others have claimed, French ‘bon feu’, (French would be ‘feu de joie’, ‘grand feu’) but ‘bone-fire’, a collection of burning bones or an open fireplace or outdoor pyre into which bones were thrown, after feasting for instance. By 1581 the word was also being used to refer to a fire in which heretics were burnt.

 

Guy himself was not executed by burning, a fate reserved for those found guilty of heresy.  He and the other condemned plotters were indeed Catholic dissidents, but the state wanted to avoid civil disturbances so accused them of treason, for which the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes managed to cheat the hangman by falling or throwing himself from the ladder leading to the scaffold, breaking his neck.

 

Guy Fawkes’s first name lived on, coming to mean by 1806 his effigy, then a grotesquely or poorly dressed person or eccentric. By extension a verb form arose (first attested in 1872) meaning to hold (someone) to ridicule. At the end of the 19th century in American colloquial usage the word had come to mean simply ‘a fellow’, from which we get our modern all-purpose, sometimes gender-neutral ‘guy’.

 

Illustration from 'Mischeefes mysterie London'

THE VAMPIRE AND ITS LINEAGE

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The history of the Vampire – the being and the word that names it – is fascinatingly convoluted. We know that the word came to us in the 18th century via German from Serbian vampir (вампир) but its ultimate origins and meaning are complex. Here, in fragments from a quite old – if not truly ancient –  publication are some thoughts on the enduring legend of the thirsty undead…

 

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In fact the figure of the bloodsucking or life-draining revenant is recurrent and attested in almost all prehistoric and most early modern cultures. There are examples from China (so-called ‘hungry ghosts’), Malaysia, the Americas, and, most interestingly from a linguistic point-of-view, the Kipchaks and Karachays of Caucasia and their relatives, the Tatars, and other Turkic-speaking peoples of Anatolia. Their languages give us yet another possible ancestor for the many names, culminating in today’s ‘vampire’, listed above. In modern Turkish obur denotes a glutton or greedy person, but in older folklore the Obur (Tatar Ubyr) was a bloodsucking night-demon that could shapeshift into a cat or dog or a beautiful woman. Here, then, is another possible – and rather plausible – antecedent for later slavonic upirs or vampirs.

 

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Vampire-like creatures were described, too, in classical writings, as Sententiae Antiquae relates here:

Ancient Greek Vampires 1: Empousa

 

The ‘old book’ extracts above are from my own 1999 title, Children of the Night:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-Night-HB-Vampires-Vampirism/dp/0575402725