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

Image result for mediaeval priest giving absolution

 

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 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'

AUTUMN FALLS TODAY

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,

 

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Today, the 23rd day of September (beginning, strictly speaking, at 2.54 am), is for us the Autumn or Autumnal Equinox. For our ancestors, speaking Old English, or ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ the time of emniht or efenniht ‘even-night’, occurs while Hāligmonath, the ‘holy month’ of September, so called because thanksgiving ceremonies for the grain harvest were held, is giving way way to Winterfylleth, the ‘winter full-moon’. In dark-age chronology the new month and the new season began with the first full moon of October. Around this time daylight and darkness are of roughly the same duration (Latin aequi, equal; nox, night), though only exactly at ‘Equilux’ (lux is light in Latin) which falls this year on September 28.

 

 

The christian church ignores the equinox, although Michaelmas, held on September 29th, may have been intended to wean pagans from their late-Summer and early-Autumn fertility rites. Modern Wiccans and new age pagans celebrate the feast of Mabon, or Second Harvest, at the Autumn equinox. Some prefer the Irish Gaelic name for this month, Mea’n Fo’mhair, which translates literally as ‘middle harvest’. Festivities may last for a week and involve the venerating and eating of fruits such as apples, blackberries, and nuts. Though derived from supposedly ancient Celtic myth, the acorn and chestnut-strewn altars, the overflowing horns-of-plenty and the russet-coloured robes on display are almost certainly modern inventions, never associated for sure with any historical or supernatural ‘Mabon.’

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There was indeed a god of youth in the Celtic pantheon whose name Maponos derived from mapos, a Gaulish word for son or boy, the root mab also denoting son in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Both come from Proto-Indo European makʷos, son, (which gives us the Mac and Mc used in Scottish and Irish surnames). The figure of Maponos was worshipped by Gallo-Romans on the continent and in Britain who identified him with the Roman god Apollo. Under the name of Mabon the same mythical youth appears in the Welsh Mabinogion legends and the Arthurian romances, but it is not known when in the year Maponos or Mabon were worshipped (there are two inscriptions on record from the end of August) or what rituals were involved.

Autumn, as is well attested, comes to us via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, itself from Latin autumnus which is said to be adapted from a lost Etruscan or Venetic root autu-, but could equally be formed from Italic au(ct)- meaning dry (the notion of drying leaves and grass, in John Clare’s words; The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread…the greensward all wracked...) or Latin auctus, increase (the opposing notion of late fruition and abundance, Blake’s laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape). As a seasonal name Autumn, first heard in England from the 12th century, was only rarely used here before the 16th century, ‘Harvest’ being the term preferred. ‘Fall’, probably a contraction of ‘fall-of-the-leaf’ was an alternative also used in former times in Britain and it was exported to America with settlers in the 17th century.

 

 

Above is Keats’ famous ode, with its first, endlessly quoted, line. But let a later author, Emily Dickinson, have the last word…

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze

 

OF THE EASTER EGG: ANECDOTES AND ETYMOLOGIES

Once a ‘heathen’ token of fertility and (re)birth (or so we are told – speculations by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century or Jacob Grimm in the 19th, now taken as gospel, may indeed be no more than speculation) appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of resurrection, nothing could be more familiar than an egg at Easter-time. More obscure are the early history of egg-giving and the very ancient origins of the word itself… 

 

Image result for little girls painting eggs

 

 Long ago it was a custom in northern England and Scotland to give decorated hardboiled eggs as presents for Easter, just as folk still do in Catholic and Orthodox Europe and elsewhere. These little gifts, typically hand-painted in vivid colours, were known variously as ‘paste-eggs’, ‘pace-eggs’ or ‘past-eggs’, the first component being a corruption of Latin paschalis, relating to Passover or Easter, rendered in earlier Englishes by the  adjectives ‘paschal’ or ‘pasch’. The terms might alternatively have been borrowed from just across the channel, perhaps from Dutch paasche eyren or Frisian peaske aaien. Dyeing or painting eggs, however, is a custom that predates ‘western’ or Christian practice. Very ancient traditions from many parts of the world involve the communal decoration of eggs at different times of the year, in Persia for example at the Nowruz (‘new day’) festival, marking the spring equinox and celebrated for the last two thousand years.

Image result for Nowruz painted eggs

 

Old Easter traditions, some true, some perhaps true and many almost certainly embellished (pun intended), were described by John Brand in his Popular Antiquity of 1841:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WJM9AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=brands+popular+antiquity+easter+eggs&source=bl&ots=ya4uX85_0D&sig=MSw3N9LT_uN5LoSNPcf8-8U4MzQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhnqigmYraAhVJ6xQKHedmACkQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=brands%20popular%20antiquity%20easter%20eggs&f=false

The first reference specifically to ‘Easter eggs’ is by John Knox in his 1572 History of the Reformation in Scotland. This tells of ‘gifts’ bestowed in a very different sense, when in Edinburgh a Catholic priest was captured and tormented: ‘Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him [i.e pelted him] with his Easter egges.’

We can perfectly understand the word Knox uses, but students of the history of the English language will be familiar with another anecdote, recounted by the printer William Caxton in his Eneydos (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneids) of 1490. He described a group of northern English merchants en route to Holland whose ship was becalmed on the Thames.  One of them went ashore to buy a meal from a local woman: ‘And specially he aksyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understood hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym well.’

 

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Northern English dialect had adopted the word egges from Old Norse, while southern and eastern dialects used Old English eyren. Both are descendants of the Proto-Germanic *ajją which itself comes from Proto-IndoEuropean*h₂ōwyóm. This may be formed from a root-word for bird,*awi-, so settling once and for all the question of which came first. It is of course also the ancestor of Latin ovum and its derivations in Italian (uovo), Spanish (huevo) and French (oeuf) as well as in Greek ōión, Old Church Slavonic aja, Russian jajco, Breton ui and Welsh wy. Our modern egg is cognate with modern Icelandic and Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg and Danish æg. Modern German ei is closer to the Old English version.

Amusingly, there have been folk etymologies (that is, fake etymologies) for egg put forward by mischievous or deluded ‘experts’ in the past. One silly claim is that our word is related to ‘ego’ – and that this is somehow a theory endorsed by Sigmund Freud. The dramatist John Lyly in his Galatea comedy of 1588 plays with the notion that eggs are enticingly golden in colour and are ‘tried in the fire’ just like gold, for which they could be a symbol or synonym. Like gold, too, they are incentives ‘to frolic’ as they ‘are a thing that doth egg on’.

That jaunty phrase to ‘egg someone on’ (first attested in1566) in the sense of urging someone to do something, especially something risky or offensive, in fact has a different history, deriving from the Middle English verb eggen, from Old Norse eggja (to incite). The base is again a noun, egg, but this time meaning the edge, of, for example a blade or a cliff, from Proto-Germanic *agjō, from Proto-IndoEuropean *h₂eḱ- (sharp, pointed), so the goading or provoking here involves pushing someone nearer or over a boundary (though some think it’s pushing with the figurative or literal edge of a sword). Lexicographers all insist that the expression ‘over-egg the pudding’ comes from this sense, supposedly referring to excessive mixing or beating, rather than – more logically – from the idea of adding too many eggs to the mixture and ruining its texture.

 

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries darning eggs (made of stone or wood and used to fill out a garment being mended) and egg-shaped trinket or needle boxes for adults became popular; the egg-shaped toy containers which were given to children at Easter were usually made of tin, sometimes of cardboard covered with velvet and satin, and filled with miniature gifts or sweets. The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th century and were solid, as the technology required for hollow shells was not yet in place. The first (dark) chocolate egg produced in the UK was sold by J.S Fry of Bristol in 1873: John Cadbury followed in 1875 and by 1905 was mass-producing hollow milk chocolate eggs, often filled with sugared almonds. In a reversal in 2017 The Solid Chocolate Company boasted – erroneously – that they had produced the world’s very first solid (Belgian) chocolate egg, weighing 750gm and retailing at £24.99.

 

Image result for Fry's chocolate  eggs

 

For more European translations of ‘egg’ and their etymologies:

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/5umohl/etymology_map_for_the_word_egg_in_european/

 

 

 

 

IN ONE BASKET – OF THE EGG, AT EASTER

 

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I have been, all too predictably, seasonally, thinking about the egg, its role in the imminent Easter festivities which will be the subject of the next post, but also reexamining the little word itself, so commonplace, so rarely considered.

Image result for easter humpty dumpty

I’ll look at its etymology in the next post, too, but not surprisingly the egg has featured in English slang, at least since the first recorded attestations in the 16th century, but its various slang senses, until very recently, have been disappointingly obvious and unengaging.

The main senses and sub-senses of slang egg can be listed as follows, roughly in order of chronological record, and also in rough order of frequency of use (examples of these usages are listed by my fellow slang specialist and sometime collaborator, Jonathon Green, in his monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

1.

  • From its physical resemblance, (ovoid, containing viscous fluid, a seed of life): Testicle 
  • From its resemblance, (ovoid, hard surface, hollow, precious content): Head
  • From resemblance, (hollow container): Bomb
  • From resemblance, (hollow container or roughly oval pellet): Capsule, Tablet (of an illicit substance)

2.

  • By extension, from the notion of a unit, organism (heard in the obsolescent expressions in ‘posh’ British English ‘a good egg/bad egg’): Person
  • Specified, perhaps with reference to simple form (in New Zealand slang this is a common insult, though some claim it is inspired by d. below): Fool
  • Further specified, perhaps with added reference to fragility: Dupe
  • Clipped form of the colloquial expression denoting an individual with overdeveloped brain-function/intellectual prowess: Egghead

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So far, so unexciting. More recently, though, the same word has been adopted for new purposes, encoding fresh and interesting ideas. These, in no particular order, are:

  1. A transgender person who hasn’t yet embraced or revealed their identity. The usage plays on the notion of ‘a chick or a cock on the inside’. In August 2017 ‘happycookie’ posted the following on the Urban Dictionary website:

     ‘…If they’re unsure whether they want to transition they’re a scrambled egg. If they                    supposedly really dislike transgender people but still constantly talk about them                    they’re a hard-boiled egg’

          The term can also apply to someone who has newly acknowledged their identity,                or recently transgendered, by analogy with ‘newly hatched’.

 

  1. A white person who wishes to be or pretends to be ‘Asian’ (in the American sense of Japanese, Chinese, etc., formerly denoted by ‘oriental’). Urban Dictionary has a first and only mention from 2003, explaining that such a person is ‘white on the outside, yellow on the inside’. But there’s more here:

 

  1. An anonymous online troll, typically using the Twitter social network. In April 2017 Twitter stopped using the egg-shaped blank as its default avatar and substituted a gender-neutral silhouette, saying that it wished to ‘prompt more self-expression’ but more probably as the word egg had come to signify a malicious, anonymous user, typically male, who harassed other accounts, typically not anonymous and female. Twitter egg had also been used since 2010 as an insult directed at users who retained the egg default because they were too inept to create their own profile picture.

 

  1. In texting abbreviation and acronyms capitalised EGG has been used for ‘Enlightened Grammar Geek’, ‘Exceedingly Great Grooves’, and by gamers for ‘Elemental Gimmick Gear’

 

  1. An Easter egg in the jargon of computing, videogaming and video production is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or a secret feature, planted inside a computer program, video game, menu screen or electronic device, for instance, or only accessible by secret commands. The usage derives from having to search for hidden prizes on a traditional Easter egg hunt.

 

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  1. To egg (someone) as a verb is not really slang, but an informal term, originating in British usage, for flinging eggs at a victim, typically as a way of expressing contempt for a public figure. (I’ll deal with the phrase ‘to egg (someone) on’ in the next post.)

 

  1. The adjective eggy, sometimes eggsy, meaning nervous, agitated or moody, or peculiar, irritating or hostile, heard in US and British slang since the 1980s, is of uncertain origin. It may not be related to eggs, but be an adaptation of the colloquial ‘edgy’ or (putting someone) ‘on edge’.

 

  1. As adjective eggy can mean also excellent, of which it may be a playful distortion, in UK playground slang, since the 1990s.

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  1. In multiethnic British street slang eggs-up can mean intrusive, too curious or nosy. It probably comes from Jamaican ‘patois’ where it can also describe showing off or taking advantage of another person. The connection with actual eggs, if there is one, is unclear.

 

  1. While on the same subject, Jamaican English often pronounces the word as ‘hegg’, while in Irish slang a yoke is an unnamed object. There must be other senses of the e-word in popular conversation and online use, as yet unrecorded. If you know of any, please do send them to me (and you will be thanked and credited in any future writings).

 

 

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FESTIVE SLANG

It’s already the Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and memories of this year’s summertime festivals are fast fading…

An Autumn days view

You can nevertheless re-live those hedonistic outdoor excesses by browsing my Festival Dictionary, produced for Lucozade two summers ago and still offering a snapshot of the latest slang, catchphrases, keywords and catcalls to accompany the traffic jams, the endless toilet queues, the muddied tents and the eventual collective euphoria…

The Lucozade Yes Moment Festival Dictionary is free and obtainable here…

http://www.lulu.com/shop/tony-thorne/the-yes-moment-festival-dictionary/ebook/product-21791651.html#productDetails