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

YULETIDE EMBLEMS

Christmas is almost upon us, with its more-than-familiar seasonal decorations and traditions. Here are some brief etymologies…

 

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Mistletoe (Viscum album: Latin for ‘sticky white’) is from Old English mistel (mistletoe, birdlime – in modern German Mist means dung or ‘crap) and Old English tan (twig): the ‘toe’ component came about in the Middle English period, probably as a result of scholars misreading the –an of tan as a plural ending.

Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder reported that the Druid shamans encountered in 1st century AD Britain revered the parasitic plant. They used it in sacrificial rituals and ‘believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons’. Later Norse mythology describes the beloved god Baldur being killed by a shaft of mistletoe, the only living thing that had, because of its innocent insignificance, not been sworn to protect him.

The bird known in English as the mistle thrush doesn’t kiss under but snacks upon mistletoe berries. Its Latin name is turdus (thrush) viscivorus from the noun viscum (mistletoe) and the verb devorare (to devour).

 

 

Holly is from Middle English ‘holi’, from Old English hole(g)n, itself from Proto-Germanic *hulin from a posited Proto-IndoEuropean root *kel- meaning prick or cut. We can compare modern Cornish kelynn, Welsh celyn. Holly was once thought to be immune to lightning strikes and legend held that its berries had been white until the blood of Christ dyed them. The plant’s vigour in winter, when most other vegetation had withered or died, led pagans and Christians alike to take it as a sacred token, blending notions of immortality with the suffering symbolised by its prickly leaves. As late as the 1950s there were many different local versions of its name…

 

 

Holly’s fellow evergreen, Ivy, is from Middle English ‘ivi’, Old English īfiġ, from Proto-Germanic *ibahs, originating in Proto-IndoEuropean *(h₁)ebʰ-, a word used for several different plants with pointed leaves. Ivy was in mediaeval times believed to be female, and then and later was also thought to ward off the effects of alcohol (tavern drinks were sometimes served in cups made of its wood) and to protect against evil when used as a wreath or garland.

One of the best-known Christmas carols, first published in 1710 but certainly older, memorably unites the two plants…

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir 
 

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Carol was adopted from the Old French carole, from Old Italian carola, Latin choraula, a borrowing of Greek χοραυλής (khoraulḗs),  the word designating a flute player accompanying a chorus, from χορός (khorós), choir, dance. In French the verb caroler was used in the 14th century of dancing in a circle, while the English noun had come to mean a Christmas ‘hymn of joy’ by 1500.

SUPERSTITIOUS? – Good luck with that

FINGERS CROSSED

Non e vero ma ci credo (‘It’s not true but I still believe in it’) – Italian saying

 

As the light fades and the creatures of the night gather for another Hallowe’en festival, prepare your candies and cookies to placate the witch, the vampire and the ghoul, but spare a thought, too for their sinister companions. Those cats, bats, owls and spiders are traditional symbols of misfortune in their own right and part of an ancient system of beliefs that still persists in the popular imagination all across our continent. If a black cat crosses your path in any part of mainland Europe (apart, oddly, from Normandy where tortoiseshells are feared), you must expect bad luck to follow. Only in Great Britain is the opposite thought to be true. The cat’s power for good or ill is said by some to derive from the fact that in Ancient Egypt it was sacred; others more convincingly point to its role as the European witch’s familiar in mediaeval times. The bones of bats are carried as protection against evil in Greece, though, awkwardly, in that country killing a bat will put a curse on the perpetrator. Spiders are lucky in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, in Finland if you kill one it will rain the next day. In Slovenia spiders are only unlucky on Monday mornings. As for the night-haunting owl, for centuries an omen of doom, according to French superstition, if a woman catches sight of one during her pregnancy, she is guaranteed to give birth to a girl. Each hoot of the owl, a Welsh tradition maintains, marks a local girl losing her virginity.

Inanimate objects of course can also figure in superstitious beliefs. Horseshoes are hung above the doorway in Britain and France for protection, though in the former they open upwards to contain the luck, in the latter they point downwards to decant the luck on those passing through. Breaking a mirror – symbolising not just one’s image but one’s soul – is everywhere regarded as highly unfortunate. (The seven years bad luck it is said to bring was probably how long it took to find the money to replace such an expensive item three or four hundred years ago). In the same way touching or knocking on wood, perhaps a hangover from pagan tree-hugging or clutching religious relics, wards off evil, while sneezing must be accompanied by a blessing and spitting and throwing salt over your (in most cultures, left) shoulder will keep malignant spirits at bay.

Other beliefs are particular to one nation, and pretty peculiar, too. In Turkey you mustn’t chew chewing gum at night as it will have turned into the flesh of the dead. Italians think seeing a nun is unlucky, Ukrainians a priest, but only before midday. Germans dread seeing old ladies in the morning; in Iceland knitting on the doorstep prolongs the winter, while in Norway knitting your boyfriend a sweater will drive him into the arms of another. In Belgium picking poppies attracts lightning, Danes throw broken dishes at their neighbours at New Year, in Holland you mustn’t sing at the dinner table. In the UK hearing a cuckoo before breakfast used to signal bad luck all that day; hearing it while resting in your bed could be fatal. Avoid bird droppings on your shoulder at all costs if you are Lithuanian, otherwise they are lucky – and in Spain never put a hat on a bed, unless you are a priest administering the last rites.

Many of the theories put forward to explain superstitions are as comically far-fetched as the beliefs themselves. The idea that opening an umbrella indoors is unlucky, it is claimed, comes either from the fact that Christians disapproved of hieroglyphics showing Pharaoh’s sunshade or from the shape it makes which symbolises a broken roof. We may prefer to think that opening huge Victorian umbrellas could easily put out an eye if done in enclosed and crowded spaces – even today’s telescopic versions can take us by surprise. Walking under ladders is almost universally advised against (Russia is apparently the exception), on the grounds that the ladder leaning against a wall represents the gallows, the Holy Trinity or even – the appeal to Ancient Egypt again – the malign power of the pyramid. Sceptics point to the more prosaic possibility of a paint pot, a painter or even the thing itself falling onto one’s head. Coincidentally or not, ladder-carrying chimney sweeps are thought to be lucky in many European countries: in the UK seeing one on your wedding day guarantees lasting happiness while in Germany a model of a sweep fixed to the roof as a weather vane brings good fortune to the household beneath. If you search the internet for an explanation you will be told that William the Conqueror permitted sweeps to wear top hats (William reigned from 1066!), that George II of England – some accounts have George III – invited a sweep to his wedding after he calmed a ferocious dog, or that an unnamed woman saved a falling sweep who gratefully proposed marriage and was accepted. To modern eyes neither the dirty, underpaid sweeps of yesteryear nor their hapless assistants, the ‘climbing boys’ as young as seven who cleaned inside tall chimneys, appear very fortunate. A more subtle explanation would be that the sweep was associated with the hearth, the focus of the family, and with coal which the Roma among others considered a sign of wealth. The last word, though, must go to a present-day German chimney sweep, Heiko Kirmis: they bring good fortune

“because they prevent fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Three centuries ago the philosopher Voltaire was a famous disapprover, opining that “superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”
But whether or not superstitions make sense is really not the point, says Parisian musician Justin Chambord. “They add a sense of enchantment, a tinge of magic to everyday life. Negotiating all the banal frustrations of a typical day becomes a sort of adventure when you are dodging ladders, crossing your fingers, knocking on wood and fingering your St Christopher medallion.” For retired Slovenian manager Petra Mlakar, though, the colourful folklore of which superstitions are a part is a hangover from a primitive past with no relevance to modern realities. “Our parents’ and grandparents’ lives were ruled by dozens, if not hundreds of superstitions but almost nobody remembers them now.” Certainly beliefs change: the fireflies which flicker at the edge of Slovene forests in early summer used to be feared as they were thought to be the souls of dead relatives. Nowadays, for teenagers at least, they signify luck in romantic relationships.

The commonsense explanation of superstitions is that they date from a time when most humans were at the mercy of their environment. In pre-modern peasant societies the average fearful person was a helpless victim of the seasons, prey to natural disasters, disease, random persecution by the rich and powerful – not to mention witches, ghosts and demons. One’s destiny was not under one’s control and an appeal to the supernatural was the only solution.

But for citizens of the ultra-complex, accelerated societies of today, struggling with modern technology, information overload and economic uncertainty, anxiety levels are, or are perceived to be, at an all-time high, while our own ability to influence the wider world is still in doubt. Real and irrational fears persist and the OCD-like behaviour that they trigger mean that many of us still reach for magical remedies, whether we truly believe in them or not. Surveys show an astonishingly high level of superstitious behaviour – in one 86% of respondents confessed to some sort of private ritual or wish-fulfilment act, while 15% of trained scientists admitted to a fear of the number 13.

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that superstitious behaviour is linked to high levels of anxiety, but some, slightly less predictably, have suggested that ‘magical’ rituals work, others that superstitious people are actually more fortunate. Research has confirmed what we know: that sportsmen and women and students, with their mascots, lucky socks and pre-performance rituals are particularly prone to superstition. Both groups are of course engaged in high-stakes activities where luck can sometimes make all the difference.

In a 2003 study by the British Association for the Advancement of Science the aptly named Professor Richard Wiseman found that people used superstition to manufacture their own luck, but that this could be good or bad depending on their attitude. Those who followed practices thought to create good luck – touching wood and crossing fingers, for instance – actually experienced it while those who believed in unlucky numbers, broken mirrors and open umbrellas were measurably less lucky in their lives. A 2010 survey by the University of Cologne in Germany found that subjects could be persuaded that a random ‘lucky’ object, a ball for instance, would help them and this then significantly improved their performance in tasks involving memory and motor skills. Reliance on the completely spurious ‘charm’ boosted concentration and confidence in individuals and teams allowed to keep their charms scored better than teams denied them.

When you stop and think about it, though, it really is rather unlikely that wearing lucky underpants to an interview (in Serbia they must be worn inside-out) is going to land you the job. Nor is it objectively probable that avoiding the cracks between the paving stones or putting shoes on in the right order is going to result in a successful day, that kissing the fuselage before takeoff or choosing a special seat number on the plane will make your journey any safer. How can Friday 13th be unlucky for some nationalities while for Spaniards and Greeks it’s Tuesday 13th, for Italians the 17th? Why on earth should wearing green bring misfortune, yet wearing polka dots on New Year’s Day (as some French ladies assert) have the opposite effect?

However rational we try to be, the urge to exert some control over our little corner of the universe by any means possible can be irresistible. Why tempt fate? Better to be on the safe side and keep your rabbit’s foot keyring with you, even though no-one has ever explained that particular choice of charm. Search for a four-leaf clover (if Polish you will eat it when you find it), or you can always buy one online for around $25. After all, in the words of US author Judith Viorst, “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”

 

Don’t you know it’s bad luck to be superstitious?

Thank your lucky stars if you aren’t!

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A version of this article first appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine

On the origin of the s-word itself:

“Superstition”: an unlucky etymology?

 

 

PIRATICAL PATTER

It’s September 19 again, which means that it’s international TALK LIKE A PIRATE DAY. If you would like to take part in this facetious, frivolous parody of a spoof, here is invaluable assistance in the form of a Pirate glossary and Pirate translations

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Some of the expressions heard in the Pirate era and still in use are easy to understand – (see my earlier account https://tonythornesite.wordpress.com/?s=Pirate+talk ) – but in other cases they may need to be explained:

Above board = visible on deck

The devil to pay = a difficult seam to be sealed, on the ship’s outer hull

Between the devil and the deep blue sea = hanging dangerously on the lower hull

The bitter end = the end of a cable attached to a ‘bitt’ or post

By and large = sailing into the wind and slightly with the wind

A clean slate = used by the lookout to record progress and wiped clean after each watch

Chock-a-block = when rigging blocks are tightened to the maximum

Cross the line = ceremonial crossing of the Equator

Cut and run = slash off surplus equipment to make a quick escape

Distinguishing mark = identifying flag

Feeling groggy = from grog, or diluted rum

Fend off = stop the boat hitting the dockside or another vessel

Footloose = the unfastened bottom of a sail blowing in the wind

Hand over fist = gripping as a sailor climbing a mast

Hard and fast = completely stuck

In the doldrums = a zone of calm seas in the tropics

Copper-bottomed = strong as a sailing ship with a copper-covered hull

Iron-clad = like a steam warship with metal hull

Leeway = the amount a ship is driven in the direction of the prevailing wind

At Loggerheads = fighting with a heavy iron ball on a stick, used for caulking

Overreaching = holding the same course for too long

Over a barrel = positioned for flogging

Overhaul = pull ropes carefully over the sails

Pooped = swamped by a big wave

Slush fund = money from illicitly selling surplus cooking fat ashore

Take soundings = measure sea depth

Taken aback = with the sails filled dangerously with a reverse wind

Tide over = take on provisions until next sailing

 

On a much more frivolous note…here are some translations of modern terminology into Pirate-talk:

 

PIRATE TRANSLATIONS

 

Selfie = a very likeness, made by my own hand

 

YOLO = every pirate for himself (and devil take the hindmost) – or EPFH (ADTTH)

= risk all for the moment, me hearties

= all aboard – for death or glory!  – or FDOG

 

Hashtag = pennant

= marker buoy

= banner (with a strange device)

= Jolly Roger

= X marks the spot

 

Trending = on the lips of all and sundry

= borne on the trade winds

= carried on the tide

 

Viral = spreading abroad like a pestilence

= pestilential

= contagious as the pox

 

Blog = log

= Captain’s log

= ship’s log

= an account of me dastardly deeds, committed to paper in me  own scrawl

 

Flash mob = confederacy of rogues

= villainous crew

= rampaging ne’er do-wells

 

Timeline = a full account of me wickedness

= dastardly doings (doggedly detailed)

= chart of the voyage

 

Check-in = assemble at the gangplank

= muster on the quayside

= scrawl yer mark on this ‘ere manifest!

 

Status = condition

= estate (eg in fine estate)

= where and what ‘e be

 

Follow Friday (FF) = recommending to all me shipmates

= nautical nudge – or NN

 

Throwback Thursday (TT) = dredgin’ up the past

= evil deeds best forgotten

= memories of me misspent youth  – or MMMY

 

Apps = diabolical devices, tricks and subterfuges

 

Like = stamp with my seal

= bestow my approval

= add my endorsement

= take to my bosom

 

Share = divide up the loot

= give to each his part of the booty

= pass on to me shipmates

 

LOL = Yo Ho Ho  – or YHH

 

Retweet = pass on the scuttlebutt

= re-tell the old yarns

 

Snapchat = vanishing mirage

= fleeting vision of curiosities

= glimpse of fascinations (out of reach)

 

The Cloud = the firmament

= the great archipelago (where all ships vanish)

 

Instagram it = make a picture and convey it (to me)

= seal the likeness in a bottle and send it on the next  tide

 

 

 

And one or two others:

 

Portal = porthole

IPad = IPatch

Platform = plank

= deck

Talk to the hook

Ebay = Botany Bay

Swag = swagger

Windows = portholes

Blocked = scuttled

Twitter = twit-aarrrr!

= the damned squabbling of parakeets

OMG = stap me vitals!

Epic fail = damnable blunder

Email = message in a bottle

 

 

and just by the by…

(A pirate with no arms and legs, thrown overboard: Cap’n Bob

A pirate lying in the doorway: Cap’n Mat

A pirate hiding in a pile of leaves: Cap’n Russell)

 

TONY THORNE

 

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