I love to learn new things about the English language and was very pleased to learn on a recent trip to London that the British royals used to call their toilet rooms “places of easement”. When I visited King Henry VIII’s palace I found out that he used to sit on top of a padded chair on what was called a stool room, and was attended by a high-ranking courtier who was called the Groom of the Stool. The Royals did not mix their places of easement with the rooms in which they actually took baths, something it seems that we are beginning to go back to.
Americans have tried to make a difference in their English ever since Noah Webster first published his dictionary in 1828. He wanted to show that American people spoke differently from the British, and it took him 27 years to complete that dictionary. Webster also learned 28 languages in order to evaluate the etymology of the words he included. It is fun to recall some British expressions, and their whys and wherefores. Here are some expressions that are still used in modern times, both in the UK and the USA.
“To turn a blind eye” is a case in point. To turn a blind eye means to deliberately overlook something that is wrong, or to intentionally ignore something undesirable. An example would be a teacher who turns a blind eye when he sees students breaking the rules and smoking. The expression originated with Admiral Horatio Nelson, a very brave and very controversial Vice-Admiral in the British Royal Navy. Nelson, who was a viscount and a duke, lost sight in one of his eyes in one battle, and an arm in another battle. It is said that he used to look through his telescope using his blind eye to avoid signals from his superior telling him to withdraw from battle. He died in battle in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, and is remembered as a British hero.
Some people think Donald Trump invented the phrase “You’re fired” ever since his reality TV show, The Apprentice. It is also true that the Trump administration has an unusually high turnover with administrators quitting, getting fired, or being eased out, but the expression ‘you’re fired” comes from late 18th century British English. At that time, miners who were caught stealing coal or any other materials would have their tools confiscated and burned in front of their fellow workers as punishment. This punishment meant that the offender not only lost his work tools, but it also ensured he would not be able to easily repeat his crime in another mine. Miners called this “firing the tools” or “being fired”. Other trades adopted the phrase when they decided to dismiss an employee.
In English pubs, ale is ordered in pints or quarts. So, in old England, when customers would get too noisy or act like they were about to get into a fight, the bartender would yell at them, “Mind your pints and quarts and settle down!” That turned into the phrase “Mind your P’s and Q’s” which when my mother used to say it, meant to be on my best behavior, or as a reprimand to be careful of my language.
When a person is not in the same league as another, especially in a workplace, we say that he or she “cannot hold a candle” to the other person, implying that the person we are criticizing should not even be working in the same place. It is a strong insult and comes from England in the days before electricity. During those times, craftsmen would employ someone to hold a candle close to whatever they were working on so they could better see what they were doing. It was not a skilled job and usually children were employed to hold the candles. It became a grievous insult to tell a child that he wasn’t good enough to even hold a candle for the highly-trained expert, and soon people began to insult any professional that they wanted to compare and put down. Electricity did not become easily acquired in England until the late 1800s, but the expression stayed alive and is still popular both in the UK and North America.
The expression “to bite the bullet” comes from the time right after The East India Trading Company was about to become disestablished after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The Company, which had been founded in 1600 and had grown to control exactly half the world’s trade, had become an example in dominance, political power and greed before the rebellion. The Company dealt mostly in cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, tea and opium. The rebellion resulted in the company being nationalized by the British Crown and the Indian subcontinent being directly controlled by the same British Crown until it gained its independence in 1947. To bite the bullet means to endure an unavoidable painful or unpleasant experience without complaining, or sometimes it means just to be quietly brave during a difficult situation. The British recruited native Indian fighters to help to put down the rebellion, and they ended up forming a new British Raj. The bullet expression came from the kind of cartridges used during the rebellion. The native recruits were either Hindus or Muslims. Bullets of that time used grease made either of cow or pork fat to hold the missile in the cartridge. Before they could be fired, the two parts had to be bitten apart in order to fill with gunpowder. The low-ranking natives objected on religious grounds; the Hindus feared the grease was made from cow fat, which was sacred to them, and the Muslims feared that it was made from pig fat, which was forbidden to to them. But if they wanted to feed their families and themselves, I am guessing that they were told simply to bite the bullet, no matter how dreadful the task was for them. To bite the bullet is used everyplace in the English-speaking world today.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.
Tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years. Egyptians, for example, used tattoos to differentiate between peasants and slaves, a kind of social branding. But ink art, which is what some fans like to call tattooing, has really exploded in the past 25 years. But not all of us have succumbed to this fad. And many of us who don’t have a tattoo have a favorite mug. Having a tattoo or becoming attached to a mug are not dissimilar. According to research, 60% of Americans say they have an emotional attachment to a favorite mug. And about 40% said their special mug was irreplaceable, and about 1/3 of those said they would be devastated if it broke. Personally, I think that most of these people don’t have tattoos. Mugs and tattoos are both an extension of our personalities, and both express the way we would like the world to perceive us. That is not to mention, of course, that those of us who have tattoos or mugs are often irrationally attached to them.