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Week of December 13, 2020

Bottoms Up

Sunday

Raise your glass for a toast, which is named for…toast. Long ago, spiced and charred bread was put in the shared drink before speeches of praise or congratulations were said, and the bread made the often-bitter wine more palatable. The celebrated person might then eat the wine-soaked bread, and was then called “the toast of the town.”

Monday

Wine and beer are very old drinks, indeed. The earliest confirmed alcoholic drink of any kind was brewed about 9,000 years ago in China, and solid evidence of beer production goes back 5,000 years in Mesopotamia. There is evidence of wine production as far back as 7,400 years ago found in jars in modern-day Iran.

Tuesday

Referring to people as “dregs,” such as in the “dregs of society,” is a pejorative term that likens them to the useless solid residue which settles to the bottom of many drinks, like coffee and wine. However, the ancient Greeks made great use of these “useless” solids with a lively and challenging drinking game called “kottabos” in which wine dregs were launched at a bronze or clay targets.

Wednesday

The practice of labeling hard alcohol content by “proof” arose from a crude Middle Ages test for taxation. Higher-alcohol drinks were taxed more in England, so a drink’s potency was tested by soaking a gunpowder pellet with the booze to see if it was strong enough to then ignite. If it proved to be so by burning, it was called a “proof spirit” and taxed more. Fortunately, alcohol content measurements are more standardized and accurate nowadays, but the name remains.

Thursday

Bourbon is named for the street, not vice versa. Early New Orleans whiskey sellers, well aware of the town’s large French population, put the stuff in oak barrels so the taste would remind residents more of congac, aka “French brandy.” “That whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street” eventually became called “bourbon whiskey.” Bourbon Street itself was named for the French royal family in power when the city planner plotted and named the streets in 1721. But despite the European origins of its name, authentic bourbon must, by definition, be made in the US.

Friday

Another spirit native to North America is tequila, though the drink predates bourbon by centuries. However, authentic tequila must come from Mexico, since the Mexican government declared the drink its intellectual property in 1974.

Saturday

The name “brandy” comes from “brandewijn,” meaning “burnt wine” in Dutch. A 16th century wine-shipping Dutchman realized he could save a lot of cargo space by removing water from the wine before shipping and adding it back at his destination. The fruit wine concentrate he delivered became known as bradewijn.

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Week of December 6, 2020

The Neighs Have It

Sunday

“Champing at the bit,” often mispronounced as “chomping” (champing means to grind or chew) refers to a racehorse impatiently chewing the metal bit in his mouth as he eagerly waits to start his race.

Monday

A trained eye can gauge the age of a horse by its teeth, so the saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” reminds those who receive gifts not to over-scrutinize them and seem ungrateful.

Tuesday

In politics and other fields, a “dark horse” candidate is comparatively unknown and obscure. The term began in 17th century horse racing and applied to little-known and hard-to-put-odds-on horses which were entered into races.

Wednesday

Who is this horse named Charley and why is your cramp named for him? At one time, “Charley” was a name for lamed racehorses. Many of these animals, however, got a second career dragging the dirt smooth at baseball games. According to one common origin story, players whose muscles cramped during play were compared to the limping equines, that is, the “Charley horses” and, by some accounts, it was one Charley in particular working for the Chicago White Sox.

Thursday

Royalty, noblemen, and knights historically rode on tall horses, looking down on common people both figuratively and literally. Hence, telling someone to get of their high horse reminds them to stop acting superior.

Friday

Needless to say, beating (or flogging) a dead horse won’t get you more effort from the animal. However, there seem to be some surprisingly nautical connections for this idiom, too. British sailors were historically paid in advance, but often spent the money quickly, sometimes before their ship even left port. They got no more pay until the already-blown advance was worked off, or until “the dead horse was flogged.”

Saturday

Horse traders were famously shrewd in their dealings, so the term “horse trading” for exchange and negotiation in politics came about in the early 19th century.

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Week of November 29, 2020

Thinly Veiled Histories

Sunday

The wedding veil’s tradition goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, when the veil’s purpose was to confuse and discourage evil spirits that might otherwise ruin the festivities. Though their exact color is debated (red? yellow?), early veils were supposed to make the bride look like a candle flame. Veils have also symbolized reverence to God and were used in Victorian times to indicate the bride’s status by their fabric quality, weight and length. The lifting of the facial veil (which also can hide the face from evil spirits) has also indicated – in more patriarchal times – transfer of the bride’s ownership from father to husband, and in the case of arranged weddings, made sure the deed got done before the groom might show any disappointment at first seeing his bride’s face.

Monday

Proud modern brides might shudder at the historical significance of being walked down the aisle by their father. This tradition also hearkens back to when a bride was considered her father’s “property” until given to another man, sometimes also in payment of a debt, in exchange for other property, or to satisfy the dowry or bride price.

Tuesday

Opposed to kidnapping women into forced marriages? You should be, but the “best man” tradition originated to protect the groom against families coming for their abducted women. Although the disturbing practice of “marriage by capture” has gone on for centuries, it was among 16th Century Germanic Goths that this groomsman did the kidnapping, then stood by the groom, armed and ready, to fight off the bride’s relatives or keep her from running away. Fierce and capable, he was chosen as the “best man” for the job of abducting and defending. So if your wedding day drama only involves hurt feelings and not split skulls, consider yourself lucky. In centuries past, weapons were often stored in church floors for real wedding day family feuds.

Wednesday

Remember reminding your bridesmaids to confuse demons and bandits? Probably not, but that was part of their original purpose. These identically-dressed women were to confound would-be evil spirits, and also serve as decoys against any would-be thieves of the bride’s dowry. In some cases (and rather awesomely), the bridesmaids were also to protect against angry ex-boyfriends of the bride. Notably, the first mention of bridesmaids was from a Biblical three-way marriage between Jacob and sisters Rachel and Leah, where each woman brought a servant (bride’s maid) to their wedding.

Thursday

Plan to marry in the popular wedding month of June? This tradition started in part because people used to take their annual bath (yes, annual bath) in May.

Friday

Though the tradition of a wedding ring goes back to ancient Egypt, the wearing it on the left hand’s fourth finger also began in ancient Greece and Rome. This finger was believed to contain the “vena amoris” or “vein of love,” a vein which ran straight to the heart. Turns out that it doesn’t, but the convention firmly remains.

Saturday

The term “honeymoon” has roots both literal and cynical. Starting in the fifth century, a newlywed couple was given mead to drink during their first month (moon) of marriage. Mead is a honey-based alcoholic beverage reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Fast-forward eleven centuries, and “hony moone” appears in Old English, with “honey” representing the extreme tenderness and affection of newlyweds, but “moon” indicating the short-lived time before these excessive affections begin to wane.

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Week of November 22, 2020

Neato Namesakes

Sunday

Enjoying those tasty nachos? You can thank the quick thinking of Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya Garcia. He was maitre’ d’ at a restaurant on the Mexican side of the Texas border in 1943 when a group of hungry American military wives came in from a nearby Air Force base. With no chefs to be found, Nacho improvised a snack by melting cheese on some tostados, popped a jalepeno on top, and served it to the delight of the ladies. Hence “Nacho’s especiales,” later shortened to just “nachos,” were born to huge success.

Monday

Ambrose Burnside was many notable things: A Rhode Island senator, a firearms manufacturer, a Civil War general, and a facial hair trailblazer. His style of sporting a clean-shaven chin and neck with bold, bushy whiskers down each cheek joined by a mustache became first known as “Burnside whiskers.” Later it was flipped and called “sideburns,” and we still use the term today for cheek whiskers, with or without mustache.

Tuesday

Dr. Franz Mesmer came up with the idea that he could cure people through their “animal magnetism,” which involved touching his patients with magnetized objects while looking into their eyes, the goal being to restore their internal “harmonious fluid flow.” This unique treatment was popular, though not exactly rooted in sound medical science (Benjamin Franklin, among others, was asked to investigate his methods). Nonetheless, many years after his death people started to use the term “mesmerize” as a synonym for hypnotize.

Wednesday

You’ve probably never looked at a cow and thought “What a maverick!” But you could have. The term came from the unbranded cows of 19th century Texan Samuel Maverick. Maverick claimed he didn’t want to hurt the animals by branding them, but some neighbors suspected this was just a trick to let him claim any unbranded cow he encountered as one of his. While this term can still describe an unbranded animal, we usually see it now applied to independent or unpredictable humans.

Thursday

Fragments flying outward from an explosion are called “shrapnel” after Henry Shrapnel, the British army officer and inventor. Shrapnel developed an artillery shell packed with smaller lead or metal fragments intended to travel a distance into enemy lines before exploding in midair and spraying the fragments at opposing troops.

Friday

The diesel engine is named for Rudolf Diesel, the German mechanical engineer and inventor who developed the more efficient combustion engine to compete with the steam engines of the day. His engine’s basic principles are still used in diesel engines to this day.

Saturday

Tupperware is named for Earl Tupper, who, in the 1940s, convinced his bosses at DuPont to sell him the company’s unused polyethylene slag. He converted that into a durable and flexible material for food storage and later developed the resealable lid. The product was not a great success until Tupper worked with saleswoman Brownie Wise, who had the products sold at home parties, usually by women who could move up through company ranks with exceptional sales.

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Week of November 15, 2020

All That Glitters

Sunday

Something that sets a standard for quality or reliability in its field is often called the “gold standard.” For a much of money’s history before the 20th century, currency was exchangeable for a fixed amount of gold set by the issuing government. For example, in 1834, the US government set the exchange rate of an ounce of gold at $20.67, where it remained for 99 years. Hence, “gold standard” came to convey a universal standard of measure. Money is no longer backed by precious metals, but is “fiat money,” only backed by the government that issued it.

Monday

The Golden Rule, simply stated as “Treat others as you would like them to treat you,” is a strikingly universal concept. It has been around in some variety since at least the 6th century BC, and researchers report that the rule is “found in some form in almost every ethical religion,” and is “a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely.”

SOURCE: Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined, New York, Penguin, 2011. (pg. 182)

Tuesday

Bling aside, pure gold is a remarkable substance. It is so dense that one ton can be packed into a cubic foot. It is the most malleable and ductile metal; gold has been pressed into a sheet two atoms thick (yes, atoms) and stretched into a one-atom wire without breaking. It conducts electricity and heat well. Plus, gold is rather immortal; it does not tarnish nor decompose in air, water, or even most strong acids and bases. This is why ocean treasure divers, tomb raiders, and other gold hunters can usually expect to find gold in good condition, regardless of its age.

Wednesday

The gold stored at Kentucky’s Fort Knox is a modern symbol of hyper-secure massive wealth, but there is one far larger store in the world. It is five stories below ground in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where over a half million gold bars representing about 25% of the world’s known gold wealth are painstakingly guarded deep in the rock of southern Manhattan.

Thursday

An extremely valuable parson is sometimes said to be “worth their weight in gold.” However, in the metals world, at least two metals are typically more valuable than gold: rhodium and palladium.

Friday

In the US, the most famous “gold rush” began when when the shiny metal was discovered in 1848 in California’s Sacramento Valley. Over the next few years, approximately 300,000 people came from all around the world came to extract over 750,000 lbs. of gold from the land. The rush populated and developed the area, and it is why the San Fransisco NFL team is called the “49ers” (after the rush of 1849).

Saturday

“Golden handcuffs” or “velvet handcuffs” describe the good pay, vacation, retirement, or other benefits that may keep you at a job you might otherwise leave. If you’re a lucky executive, however, you may get a “golden parachute,” or a generous severance package when you’re let go from your company.