A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Culture

What Is The Origin Of (141)?…

Crocodile tears

When we weep crocodile tears we are said to be putting on an insincere show of grief. But why crocodiles? And do they really weep?

The idea that a crocodile weeps insincerely has a long pedigree. It was thought that crocodiles, while they were luring and devouring their prey, shed tears. As far back as classical times, a collection of proverbs attributed to Plutarch compares people who desire or cause the death of someone and then lament publicly afterwards with the behaviour of a crocodile. The concept was picked up by the mediaeval theologian, Photios, who gave it a Christian gloss and used it to exemplify the concept of repentance.

The mediaeval world was fascinated with stories of strange and exotic places and the fauna that went with them. One such account was written by Sir John Mandeville around 1400 in which he described the crocodile, comparing them to serpents. He goes on to write, “these serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping.” The reptile had become a symbol for hypocrisy. The naturalist Edward Topsell, writing in 1658, noted that “to get a man within his danger he [the crocodile] will sob, sigh and weep, as though he were in extremity, but suddenly he destroyeth him.” Topsell went on to remark that some authorities claim that the crocodile wept after noshing on a human, much as Judas did after betraying Christ.

For Topsell then, the crocodile used its tears both as a trick to lure its prey and as a sign of repentance. And this duality of motive for its lachrymose behaviour appears in the works of Shakespeare, some half a century earlier. In Othello the protagonist is convinced that his wife is cheating on him and declares “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.” – a clear usage of it to indicate fake repentance. On the other hand, in Henty Vi Part Two we have an example of its usage to indicate trickery; “Gloucester’s show / Beguiles him, as the mournful crocodile / With sorrow, snares relenting passengers.”

In the Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser consolidates both senses when describing the reptile as “in false grief, hiding his harmful guile/ Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender tears”. Purcells’ opera, Dido and Aeneas, performed in 1688, contains the heart-rending scene where Aeneas tells his paramour that he must leave. Dido responds by saying “thus on the fatal banks of the Nile/ weeps the deceitful crocodile.” And this sense continued into modern times. Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories, published in 1902, wrote, “come hither, little one, said the Crocodile, for I am the Crocodile and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true.

And so the big question is, do crocodiles really cry? I’ve not been close enough to one to find out but I’m told that although they do not have tear ducts, the glands that moisten their eyes are adjacent to their throat. When they open their mouths and start chomping on their prey, the effort involved forces moisture from the glands and give the impression of tears. So there we are.

And as a post script, Bogorad’s syndrome, known colloquially as crocodile tears syndrome, is an unfortunate side effect of recovery from Bell’s palsy, causing the sufferer to shed tears when they eat. This side effect was first described in 1926 by the Russian scientist, F A Bogorad who gave his name to it. I much prefer the colloquialism.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make

The Wall of New Amsterdam

There is a certain psychological comfort to be derived from a barrier of some sort. It gives the feeling of safety and acts as a deterrent to those you don’t like from invading your space. Of course, not all were successful or to adapt Richard Lovelace’s famous quote, didn’t necessarily provide the level of isolation that the builders anticipated. In this series we will look at some of the more unusual physical barriers erected by man against man.

When the Dutch occupied what is now known as Manhattan Island, they did not have an easy time of it. Not only were they harassed by the local Native Americans, who not unsurprisingly took umbrage at their presumption, they also had to deal with incursions from the pesky British. To strengthen their hold on the island, the Dutch decided to construct a wall which would seal off their settlement and provide protection against and discouragement to potential invaders.

The wall started out life as picket fence, constructed in 1653, and over time was built into a more solid structure, standing some twelve feet high with guard points dotted along its length. It stretched from Pearl Street, which was situated on one shore of Manhattan to what is now Temple Place on the other side.

However, construction was nearly sabotaged not by the slings and arrows of outraged opponents but by those of outrageous fortune. The problem was pigs. It was the custom at the time for the Dutch to engage what would now be termed free range farming. In other words, their livestock roamed the streets willy-nilly and were often to be found uprooting orchards and gardens. A favourite spot for animals to run riot was where the wall was being built. So serious was the problem of damage to and interference with the construction work that Peter Stuyvesant was moved to write to the government, detailing with “great grief the damages, done to the walls of the fort by hogs, especially now again the spring when the grass comes out.”

The government, in response to Stuyvesant’s complaints, employed some herdsmen to protect the construction site but their efforts were futile. In August Stuyvesant was at it again, pointing out that the city officials needed to “take care, that what we with great pains and labour have brought us far will not again be destroyed by hogs, and thus all our labour be rendered useless.” The authorities responded this time with more concerted action to allow the construction to be completed, by ordering each resident to “take care of his hogs or keep them in the sty.

Alas, though, the wall proved to be ineffective and the British seized the colony, renaming it New York, after the King Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York, and whilst the Dutch temporarily regained it in 1673 it was surrendered permanently to the Brits in 1674 after the Third Anglo-Dutch War. The wall was dismantled in 1699 and replaced with a paved street which commemorated the former structure by being named Wall Street. Nowadays it is used to having bulls and bears wandering along it, although pigs roaming wild and eating the accumulated piles of rubbish were still a feature of the nascent New York well into the 19th century.

Book Corner – August 2017 (2)

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities – Bethany Hughes

If I was pinned up against a wall and asked what was my favourite city break, I would probably say the one I went on to Istanbul about two decades ago. I fell in love with the city with its magnificent buildings – the wonderful Hagia Sophia is just breath-taking – and, as the Americans might say, you are surrounded by a sense of history. And it was fun walking over the Galata bridge from Europe into Asia and evading the attentions of the street sellers desperate to sell us carpets, plying us with fragrant apple tea, and the boot polishers offering us a ten year guarantee on the shine they would apply to our dusty shoes. Alas, I fear I will never return.

Still, as compensation you can immerse yourself in this lengthy but light history of a city that can legitimately claim to have been at the centre of the world. Hughes’ style is at times gushing but she has a wonderfully poetic, dare I say it, Homeric turn of phrase. The book book benefits from the latest archaeological finds following the construction of the Istanbul metro.

The site of the city, as any visitor will attest, has enormous strategic importance. The original settlement, founded in 657 BCE by Byza of Megara, from which its name Byzantion was derived, positioned between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was easily defensible and the waters were full of fish. The Chalcedonian settlement built on the eastern side of the Strait of Bosporus was called the land of the blind by the ancients because they had chosen to eschew the obvious attractions of Byzantion. But, as Hughes reveals, a coffin with the remains of woman dating back some 8,000 years has just been unearthed  – possibly the earliest ever found – which suggests that the site was already taken and the Chalcedonians didn’t fancy a dust up. The Megarians, fortified by an oracle from Delphi, according to Tacitus, were made of sterner stuff.

Byzantion was at the centre of many of the key clashes of the ancient world, being the point where the Persians sought to launch their invasion of the Greeks and the Greeks fought to hold them back. The citizens of Byzantion often changed sides, depending upon which way the wind was blowing. It was then absorbed into the Roman Empire and over time became the acknowledged capital of Rome’s eastern provinces.

The first major transformation in its fortunes was when Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor, declared it the New Rome and vowed it would become the greatest, wealthiest and most cultured city in the world. Justinian and Theodora took up the baton and some of their buildings, including the cathedral, now mosque, Hagia Sophia, still stand today. Remnants of less fortunate buildings can be found almost wherever you look. Hughes revels in describing the dowdy surroundings in which some of these marvels rest.

The growth of Islam meant that Constantinople, as it now was, was in their sights but such were the strategic advantages and the strength of the defences of the site that it took them 800 years to storm the city, convert the Hagia into a mosque and rename the city Konstantiye. It became the capital of the Ottoman empire and a magnet for European travellers keen to sample the exotica of the east.

One of the underlying themes that comes through the book is that following the collapse of the western Roman empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the head of what remained and even under Ottoman control, the city was just hanging on, waiting for the next crisis. There was little attempt to expand further and, indeed, the last 150 years or so of the Ottoman empire saw its territories whittled away. The empire collapsed after the First World War.

Oddly, Hughes finishes her story in 1923 when Kemal Ataturk established the neutral Ankara as the capital of the new republic of Turkey. I can see why. Its domestic influence had waned but to most non Turks the wondrous city of Istanbul has no peer.

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

What Is The Origin Of (140)?…

Beg the question

One of the fascinating things about the English language is how words and phrases have changed their meaning over the centuries or, in the case of this week’s phrase, as a result of ignorance and mistranslation. When we use beg the question these days, it prefaces an indirect question we require answering. But, at least according to grammarians, logicians and other pedants, this is an incorrect usage and it begs the question (sic) how this all came about.

In an age where we have so many sources of information, some of which even bear some resemblance to the truth, it is hard to credit that the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had such a profound influence on Western European thought and learning for over a millennium. The foundation of the educational system was the trivium, consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Of the three, logic was probably the most fun for the student because lessons would consist of dialectical debates where, as Aristotle described in Book 8 of Topics, there would be a questioner and an answerer. The object of the exercise was for the answerer to defend a proposition and the questioner to refute it by asking questions that can only be answered yes or no. What the questioner could not do was to take the very proposition the answerer was making, turning it into a question and asking that. Not only was that bad form but the answerer would have committed the error of asking for the initial thing or as Aristotle put it, “to to en archêi aiteisthai.

Outside of the precious atmosphere of the logician’s class, the error to which Aristotle drew attention became something akin to taking the conclusion you are trying to prove and making it one of the premises of your argument, in other words making a circular argument. An example would be “I’m always right because I say so regularly.” The proof is merely a restatement of the premise. Aristotle’s rule was turned into the Latin phrase, petitio principis which appeared in English in around the 1580s as “I say this is stille to begge the question”.

The difficulties around our phrase lie in the interpretation of beg and question. We use the verb beg to describe the act of making an entreaty or a request. It is clear, however, that it had a different meaning, particularly when associated with a question, the rather loose and, dare I say it, inaccurate translation of petitio. The Oxford English Dictionary sheds some light on its other meaning, defining it as “take for granted without warrant,” placing it fairly and squarely in the realm of an Aristotelian logistical faux-pas. It provides us with other examples such as from Bishop G Burnet’s Some Passages from the Life of Rochester, published in 1680, “This was to assert or beg the thing in Question” and E Settle’s Reflections on the Dryden’s Plays from 1687, “Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.”  A later example is to be found in Rogers’ Eclipse of Faith published in 1852, “Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

Petitio, in this context, is not a question but is the proposition being debated and beg is used to indicate that you are assuming something, the proposition, to be true without adducing any logic to show why the statement is true.

So as a consequence of a mistranslation of petitio and the logistical sense of beg falling into obscurity, our phrase has moved from a logician’s circular argument to one that raises a question. It just goes to show that you ignore Aristotle at your peril.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Eleven

Baron George Haas Jr (c 1877 – 1945)

Eccentricity is not a peculiarly English characteristic, notwithstanding what Voltaire may have had to say on the subject, nor is love of animals. Just to prove the point we will relate the curious story of Baron Haas who was the son of a Czech businessman, ennobled in the late 19th century.

Home for the Baron was Hrad Bitov, or Bitov Castle, which nestles on a steep promontory above the river Zeletavka, some 25 kilometres north west of Znojmo in the Czech republic. Built in the 11th century but extensively altered in the 19th century, it is one of the oldest and largest Moravian castles. So Haas had plenty of space and money to engage in his hobbies, the principal of which was collecting animals. Over time he designed a state-of-the-art zoo in the castle grounds, featuring paddocks which he stocked with exotic creatures from around the world, aviaries and terrariums.

Naturally, Haas also had a string of household pets, particularly dogs. If you visit his erstwhile home, Bitov Castle in the Czech Republic, you will come across an astonishing room demonstrating the art of the taxidermist. It is full of stuffed dogs in all sorts of poses as well as badgers, cats and squirrels, the latter bedecked in rather fetching fezzes. There are over fifty dogs in the room which is the castle’s principal tourist attraction and a particular favourite of young children. Haas was so enamoured with his favourites that he always wanted them around. So as soon as one of them kicked the bucket, he would call in the local taxidermist and have it stuffed with sawdust.

Mind you, visiting the castle when Haas was in residence could be an off-putting experience. He had imported a fully grown lioness which he named Mietzi-Mausi and to which he gave free rein of the house. Guests would be terrorised when they encountered the beast, particularly as it had a penchant for nibbling shoes. The only duty the lioness had to perform was to have lunch with the Baron every day. Quite what she ate and whether she had to sit down on a chair is unclear.

Haas got on famously with Homo sapiens as well, ingratiating himself with the locals by standing enormous rounds in the local taverns. Perhaps this was guilt money because he had quite a roving eye. It is said that he had over eighty mistresses and many a local wench would have fallen for his charms. Spending a little money to placate an irate father or boyfriend was perhaps a small price to pay, after all.

Alas, though, Haas went on to pay a far higher price. He was an ethnic German and at the end of the Second World War despite being an ardent anti-fascist he was turfed out of the country by Czech partisans, leaving his collection of stuffed animals behind. It is not certain whether Mietzi-Mausi was still alive at this point. He fled on foot over the Austrian border and a few days later the 68-year-old was found dead from gunshot wounds. It is thought he had taken his own life.

A sad end to the local taxidermist’s dream client.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Two

Ludgate Hill, EC4M

Besides Cornhill, the other hill that dominated the City of London was Ludgate Hill, the highest point of which, just north of St Paul’s, stands at fifty-eight feet above sea level. With all the tall buildings in the area it is hard to imagine the original topography and today the road which bears its name runs from the cathedral in the east to the junction with Farringdon Street from the north and New Bridge Street from the south. When it continues its journey westwards it becomes Fleet Street. It was one of the principal thoroughfares into the old city from Ludgate, one of the City’s seven gates. The gate, along with its gaol, was demolished in 1780.

The area was transformed beyond recognition in the late 1860s when the rabbit warren of alleyways was swept away to make room for a railway station to serve the London, Chatham and Dover Railway between Water Lane and New Bridge Street. A railway viaduct was constructed to span the hill, a change that was not universally approved. “Of all the eyesores of modern London, surely the most hideous is the Ludgate Hill Viaduct— that enormous flat iron that lies across the chest of Ludgate Hill like a bar of metal on the breast of a wretch in a torture-chamber… The railway bridge lies flat across the street, only eighteen feet above the roadway, and is a miracle of clumsy and stubborn ugliness, entirely spoiling the approach to one of the finest buildings in London,” wrote one contemporary. The viaduct remained a feature of the London scenery until 1990, although the station shut its doors for the last time in 1923.

Fleet Street is associated with the newspaper industry in London but the observant will note a blue plaque at the foot of Ludgate Hill which proclaims “In a house near this site was published in 1702 The Daily Courant first London daily newspaper.” It was produced by Elizabeth Mallet and consisted of one sheet with news on the front and adverts on the back. Mallet would only print foreign news stories and eschewed editorial comment, reckoning that her readership had “sense enough to make reflections for themselves,” an editorial policy I would welcome many an organ to adopt today. The paper lasted until 1735 when it was incorporated into the Daily Gazetteer.

Located on the north side of Ludgate was to be found between at least the 15th century and 1873 an inn which over the centuries  went by many a name including Savage’s Inn, The Bell Savage and the Bell on the Hoop. Amongst its more famous guests was Thomas Wyatt who stayed there when he found the gate shut to his rebels who were protesting against Queen Mary and in 1616 Pocahontas and her retinue took up residence in the pub.

From 1575 the Bell Savage became one of four inns in London allowed to perform plays and balconies surrounding the inner court served as the circle and rooms in the tavern as boxes. Other entertainments offered included exhibitions of fencing, bear-baiting and William Bankes and his trick horse Marocco. Although burnt down in the Great Fire it was rebuilt and in 1684 was advertising a new attraction – a “Rhynoceros, lately brought from the East Indies”, the first to be seen in the country. It must have attracted quite a crowd of the curious to pay a “small fee” for the privilege.

The pub was quite extensive, boasting 40 rooms and stabling for 100 horses. But the railway boom did for the coaching trade and the pub became very dilapidated. Attempts were made to refurbish it in the 1850s, although these plans went awry when John Cassell’s printing presses occupied part of the building, the thunder and vibration of the machinery disturbing the guests. The pub, alas, was demolished to make way for the viaduct.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Eight

Dennis Dupuis and Radol

A few months ago I found a lump on my neck and decided to get it checked out. Fortunately it turned out to be benign but a century or so ago I may have been interested in a nostrum plugged heavily by a Dr Rupert Wells from St Louis – his real name was Dennis Dupuis. The adverts offered hope to those who had contracted any form of cancer. A typical example was this advert from 1907; “I have discovered a new and seemingly unfailing remedy for the deadly cancer. I have made some most astonishing cures. I believe every person with cancer should know of this marvellous medicine and its wonderful cures, and I will be glad to give full information to those who write me and tell me about their case”.

The symptoms that the respondent described would always convince Wells that they had a form of cancer or consumption, if they responded to the consumption advert. They would receive a standard letter which was so designed that all the ingenious Wells had to do, as well as fill in the date and name and address of the would-be victim, was to enter the location of the body where the cancer was located. The letter boasted of Wells’ credentials – he had carried out investigations into radium-administration at the college where he was a professor, hogwash all – and claimed that he was able to cure consumption and cancer through the internal and external application of Radol, a proprietary brand containing radium in fluid form. It went on to claim he had effected many cures and, of course, contained testimonials of some grateful recipients of this wonder cure.

For ten dollars you would receive a nice bell-shaped, blue-coloured bottle, standing ten inches tall with a four and a half inch diameter. The label affixed to it claimed “This bottle contains Radol, a radium impregnated fluid, prepared according to the formula and under the supervision of Dr. Rupert Wells. St. Louis MO. This fluid is not expected to retain its radio activity beyond 40 days from the date of this label.” To add extra authenticity the label would then detail the name and address of the customer and directions for use which were basically to take a tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed time. This was followed by the name and address of the customer, directions for use e.g. “take one tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed-time.

Radol was only available by mail and for a while, though, Wells was on to a good thing, In 1908 he shipped out some 7,800 bottles at ten dollars a time. But what was in it and was it any good? Wells claimed that the bluish fluorescent glow of the liquid was down to the radium contained it. But tests carried out by Lederle Laboratories showed that it was a mix of quinine sulphate and alcohol, a combination which would also produce a bluish glow. As the exposer of quackery, Samuel Adams, wrote in his The Great American Fraud, “Radol contains exactly as much radium as dishwater and is about as efficacious in cancer or consumption.

Following this revelation Wells was put out of business in 1910 when the US Mail refused to handle his packages.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Four

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

What Is The Origin Of (139)?…

Blown to smithereens

This is a rather dramatic phrase which is used to describe the consequences of a large bang or explosion. Bits and pieces, shard and shrapnel flies everywhere and what you are left with is a rather charred bit of ground and some smoking remains. Smithereens mean tiny bits or shattered fragments.

Smithereens is an unusual word in that it is rarely, if ever, found in the singular. That makes sense as it would be a pretty poor show if a bang or explosion created only one fragment. It is also usually found as a noun in the company of rather aggressive verbs such as blown, bashed, dashed, smashed or shot to. Interestingly, D H Lawrence used it as a collective noun for birds in his collection of travel essays, Mornings in Mexico, published in 1927; “then someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.” Works rather well, methinks.

As to its origin, we need look no further than the Irish Gaelic word smiodar, which means a piece or fragment, and its diminutive form, smidirin. Een in Gaelic is also a diminutive form as in colleen, a small girl. So smithereens technically comprises of two diminutives. Whether this is to reflect that the fragments are as small as they can be is unclear. When the word crossed the Irish Sea it had a variety of forms, the principal variants being smiddereens, which at least preserves the original root, and shivereens before it settled down to smithereens.

It has been used in its modern sense since the start of the 19th century at least. Francis Plowden, in his History of Ireland, published in 1801, records a threat made by Orangemen to a Mr Pounden. “If you don’t be off directly, by the ghost of William, our deliverer, and by the orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hough your cattle and burn your house.”  Houghing was severing the tendons of animals. Charming!

Somewhere else things are blown to is Kingdom come. The origin of the phrase kingdom come is straight forward. It was used in the King James’ version of the Christian bible. in Matthew 6, where the disciple details the Lord’s Prayer; “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. etc”  The meaning is pretty straightforward too. Christ’s kingdom will come or return as many of the Utopian sects believed. Topographically it could reflect some utopian idyll to which the fragments are blown. This suggested interpretation doesn’t sit too well with the Greek text of Matthew where the verb eltheto is an imperative, aorist imperative if we are being pedantic. So the more correct translation should be let thy kingdom come.

There may be a temporal sense to the phrase. The thing has been blown so far away that it will take until the coming of Christ’s kingdom to retrieve it. I’m not convinced by that either and I’m left with the conclusion that it might just be a euphemism or, perhaps more accurately, a minced oath. These, like cor blimey, gadzooks, shoot and freaking, are designed specifically to avoid swearing.

Personally, I will stick with the Irish if I ever need to describe something that has been shattered into small pieces.