© 2021 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Thus far, all the essays I've posted on this blog have each covered a single topic. Since I started writing installments, I've maintained a list of potential topics; however, for more than a few of them I'd be hard-pressed to write a whole page let alone 6–8 pages. And then there are the many hundreds of topics about which I could only write a few sentences or paragraphs.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I spent time going through my bookcases, and I found some long-forgotten treasures. One of these was "Jack's Reference Book for Home and Office: An Encyclopedia of General Information; a Medical, Legal, Social, Educational, and Commercial Guide; An English Dictionary." My copy was published in 1908. I bought it in Australia in the mid-1970's, and it came to the US in a shipping container with my 1,000-book collection back in 1984. [When I went to the Wikipedia page for this title, I was delighted to find an "External link" to a site containing all 1,100 pages of the 1909 edition. Take a look, especially if you'd like to know about proper business and personal etiquette!]
Along with numerous other books, I'd had this reference book alongside my bed for several months, and every now and then when I saw it, I would pick it up—it's very heavy—and browse a few pages. Every so often, I'd come across a new word, a new idea, or some interesting or obscure fact, and for no particular reason, I started making notes. [See my essay, "Books by My Bed," from October 2010.]
In March of 2021, a year into the pandemic, I had an epiphany, which according to Wikipedia, is "an experience of sudden and striking insight." The idea that came to me was, "Why not start a series of installments, each of which contains short pieces about completely unrelated topics?" Not only would I use up some of those many notes I've been making over the years, I'd be encouraged to make even more notes as I read things in future, and I'd have "something for everyone" in each such installment. And with copious links to Wikipedia, the reader might be encouraged to research further.
But what to call the series? I started out with "Bits and Pieces," but I knew that was just a working title. After looking in a thesaurus, I found numerous possibilities, including the following: miscellaneous things, odds and sods, hodge-podge, all and sundry, mingle-mangle, mishmash, oddments, ragbag, remnants, eclectic mix, grab bag, miscellanea, miscellany, omnium-gatherums or omnium-gathera (Latin for a collection of everything), and farrago (a collection containing a confused variety of miscellaneous things). What struck me about the last one was the derived adjective farraginous. I thought, "There's a fine word to inject into a conversation!" "I say, Your Highness, thou art looking most farraginous this evening!" Or, perhaps, "Don't be so darned farraginous!" Try it the next time you are attending a dinner party with guests most of whom you have never met before. By the way, the word means random, miscellaneous, or indiscriminate.
In the end, I settled on "Odds and Ends." According to www.idioms.online, 'Odds and ends probably derived from an earlier term from the mid-1500's, odd ends, referring to short leftovers from bolts of cloth and then later to short leftovers of any material, such as "odd ends of chain" or "odd ends of lumber." By the mid-1700's it had morphed into "odds and ends" and become more generalized, acquiring its present meaning.'
[Another treasure I came across while searching my shelves was a very large Rand-McNally New Standard Atlas of the World, published in 1900, when many national borders were very different than now.]
Here then are this month's topics, all of which have "crossed my desk" in recent times:
- Santa Claus is a corruption of Saint Nicholas, "the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students in various cities and countries around Europe." Having been raised in a British Commonwealth country, my Christmas gift giver was called Father Christmas who has his own tradition. [Regarding Christmas presents, I'm reminded of the story of the father who, early on Christmas Eve, spends all the family Christmas money at the pub, and when he gets home, he remembers he was supposed to buy a present for his son. Luckily, there, right in the front yard was a load of horse manure that had been delivered for the garden. Quick thinker that he was, he got the boy's Christmas stocking and filled it from the pile. The next morning, the son is out playing with the boy next door, the latter of whom says how he got a cowboy costume, complete with toy gun. When he asked the first boy what he'd gotten, the optimistic reply was, "I had a horse, but it got away!"] For more than you ever wanted to know about Christmas and northern winter gift-bringers in various countries, click here.
- Nova Scotia
is a Canadian Atlantic province. Apparently, some early settlers from Scotland decided it looked a bit like home, so they named is using the Latin term for "New Scotland." As for me, I visited Nova Scotia some years before I set foot in Scotland, so when I was travelling around Scotland, I remarked how it reminded me of Nova Scotia! I've had just the one trip to Nova Scotia, but am very much looking forward to going back, especially to Cape Breton Island.
- Lots of people celebrate St. Valentine's Day, but what is it and why? "It originated as a Christian feast day honoring one or two early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine and, through later folk traditions, has become a significant cultural, religious, and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world." The date February 14 was set way back in AD 496. Of course, one cannot be allowed to have too much fun; the day is banned in some places.
My mother was quite musical, and among the numerous instruments she played was what I knew as a mouth organ
, which, I discovered many years later, in many places, is instead called a harmonica
. The early wooden, Chinese mouth organs (sheng
) date back to 1100 BC.
Many of us know the tune "Scarborough Fair
" made famous by Simon and Garfunkel back in 1966. One of that song's lines is "And tell her to make me a cambric
shirt." Just what the heck is a cambric
shirt? Apparently, it's "one of the finest and densest kinds of cloth … originally from the French commune of Cambrai." Later, cambric became known as chambray
There is an old saying that goes something like, "He's as old as Methuselah
!" He "was a biblical patriarch and a figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." He was also reportedly the grandfather of Noah, but when you've lived for 969 years, you probably don't remember all the children you fathered! As for the credibility of this age claim, "Bible commentators have offered various explanations as to why the Book of Genesis describes him as having died at such an advanced age; some believe that Methuselah's age is the result of a mistranslation, while others believe that his age is used to give the impression that part of Genesis takes place in a very distant past." Click here
to see Methuselah's supposed family tree. The ten oldest people in modern-recorded history are listed here
. [It is my understanding that old
is halfway between your current age and 100.]
- Lewis Carroll is a well-known author whose main claims to fame are his books, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he was a faculty member of Christ Church college in Oxford. Alice was a real person, a daughter of the college dean. According to Wikipedia, his pen-name "was a play on his real name: Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which comes the name Charles. The transition went as follows: "Charles Lutwidge" translated into Latin as "Carolus Ludovicus". This was then translated back into English as "Carroll Lewis" and then reversed to make "Lewis Carroll"." If you should ever find yourself in Oxford, do tour Christ Church and stop by the dining hall to see the dodos and other characters from Carroll's works pictured in the stained-glass windows, but don't go at lunchtime, as the hall is in use by students at that time. [BTW, that dining hall was the one featured in the Harry Potter movies.]
- When watching a movie or TV police show, unidentified men and women, especially dead ones, are often referred to as John Doe and Jane Doe, respectively. Apparently, "John Doe and Richard Roe were the fictitious plaintiff and defendant, respectively, in the quaint system of ejectment procedure that was followed [in England] until 1852 when the legal farce was abolished."
Ejectment is a process followed to recover the possession of, or title to, land.
- After watching a travel program on the Isle of Man, I went on-line to learn more. It is not part of the UK, but, rather, is a self-governing British Crown dependency. And QEII happens to have the very-Butch title of "The Lord of Mann." (She is also the Duke of Normandy of the Channel Islands, another Crown Dependency.) "In 1881, the parliament became the first national legislative body in the world to give women the right to vote in a general election, although this excluded married women." The island hosts a well-known, international motorcycle race, and the people and their language are called Manx.
- Are you up to speed with your vexillology? According to Wikipedia, it "is the study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general." I came across this term when I found a book on my shelves that was "all about flags." Who knew there was so much to know about that subject! There are fields, fimbriations, finials, flies, headings, and hoists, and that's just for starters. Of course, the International Federation of Vexillological Associations just had to have its own flag!
- Anyone who's seen a British movie or TV show involving a policeman, likely has come across the term Bobby, slang for a member of London's Metropolitan Police, and the distinctive accompanying helmet. The story goes that the name comes from Sir Robert "Bobby" Peel, founder of that force in 1829.
- The name William the Conqueror is well known, but was his name really William? Actually, no, but that information had been kept a secret from me until I visited his grave at the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, France, in 2009. On his tombstone was written Guillelmus, Latin for the French name Guillaume. So how ever did that become William? To learn about the history of the name William, click here. Oh, and more fake news, the Battle of Hastings did not take place at Hastings. Instead, it happened some six miles west at a place that is now called Battle. The 1066 battlefield has never been developed, and one can walk it listening to an audio recording of a re-enactment from the perspective of various participants, including Harold's queen, who was helping the hospital corps.
- Here's another word to drop into a conversation, drupaceous, which Wikipedia happily tells you, "of, relating to, resembling, or producing drupes." A drupe is a fruit with a stone or pit, and a drupelet is one of those little outer pieces of a blackberry or raspberry. You can make it sound good or bad.
- As for the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, some say its origins are from the time of King Louis XVI of France who lost his head (he was beheaded) and his queen who came tumbling after. Also suggested is some connected story idea from Iceland. In any event, mending one's head with vinegar and brown paper was a treatment for bruising, with the paper acting as a bandage. Anyway, when I was a wee lad, I learned that "Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Jill the dill forgot the Pill, and now she has a daughter!" But that might just be the rural South Australian version.
- If you know anything about the Garden of Eden, you'll know that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, one of which killed the other. It came as a complete surprise to me when I read in Wikipedia that 'A third son, Seth, is born to Adam and Eve, and Adam had "other sons and daughters" (Genesis 5:4).' Now, a question I've had for many years has been, "If there were no other families in existence, with whom did their children beget their own children?" One (unauthorized) lesson I remember from Sunday School was, "How long did Cain hate his brother? As long as he was able!"
- The modern meaning of dictator
is, "a political leader who possesses absolute power." However, back in the Good Old Days of the Roman Republic, it was a form of magistrate given absolute power for a set time during which they had to account for their actions." BTW, I've often said that I think the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. However, most dictators do not start out being benevolent, or if they do, they don't stay that way.
- Just where did the English names for days of the week come from? Sunday – the sun, Monday – the moon, Tuesday – the one-handed Norse god Tiw, Wednesday – the Germanic god Woden, Thursday – the Norse god Thor, Friday – the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frīja, and Saturday – the Roman god Saturn. [Numerous Romance and other languages chose instead, to name what in English are Tuesday through Friday, using words derived from Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus, respectively. BTW, I started my list/week with Sunday. Is that normal? Some cultures start it on Monday.]
- Recently, I was rewarding myself with a good-sized portion of milk chocolate with hazelnuts because I'd gone a good long while without having committing any of the Seven Deadly Sins! Apparently, these, are "a grouping and classification of vices within Christian teachings, although they are not mentioned in the Bible. … they are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth, which are contrary to the seven heavenly virtues." It seems that a mortal sin is something yet again. [Regarding sinning, in Ireland, two priests—one a Catholic, the other Protestant—worked in the same area and were friends. One day they met, and one saw the other walking. "Where is you bicycle?" "Someone must have stolen it." "When that happened to me, the next Sunday I gave a sermon about the Ten Commandments with particular emphasis on 'Thou shalt not steal!' And lo and behold, my bicycle was returned." "OK, I'll try it." The next time they meet, the priest is riding his bike. "I see my advice worked." "Yes, it did. Just as I got to the bit about not committing adultery, I remembered where I'd left it!"]
- A word that is often in the news here in the US is gerrymandering, "a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district voting boundaries, which is most commonly used in first-past-the-post electoral systems." It's named after an American politician, one Elbridge Gerry, in conjunction with the humble salamander
- Did you ever sit on a divan, a "long, cushioned seat?" Apparently, these seats can be found along the walls in Middle-Eastern council chambers. The word is Turkish with Persian and Arabic origins.
- Where did the name "England" come from and when was it first used?
takes its name from the Angles, a Germanic tribe deriving its name from the Anglia peninsula, who settled during the 5th and 6th centuries." So, England is the Land of the Angles! [I vaguely remember learning about the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in elementary school.] Related is Anglo, "a prefix indicating a relation to, or descent from, the Angles, England, English culture, the English people or the English language, such as in the term Anglo-Saxon language."
- What do you suppose is on the menu at a death café?
As Wikipedia states, this "is a scheduled non-profit get-together for the purpose of talking about death over food and drink, usually tea and cake.
The goal … is to educate and help others become more familiar with the end of life." I've attended two, and found them most interesting. Most attendees spoke about dealing with their own parents' decline and death. At the first one, there was a couple younger than 40, and the husband was terminally ill. Once they explained their situation, that changed the whole dynamic.
- We are familiar with people listing the pros and cons of some approach, but just where did this saying come from? Quite simply, the Latin word pro means for or on behalf of, and contra means against.
- On several occasions when spending time in London, I've visited the British Library, which I highly recommend doing. They have developed a system for digitizing various old manuscripts and allowing you to look at them, by turning virtual pages. The one I perused was a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci's. A most interesting thing I learned was that he wrote letters in reverse and words from right-to-left, so you need a mirror to read his writing. Of course, the page-browser reverses it for you. In a separate exhibit, I saw a Lufthansa airline napkin with the original, hand-written words—including edits—of one of the Beatles' songs that they wrote while flying. One time, I attended a series of business meetings at the library, which involved software for preserving documents. I was given a tour of the restoration rooms where people were working on some 1,000-year-old Japanese scrolls.
- Countries have national anthems, and that for the UK is, of course, "God save the King/Queen." The US has a well-known song, "America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee)" set to the same tune. Australia used to use the UK anthem as well, until Australia had a competition to replace that song with "Advance Australia Fair" in 1984, after I left. Although I am an Australian citizen, I must confess that I don't know the new anthem. That said, I do remember a version of the old anthem from elementary school, "God save our gracious cat, feed it on bread and fat, God save our cat." Apparently, New Zealand and Denmark are the only countries with two anthems of equal standing.
- In modern use, a neophyte is someone new to a particular subject. However, back in the old days, it was someone recently baptized into Christianity. (From the Greek néos [new] + phutón [plant, child].)
- When I was a young lad living on an Aussie farm, we kept cows, some of which were Friesian. For many years I was blissfully ignorant about how this breed of cow got its name. Then after a few trips to the Netherlands, and being a map lover, I discovered the Dutch province of Friesland, where the Friesian language is widely spoken (among cows as well as people). [I have to say that the Friesian flag is one of my absolute favorites.] A few years later, I became very good friends with a Friesian couple. Now here's a travel tip: when travelling by train from Amsterdam to Groningen, halfway there the train splits in two with one half going to Leeuwarden (in Friesland), in which case, it's best to be in the correct half! [I've since learned that Guernsey and Jersey cattle come from the Channel Islands of the same respective names.]
- If you are trying to find an underground water supply, you might try using a divining rod (also referred as a dowsing rod). Such a rod supposedly can help locate water, mineral ore, oil, and even graves. In the US, dowsing for oil is called doodlebugging.
- Rugby is a well-known code of football, especially enjoyed by New Zealanders, Japanese, Samoans, Fijians, French, and Brits, and anyone else wanting to have their nose broken, repeatedly! Apparently, it was invented by a student who attended Rugby School, which is located in the English town of the same name.
- Recently, I watched the 1973 Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman movie "Papillon" (which is French for butterfly). Late in the film, McQueen is sent to Devil's Island, a penal colony in the Salvation Islands of French Guiana, on the north coast of South America. Being part of France, that territory uses the euro. It is also the launch site for the European Space Agency.
- The term Yankee is often heard in movies, especially those set during the US Civil War. It often refers to Americans from the (northeast) New England states. [For many years, my neighbor was a retired US Navy pilot born and raised in West Texas, part of the South in that Civil War. He claimed that he only learned that Damned Yankee was two words when he left Texas!] The contracted form Yank often refers to any American. Back in 1979, after I'd arrived in Chicago to live for a year, I was explaining rhyming slang to someone, and they asked if we (Aussies) had a nickname for Americans. I replied, "Yes, septic tanks, Yanks!" Of course, that is hardly flattering, but if an Aussie really likes you he insults you. Of course, he also does that if he really doesn't like you!
- More fake news! For many years, there has been a rumor that Columbus was the first European to discover the Americas in 1492. It turns out that he was well and truly beaten by the Vikings, who set up camp in Newfoundland and surrounds 500 years earlier. You can read all about it here.
- Many countries have only one official language (think US and Australia), more than a few have two (think Canada and Belgium), and some even have three or four (think Switzerland). Of course, numerous countries have minority languages. Wikipedia states, "Papua New Guinea … is the most linguistically diverse country in the world. … [There are] 839 living languages spoken in the country." Back in the 19th Century, the northern part, German New Guinea, was a Germany territory. After WWI, it was administered by Australia. The southern part had long been British New Guinea, but in 1905, they handed it over to Australia, as Papua. Both parts continued with completely separate administrative systems until they combined and became an independent country in 1975.
- During my first trip to Vienna, Austria, I learned about Friedensreich Hundertwasser, "a visual artist and architect who also worked in the field of environmental protection." He is famous for Hundertwasserhaus, an occupied apartment complex that is one of Vienna's most visited buildings. There is limited access to that, but a visitors' center is only a few blocks away. Do drop by if you are in town, take some photos, and buy the wonderful guidebook.
- Many people talk about the country Holland when they really mean the Netherlands. And more than a few Dutch people are sensitive to the difference. In reality, Holland refers to the two Dutch provinces North Holland and South Holland, the former containing Amsterdam. The Netherlands is the largest of four constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands: the 12 contiguous provinces in Europe along with the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba; Aruba; Curaçao; and Sint Maarten. I've had the pleasure of visiting the six Caribbean islands each once, and the home country many times. When asked why I love to go to the Netherlands, I reply, "for the vla!," which is Dutch for custard.
- Speaking of "things Dutch," there I was driving through rural Netherlands when I saw a large windmill off in the distance. I got off the main road and went in search of it, so I could get a good look up-close. I finally found it, and it was magnificent, its huge sails turning in the wind. It was located in the village of Breukelen. Before New York City was so named and became English, it was called New Amsterdam, and was Dutch territory. One area, Brooklyn, was named after that Dutch village back in the old country.
- When did we start using surnames (that is, family or last names)? According to Wikipedia, "Examples of surnames are documented in the 11th century by the barons in England. Surnames began as a way of identifying a certain aspect of that individual, such as by trade, father's name, location of birth, or physical features. It was not until the 15th century that surnames were used to denote inheritance." Many Spanish family names begin with de/del (meaning of/from): examples include De La Cruz, De Los Reyes, Del Rosario, De Castro, and De La Rosa. Italian names have a similar custom: De Laurentis, Del Monte, and Di Caprio. Some families have compound surnames, that is, names made up of more than one word, which are sometimes hyphenated. Spanish people often have two surnames, the first of which comes from the father's first family name, the second from the mother's first family name. See also Double-barrelled name.
- The word nostalgia is Greek for homesickness.
- Many of us are familiar with nuns, those women in a (sometimes very strict) religious order. And most often they seem to be Catholic. When the Church of England broke away from the Catholic church under Henry VIII, it retained its nuns. Nuns also exist in eastern orthodox religions, as well as Buddhism. I highly recommend the autobiographies (and other works) by Karen Armstrong, an Englishwoman who left her convent, and has since become a respected authority on various world religions. Perhaps the world's best-known nun was Mother Teresa, an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic. [I recall that she died only a few days after Princess Dianna, whose death hogged the headlines, sadly relegating coverage of Mother Theresa's life to page 5 or 7!] And then there was the Singing Nun, whose hit record "Dominique" was huge!
- I've been known to sprinkle a dash of nutmeg on my pumpkin or rice pudding. That spice comes from the ground-up kernel of a stone fruit, often found in Indonesia.
- According to Wikipedia, "Vandalism is the action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property." It comes from the German tribe, the Vandals who, apparently, went around destroying things (at early-history soccer games, apparently).
- Have you ever witnessed someone or something "running amok?" It's not an uncommon term. It's "sometimes referred to as simply amok or having gone amok, also spelled amuck or amuk, is the act of behaving disruptively or uncontrollably. … The phrase is often used in a less serious manner when describing something that is wildly out of control or causing a frenzy." From the Malay language, it means "to go on a killing spree."
- A term sometimes used in American film and song is Dixie, a nickname for the southern states, typically those that were part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. It can also be referred to as Dixieland (as in Dixieland jazz). There is no clear agreement on the origin of the term, but one interesting possibility is that it came from the label Dix (French for 10) on ten-dollar bills issued by a bank in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
- The title Dalai Lama is "given by the Tibetan people to the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug or "Yellow Hat" school of Tibetan Buddhism." The current Dalai Lama lives in exile in India, and is well known around the world, and respected by people of all (and no) faiths. Successors to the title are deemed to be reincarnations. Now, there are lamas and there are llamas, and it's best not to confuse the two. The following poem (by Ogden Nash), which I learned in elementary school, will help. "The one-l lama, He's a priest; The two-l llama, He's a beast. And I will bet A silk pajama There isn't any Three-l lllama."
- You've probably heard of a vendetta, an on-going feud between two people or families. This Italian word comes from the Latin vindicta (meaning vengeance). A couple of well-known feuds are the Wars of the Roses (England) and the Hatfield-McCoy feud (US).
- It is common knowledge that nitroglycerin is a powerful explosive used to make dynamite. But did you know that your heart doctor might prescribe it to you as a medication? (And, NO, I don't mean as a laxative!) It seems to me that taking too much of the stuff for chronic heart failure may well cause your heart to fail catastrophically! So, just who and how did this medical treatment get discovered? Did someone say, "I'm having chest pains. Let's see if things improve if I chew on this stick of dynamite."?
- If you know something about WWII in Europe, you likely will have come across the term Vichy France. This was a French state that tried to maintain some French independence and neutrality while Germany occupied much of the country. It was based in the town of Vichy. François Mitterrand (President of France 1981–1995) served under the Vichy Regime.