The press is called “the fourth estate”? In feudal times, the three social classes (estates) were the church, the nobility and the commoners. In 1828, Thomas Macauley noticed a fourth group affecting public affairs: journalists. He coined the phrase “fourth estate.”
A flag at half-mast is a sign of respect for someone who recently died? Warships of old flew their colors at the top of the ship’s mast. When they lost a naval battle, they lowered their flag to half-mast to make room for the victor’s flag to fly above them. The lowered flag became a universal sign of respect.
Stuffed eggs (one of my favorite foods) are called “deviled eggs”? When stuffed eggs were first introduced, they were covered with pepper so hot they reminded people of the fires of hell.
Soft drinks are sometimes referred to as “pop”? Carbonated soft drinks were originally sold in bottles with corks. When the cork was removed, pop!
Hamburger steak is often called “Salisbury Steak”? Shortly after World War I, someone started a campaign to remove all traces of German expressions from the English language. This meant finding a different name for hamburger steak, named for Hamburg, Germany. An English physician of the time, James Salisbury, was promoting hamburger meat as a cure-all for common diseases. The meat was renamed for him.
Ice cream and fruit concoctions are called “Sundaes” or “Sundays”? In the late 19th century, local laws in some areas forbade the sale of sodas on Sundays because they were “sinfully delicious.” Some entrepreneurial ice cream parlors started selling something they called “sodaless sodas,” ice cream topped with fruit. They soon became known as “Sundaes.”
Judges wear black robes? Judges wore more colorful attire until the death of Queen Mary II in 1694. At that time judges wore black to mourn her death and they never changed back.
People say, “It’s raining cats and dogs”? In 17th century England, hundreds of cats and dogs ran wild through streets that had little or no drainage. In especially heavy downpours, many of these wild animals drowned and their bodies floated through the streets. This gave the impression of literally “raining cats and dogs” and led to the current expression.
We nod our head for “yes” and shake it for “no”? Charles Darwin correlated these gestures to a baby’s nursing habits. The forward head motion, or nod, is a breast-seeking pattern, while shaking the head from side to side is a breast-rejecting motion. A baby born deaf and blind will nod for “yes” and shake its head for “no.”
Private detectives are called “private eyes”? Around 1925 the Pinkerton Detective Agency adopted the motto “we never sleep,” shown over the picture of an ever-wakeful eye. That led to private detectives being called “private eyes.”
So many cows are called “Bossy”? I remember asking my dad about this, and he had no idea. I even grew up saying “Come boss” when I was trying to round up the cattle, just as my dad and grandpa did. I’m happy to report that now I know the answer to this question that stymied me in my youth. “Bossy” comes from the Latin word bos, meaning cow or ox. I guess a lot of farmers and cattlemen were speaking Latin without realizing it.
Doughnuts have holes? Doughnuts were invented in 1847 by New England sea captain Hanson Gregory. Some say Captain Gregory put holes in the doughnut to more thoroughly cook the dough and make it more digestible. According to another theory, he added the holes so he could hook several doughnuts on the spokes of his ship’s steering wheel. Although the first theory makes more sense, I like the second: the image of a salty old sea captain steering his ship through a storm while nibbling doughnuts attached to the spokes of his ship’s wheel just makes me chuckle. Take your choice on this one.
Next week is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. In addition to being grateful to Captain Gregory for inventing doughnuts, we might profit by pondering some thoughts from one of my favorite writers, G.K. Chesterton.
“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest forms of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
Jim Schinstock is retired-but-not-yet-expired. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.