Category Archives: Etymology

Virtual Tour 6: Hobos

Today’s tour isn’t of a place, but of a group of people: Hobos. Come along with me as we explore their origins, their ethics, their slang, and even their secret language of symbols.

Hobos were migratory workers that began as displaced soldiers after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. The conflict laid waste to large swaths of land, and many men returning found that they had no home to return to, or found families so economically devastated by the war that they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed – so those men took to the railways to take them cross-country looking for work. Before the advent of the train, these men tramped – walked – around the countryside in search of work. While railroads began in the US around 1830, they were not really nationwide until after 1910. Another group of people who took to life on the road were young men from large families; removing a hungry mouth or two could greatly benefit the family; some left with tearful goodbyes and promises to send wages when they could; others slipped out in the night and left on their adventure into the wider world.

The story goes that in the distant past, boys were often hired on temporarily to help with agricultural harvests; they were referred to as simply “boys”; but to distinguish them from other groups of workers, they were named after one of their tools, the hoe; gradually the term drifted from hoe-boy to the word we know today, “Hobo”. There is, in fact, no etymology of the word that I could find. It might also come from a railroad worker’s call on late 19th century railroads, “Ho, boy”, ho being a variation of “whoa”, used to either call attention from a distance, or as a command to stop. Perhaps the true origin of the word lies somewhere in between.

Both tramp and bum come from German, trampeln and bummeln, both referring to trekking, walking, ambling or wandering. But because both tramps and bums were associated with being lazy and opportunistic thieves, hobos carried the same stigma. Hobos, however, were honest and free; they had a strict moral code, were hard-working, and some even chose that lifestyle above their own personal wealth or position, such as James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos; he was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, but he chose instead to live as a hobo. Some simply wanted to live with no strings attached, no address to be found by state or federal government; today, we might call it living off-grid, though our contemporary version is far more luxurious than those early migrants could have ever aspired to.

James Eads Howe, founder of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, an aid society for hobos. 1922. Source: Library of Congress

Up through the 1920s, hobos defined themselves in terms of being free-spirited; but when the subculture exploded during the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Great Depression forced men, women and children onto the highways and byways looking for work to survive, the hobo popular image shifted to a symbol of poverty wracking the nation. As factories closed across the country, many had no choice but to migrate. The most famous image from that time is by Dorothea Lange, taken of Florence Owen Thompson, a mother of seven starving children, living in a shanty during a pea harvest in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photographer captured the plight of the migrant workers, prompting the government to send food to the camp; the images did not gain popularity until the 1950s, however; it was probably too painfully familiar to people to garner much contemporary appreciation. After the Great Depression had passed, and World War 2 was over, the number of hobos decreased drastically, but has never died out completely.

Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, age 32, Nipomo, California
Source: Library of Congress

Today, the hobo culture continues; whether they’re called hobos, or trainhoppers, or drifters, or solo ramblers, strays, or vagabonds, it is a worldwide movement. In South America, it is estimated that 400-500,000 migrants hop trains annually in an attempt to reach the United States. As Corona lockdowns affect companies, leading to layoffs and bankruptcies, I think we’ll see a surge in the number of hobos. Every year in Britt, Iowa, a hobo convention is held, where they celebrate the positive aspects of living free, and likely discuss how to do it honourably and well. It’s a chance to connect, and to feel part of a community while still being independent. Click here to see a few images from their 2013 convention.

Hobos didn’t just try to work hard; they had a moral code of conduct that included these tenets:

  • Decide your own life; don’t let another person rule you or run you.
  • When in towns, always respect the local law and officials – be a gentleman at all times.
  • Always try to find work, even if temporary, and look for jobs nobody wants. You’ll be helping a business along, but you’ll also ensure good will if you return to that town again.
  • Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable – either locals or other hobos.
  • When no work is available, make your own work – use your talents.
  • Don’t set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos by becoming a stupid drunk.
  • Always respect nature – do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  • If in a community jungle, pitch in and help. Help others whenever needed – you may need their help one day.
  • When jungling in town, respect handouts and don’t wear them out – other hobos will be coming along who may need them more than you.
  • Don’t cause trouble in rail yards or in towns – other hobos will be coming, and they need the goodwill.
  • Try to stay clean – bathe whenever possible.
  • When travelling, ride your train respectfully – take no personal chances, cause no problems with the train crew, and act like an extra crew member – help where you can.
  • Do not allow other hobos to molest children – expose them to the law – they are the worst garbage to infest a society.
  • Help all runaway children, and try to talk them into returning home.

I’d say that these rules are good for everyone to live by, no matter what their status or situation. Besides a code of ethics, they had a separate language. Here’s some of their colourful slang:

  • Accommodation Car = Caboose of a train
  • Bad road = a train line made unusable by some hobo’s bad action or crime
  • Banjo = a small portable frying pan, sometime a “D” handled shovel
  • Barnacle = a person who sticks to one job for a year or more
  • Beachcomber = a hobo who hangs around seaports or dockyards
  • Bindle Stick = a collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tie at the end of a stick
  • Blowed-in-the-grass = a trustworthy, genuine person
  • Bone Polisher = a mean dog
  • Bone Orchard = graveyard
  • C, H & D = a person is Cold, Hungry and Dry (thirsty)
  • California Blankets = bedding made of newspaper
  • Calling in = using someone else’s campfire to warm up or cook
  • Catch the Westbound = to die
  • Chuck a Dummy = pretend to faint
  • Cover with the Moon = Sleep out in the open
  • Docandoberry = anything growing along a river that’s edible
  • Easy Mark = place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
  • Elevated = under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Flip = to board a moving train
  • Flop = a place to sleep, “Flophouse”, a cheap hotel
  • Glad rags = one’s best clothes
  • Graybacks, Crumbs = lice
  • Gump = a chicken
  • Honey Dipping = working with a shovel in a sewer
  • Hot = 1) a fugitive hobo; 2) a decent meal (“I could use three hots and a flop”)
  • Hot Shot = fast freight train, stops rarely
  • Jungle = an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate. Jungle Buzzard = a hobo or tramp who preys on his own
  • Knowledge Bus = a school bus used for shelter
  • Maeve = a young hobo, usually a girl; similar to Angelina (a young, inexperienced child)
  • Mulligan = a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining their ingredients
  • On the Fly = jumping a moving train
  • Padding the Hoof = travel by foot
  • Possum Belly = ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat)
  • Rum Dum = a drunkard
  • Sky Pilot = a preacher or minister
  • Spare Biscuits = looking for food in garbage cans
  • Stemming = panhandling or begging

Source: New Braunfels Railroad Museum, Texas

When hobos travelled from town to town, they never knew what to expect – would they be welcomed, or arrested? Out of the necessity to be prepared, a language of symbols grew: A hobo could give those who came after him a good idea of what to expect – was there work available? Would the police arrest a hobo on sight? Could you get a good meal at this house or that? The hobo would leave these symbols nearby – etched in the dirt road near a house, or marked on a stone or tree or a wall or a railcar. Here is an example of the symbols, though there are many more! Reading through them gives you a glimpse of some of the things they were up against.

In the images below, the young man getting on the train and the one cooking over a fire with a can on a stick are one and the same man – World lightweight boxing champion Lou Ambers, who travelled across the US to compete in Bootleg Bouts to earn money for his widowed mother.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of the world of hobos – without the dangers of train hopping!

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Rabbit Holes

Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?

I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.

The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!

I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).

That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.

Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.

Nis & Maren “Mary” Aaroe, my great-great-grandparents, who immigrated with 2 small children to Kansas from Vonsild, Denmark in the 1880s. Here, in the late 1910’s.

There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:

www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!

The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.

Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉

For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:

Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.

This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.

Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!

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Virtual Tour 5: Switzerland

View from Lihn, Switzerland. Taken by Stefan Huesler in March 2005

Today’s tour brings you to my neck of the woods, so to speak: Switzerland. How many mountains we have here depends on who you ask; whatever the exact number, I can say that it’s hundreds. Even the Swiss Plateau, while technically lying between the Jura Mountains and the Alps, is mostly hilly. But perhaps what Swiss would consider a hill, others would view as a mountain. So what’s the actual difference between the two? That’s a grey area, at best: A hill is a landform that rises above the surrounding terrain and does not usually have a defined summit (peak); a mountain has a limited or defined summit area, and rises 300 metres or more above the surrounding landscape. While hills may be a result of glacial flow, erosion of surrounding regions, or faulting, mountains are formed through volcanic activity or faulting. But notice – both hills and mountains can be formed by faulting (the shifting of tectonic plates).

Whatever you call them, Switzerland is full of the beauties. They influence weather, sometimes dramatically, from one side to the other; while Lugano usually has Mediterranean weather, the northern side of the mountains has a cooler climate. Once, as we came over the Gotthard mountain pass from Lugano toward home on a warm, sunny day, we saw a wall of white cloud ahead, clearly defined on the road; when we drove into it, it was absolutely white, and we were unable to see much ahead. Not fog. A cloud. Where we live, our wet weather usually comes from the local mountain range; if the wind shifts from that direction during a grill dinner on our balcony, grab your plates and get inside before it hits.

Did you know that the term homesickness comes from the Swiss German word Heimweh (= home + ache)? It was exported in the 17th century by Swiss merchants and mercenaries working abroad, and refers not to family or house, but to the mountains and their longing for the sights of the Alps.

Below are a few links:

With the first, you can choose various panoramic starting points, exploring visually and/or with information about each point of interest.

Switzerland Virtual Tours

The second link takes you to live webcams in Switzerland, where you can see what’s going on. Keep in mind that if you’re looking at these webcams at the time of my uploading this blog (February 2021), we are currently in lockdown due to the second wave of COVID-19, so activity is far less than when shops are open (if you’re looking at town centres or skiing zones), though in town centres you’ll see kids riding bikes home from school in the afternoons, around 16:00 Swiss time (e.g. the town centre Appenzell webcam). Come back in a few weeks, and activity will have picked up once again. Hopefully!

Swiss Webcams

The third link takes you to a YouTube live webcam feed that switches locations occasionally, giving you an overview of several sites. The music they play over this live feed is a bit monotonous, so I’d suggest turning on your favourite musical alternative and muting the actual video.

24/7LIVEWebcams,Switzerland- YouTube

However you choose to enjoy this tour, welcome to Switzerland! Let me know what you viewed, and what you experienced, in the comments below!

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History Undusted: Makeup

This device from 1930, invented by Max Factor (pictured), helps correct the application of makeup. Note: It’s only this complicated when a MAN does it…

Limbo-life goes on, but I thought I’d do a bit of dusting… of history, that is. I love historical images – they have a story that may have gotten lost over the years, or may document a significant achievement, such as the moon landings. Then there are those lovely photographs of bygone inventions: Some have succeeded into the modern era, while others were dumped somewhere along the wayside (and rightly so). Fortunately, the photo above falls into the latter category! As far as this topic goes, this is just a light dusting; there have been entire books and documentaries addressing this vast issue; if you’re interested in viewing a few documentaries on the topic, click here.

Makeup, as a topic of history, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt is famous for their eyeliners and other cosmetic enhancements; lipstick may have been invented as far back as 5,000 years ago, by ancient Sumerians. The word “cosmetic” comes from Greek, and originally meant “technique of dress and ornament” or “skilled in ordering or arranging”. Natural ingredients used included charcoal, beeswax, crushed gemstones, castor oil, olive oil, milk (Cleopatra’s famous milk bath), rosewater, seaweed, fish scales (still used today), and seashells. In past ages, there were dubious forays into using tinctures of white lead, mercury, arsenic, quicklime, Belladonna, and even mouse fur eyebrows (for when the woman’s hair fell out due to using any of the above in combination…). A common insect still used in blushes and lipsticks is the cochineal, the Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect.

Probably as far back as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has been a fascination with mechanics, even in the beauty industry (as illustrated by the image above). Though I have yet to find images that document the attempts at enhancing a man’s handsomeness, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such inventions for women’s beauty. I think that fact simply reveals something about a deep-set, double-standard mindset that women need cosmetic improvement while men don’t *; that notion has been inescapably engrained into women for thousands of years (with the exception of the Egyptian culture, in which men used eyeliner just as much as the women). [*The two exceptions that I can find to this general trend is that men were berated in the mid-war years for being too scrawny, and they were encouraged to develop their physique; they were also ridiculed for baldness and were offered hair growth concoctions to counter the natural process.] While many of these gadgets and products have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, some are still lurking around – and to them, I say, Shame on them for shaming natural features!

Here are a few other bygone mechanical attempts at enhancing the beauty of women:

1928 – A woman uses a vibrating weight loss tool. Credit: Getty Images
1940s: Slenderising salons devised all sorts of weight-loss treatments; this chair massaged clients’ legs with metal rollers. Credit: Getty Images
1958 – Invented by a South African doctor, this machine was supposed to massage away any unwanted bits using electric currents. Credit: Getty Images
Stillman’s Freckle Cream, originally from Illinois, has been sold for over 120 years, and is still touted in cultures desiring paler skin, such as in Asian countries.
1960s – ice masks were used by Hollywood actresses to freshen their faces between takes without spoiling their makeup. Credit: Getty Images
1875 – A flexible mask intended to bleach the skin, removing blemishes.

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History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015

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Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!

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Food History Undusted: Mac & Cheese

As I recently mentioned, we had problems with kitchen moths; the source has been found (dates) – the jar which contained them also isolated them; I played the jar like a maraca and sang “La Cucaracha” as we put them in the compost. We are now moth-free! Woo-hoo!

We really appreciate the advantages of storing everything in glass jars: It looks pretty, we can see exactly how much we have, what we have, and it’s inviting to be creative in meal planning. One of the pasta jars we have contains mini “Hörnli / Hoernli” – the Swiss word for “little horns” and what the rest of the world probably refers to as macaroni. The topic came up as a meal idea, and of course, being us, we got into the historical aspect. Where did it originally come from? Did it arrive in America with Italian immigrants or is it a hybrid dish?

Mac & Cheese History

This image above is nearly sacrilege for many people, myself included – I cannot imagine eating pasta from a can! But just after World War 2, manufacturing of canned goods, frozen meals and the like were coming into their stride as families pieced their lives back together and got on with the business of rebuilding the country and economy; televisions entered the home mainstream in the early 1950s (think black and white, rabbit ear antennas, no remote and 2 channels) – but that’s another topic. Product placement during television programmes and news was a major factor in influencing the purchasing power of the average consumer (product placement may have begun as early as 1873, when Jules Verne’s fame led shipping companies to lobby being mentioned by name in his upcoming novel,  “Around the World in 80 Days”).*

The oldest known reference to a dish that may be recognizable as the ancestor to the modern concoction is from the 13th century, from someone in the court of Charles II of Anjou who was familiar with the Neapolitan court; the dish was basically prepared with sheets of lasagne sliced into small squares, cooked in water and tossed with Parmesan cheese. The American version some might be more familiar with has two claims to ancestry: Either it began as a Connecticut church supper dish known as Macaroni Pudding, or it was brought over from Italy in the form of a recipe by Thomas Jefferson, who also brought back a pasta machine.

So, where was the noodle dish invented that we know today as “Macaroni and Cheese”? Switzerland, of course!

The dish, known as “Älplermagronen” (=”Alpine herders’ macaroni“) in the German-speaking areas and “Macaroni du Chalet” in the French-speaking areas, is made with those Hörnli, also known as “Magronen”, which were dubbed for the horns of the cattle, sheep and goats which the herders tend. The cheese was often a local product from the milk of those very animals, and the dry pasta was easy to hike up to their summer chalets where they slept on the Alps during the summer grazing seasons.

For a good, long read about the history of the pasta, click here for a “BBC Travel” article on the topic – and get a good taste of the Swiss Alps in the meal! And be honest – how many of you have a hankering for Mac & cheese after reading this? Click on the image below for an authentic recipe.

Alplermagronen - Betty Bossi

Image credit: Betty Bossi (the Swiss version of Betty Crocker)

 

*Information source: Wikipedia, William Butcher (translation and introduction). Around the World in Eighty Days, Oxford Worlds Classics, 1995, Introduction.

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History Undusted: Human Alarm Clocks

If you were living in the 19th century, before the age of reliable and affordable mechanical alarm clocks, how could you be ensured of getting up on time to get to work? Hire a knocker-up, of course. That’s if you lived in Britain or Ireland. Knockers-up were employed from the time of the Industrial Revolution; the last one retired in Bolton (a former mill town in Greater Manchester) in 1973. Also known as “human alarm clocks” they would use sticks, clubs, pebbles or pea shooters to knock on clients’ door and windows; some would move on after a few taps, while others wouldn’t move on until they were sure the client was up. I wonder who woke them up?

According to the Lancashire Mining Museum, there was a conundrum from the times that went like this:

We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up

And our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker up, up

So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up ‘Cos he’s not up.

The original problem employed knockers-up faced was how not to wake up their paying clients and several of their neighbours on either side for free; they hit upon (no pun intended) the idea of long poles or pea shooters to tap on the upper windows; clients obviously couldn’t sleep in a back room, or they’d never hear the knock. The fees charged depended on how far the knocker had to travel to reach the house and how early said knock needed to be.

In 1878, a Canadian reporter was told by Mrs Waters, of northern England, that she charged eighteenpence a week for those who needed waking before 4 a.m., and for those after 4 a.m., it was a shilling (twelvepence) a week. Those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence.

The miners of County Durham, Ireland, refined the requirements a bit: Built into the outer wall of their houses was a slate board, on which they would write their shift times in the mine; the company-hired knockers-up would then know when and when not to wake them up. These boards were known as wake-up slates or (far better, in my opinion), knocky-up boards.

Here are a few rare photographs of knockers-up knocking up:

HUMANA~3

Human Alarm Clock 2Human Alarm Clock

Knocker-up - old-leigh-marshs-row-twist-lane

And just so we’re clear, the American English phrase “to be knocked up” (pregnant) has nothing to do etymologically with the British occupation or the sundry adjectives that derived from it. The knockers-up were usually elderly men or women, or even policemen who supplemented their incomes by taking on the task of waking their clients. In fact, one policeman (as told during the inquest) saw no reason to abandon his post as a knocker-up when a man found him on his route and told him that he’d found a dead woman; she turned out to be Mary Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper.

Original post, September 2015

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Seeds, Pits, Pips or Stones?

If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that my curiosity likes to sprint down obscure paths. I recently finished the first draft of my next novel (Woohoo! Now the real work ahead!), and one of the things I was researching was something I wanted to write but then hit that proverbial wall: Do I use pit or seed in this context? And what’s the actual difference between the two, or are they interchangeable? And where does stone or pip come in?

Well, as with any roadsign to curious paths, I pulled out my walking stick – or in this case, the dictionary (as in, Wiktionary). And as you’ll see, just looking it up won’t do – I had to learn a wee bit about botany along the way:

Peach Pit Anatomy

Anatomy of a Peach. Image Credit: http://www.pngfuel.com

Endo- means within, inner, absorbing, or containing. Peri- means peripheral, or surrounding; Meso- means middle (as in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic); Exo- means outer (as in exoplanet); and -carp means part of a fruit or fruiting body. I tend to remember something better if I can make a linguistic leap of understanding, and the suffix carp- actually comes from the Greek word Karpos, which was the mythological son of the west wind and spring (new vegetation), which naturally includes fruit.

In this instance, however, the dictionary wasn’t exactly helpful:

SEED: A fertilized and ripened ovule*, containing an embryonic plant. [*the structure in a plant that develops into a seed after fertilization.]

I don’t know about you, but I found myself none the wiser.

PIT is even more confusing! It’s a seed, stone or pip inside a fruit, or a shell in a drupe (such as a peach) containing a seed.

PIP makes the issue even foggier: It’s a British term for a seed inside certain fleshy fruits (compare stone/pit), such as a peach, orange, or apple!

STONE seems the clearest definition (insert sarcastic tone here): The central part of some fruits, particularly drupes; consisting of the seed and a hard endocarp layer.

If I had to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say it like this: The seed contains the embryo; the pit/pip/stone protects the seed until it’s ready to sprout (and only certain types of fruits have pits); pits are usually singular in a fruit, while there may be one or more seeds.

Pits are found in fruits like cherries, mangoes, peaches, plums, avocadoes, olives and dates. Seeds are found in fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas (the variety of bananas usually sold in stores usually have sterile seeds – what we might call “seedless”). If I can follow this jungle-infested side path for a moment, did you know that bananas don’t actually grow on trees, but are the world’s largest herb, and that they grow upside-down, defying gravity? Another interesting point is that a seedless banana can still propagate itself – I should rather refer to it as clone: Each” tree” (i.e. layers of leaves) produces 1 bunch of fruit and then dies; but its rhizome, below ground, simply sprouts up as the one is dying and repeats the process.

Then there’s the hairy issue of the coconut: Technically, it’s a one-seeded drupe; but it could be considered a fruit, a nut, or even a seed. When you buy a coconut in the store, the outer layers have generally been stripped off: The exocarp is usually green; the fibrous husk beneath that is the mesocarp, and the hard, woody layer we often think of as “a coconut” is actually the endocarp. Every part of the coconut and the palm plant (not tree) on which it grows can be used for something, so it’s often referred to as “the tree of life”.

And let’s not get into figs; they’re technically inverted flowers, and besides, there’s probably a wasp inside there (without the fig wasp, we’d have no figs). Now ya know. Don’t look into that too closely unless you really want to know, because you’ll never look at a fig the same way again.

Learn something new and get smarter every day!

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History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.

Carrots - Carrot-Museum-co-uk

Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.

They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).

These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.

One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.

Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).

For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).

The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.

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