A Christmas Game: The Twelve Days of Christmas

It’s the holiday season and this year we’re having a look at the etymologies of all the gifts in the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

You might see circulated on the internet the interpretation of this song as a Catholic catechism, with the gifts supposedly representing articles of faith cleverly encoded so that Catholics in England could keep their religion a secret in a Protestant England that was hostile toward Catholics at that time. This notion has been basically debunked (you can read about this on Snopes), but looking at the gifts from an etymological perspective can cast some light on Christmas and some other historical contexts, so that’s what I set out to do. As the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes reports, the song seems to have its origin as a forfeit game, as attested by 19th century folklorist Lady Gomme. Each participant would have to repeat the ever growing list of gifts without making a mistake or have to pay a penalty. And it’s this idea of the Christmas game that inspired the light-hearted and (hopefully) humorous video.

Ronald Hutton (see show notes page) writes of the medieval and early modern association of the twelve days of Christmas as a time of feasting and celebration, after the more austere period of advent until Christmas eve. The wealthy manorial lords were expected to entertain the community. The 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight actually describes a fifteen day Christmas celebration in King Arthur’s court, which included feasting, carols, and games. And it’s a game of exchange of blows that the Green Knight offers when he comes to Arthur’s court, as he describes it a “Crystemas gomen”, which is followed up a year later for Gawain at the castle Hautdesert with an exchange of winnings game. (I summarize the whole story in the video “A Detective Story” if you want to hear more.) The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is now so well known that it’s not as challenging as it perhaps once was, and so based on the etymologies I discussed in the video, I wrote a new set of lyrics, which you can read (and print out for yourself), or listen to our attempt to sing in the video below. If you’re interested you can also try to sing it yourself to just the instrumental track in a video here, and see if you can do a better job than we managed, if you accept the challenge of my “Crystemas gomen”. As you can tell from our attempt, it’s quite difficult! And for comparison’s sake we’ve also put up a version with the original lyrics here — much easier to sing!

So as always, there are some additional etymologies and connections that I didn’t have time for in the video. First of all the number twelve, which is sometimes said to be evidence that a base twelve numbering system rather than a decimal one was used at an earlier period, since eleven and twelve don’t follow the expected pattern of “oneteen” and “twoteen”. This isn’t exactly true. Eleven and twelve, which are endleofan and twelf in Old English, seem to literally mean “one left over” (after a count of ten) and “two left over” (after a count of ten). The “-leofan” and “-lf” parts of the words are related to the word “left”. The “teen” of thirteen and so forth means “ten”, so three plus ten. So two different was of reckoning from ten. Now why there’s a shift in reckoning between 12 and 13 is unknown, but it is possible that it might be an indirect result of counting in twelves. However, the better evidence of counting in twelves is the fact that “hundred” used to refer to 120, but after the influence of Roman counting with centum (cognate with English 'hundred') meaning 100, it became distinguished as the long hundred or hundtwelftig in Old English.

I gave the etymology of partridge, but not pear, which comes from Latin pirum, and is believed to have been borrowed into Latin from some unknown source. The possible reinterpreting of the French perdrix as “pear tree”, as well as other mishearings such as “calling bird” for “colly bird” are know in linguistic circles as an eggcorn, the reinterpretation of an unfamiliar word as one that is technically incorrect but nonetheless logical. As for the word "feisty", originally applied to farting dogs, it transfers over to humans in the sense of quarrelsome or spirited. As Etymonline reports of the earlier sense, a 1811 slang dictionary has the definition “a small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” And it’s interesting to note that feisty is more often used in reference to women, and specifically of old women, it seems. I suppose the equivalent for a man might be “old fart”. But perhaps consider the etymology before using the word to describe someone!

Moving on to the turtledoves and the circumcision of Christ, one of the reasons it was held to be so important in the Christian calendar was that it was the first time Jesus’s blood was shed, and therefore prefigured the Crucifixion, which is the salvation of humanity by undoing the original sin of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden — a sort of second chance. This association is relevant to that medieval poem I mentioned earlier, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story is set one week after Christmas, hence around New Year and the Festival of the Circumcision, and in the climax of the poem Gawain gets a small cut as a mark of his sin, after which he is figuratively resurrected (just as the Green Knight, one year earlier, had been actually resurrected after having his head cut off), and Gawain gets a second chance to try and do better. And we still have this idea at New Year of the New Year’s resolution, in which you promise to try to do better in the coming year. So when you’re making your New Year’s resolution, maybe spare a thought for Jesus’s foreskin?

As for the French hens, I should clarify that the feminine form derived from the masculine *hano probably sometime in Proto-Germanic period (since the word referring to the bird seems to exist only in Germanic languages, though the root goes back to Proto-European word meaning “to sing”). Old English had both the masculine and feminine forms but for some reason the masculine doesn’t make it into modern English, being replaced by “cock” or “rooster”. That "Frank" root which gives us "French" and came to mean “free” also gives us the word “franchise” which originally meant “freedom” and by extension its modern legal sense, and the term "franking privilege", referring to government officials getting free postage. And the term "French nut" to mean "foreign or rare nut", referring to the walnut, mirrors the word "walnut" itself, which is etymologically "Welsh nut". The words "Welsh" and "Wales" come from Old English wealh which mean “foreign”, so it’s what the Anglo-Saxons called the Welsh, who refer to their own country not as Wales but as Cymru. So "walnut" also mean “foreign nut”.

The word "ledger" (connected to the geese a’laying), whose financial sense may have been driven by the advent of double-entry bookkeeping, has an interesting link to one of my previous videos. Double-entry bookkeeping was first written about in a treatise by one Luca Pacioli, a Renaissance mathematician also known for developing probabilistic mathematics. Pacioli also wrote a book about games (arising from his interest in probabilities) which he dedicated to Isabella d’Este (whose portrait Pacioli’s pal Leonardo da Vinci refused to paint). It was Isabella’s brother brother Ippolito who brought back the coach from Hungary after his aunt, who married the king of Hungary, got him a church position there for a while, a story which you can learn more about in my video “Coach”.

Also in a previous video, “Loaf”, I covered the etymologies of the words "lord" and "lady" in more detail. The other word “loaf” meaning “to spend time idly” is also related to the word for the type of shoe, loafers, so I wonder if those loafing lords are leaping in loafers! The Germanic root *hlaupan meaning “leap” that gives us “to loaf” and "loafers", also gives us the first part of the name for the bird lapwing, which at least one Latin dictionary suggests, perhaps erroneously, might be the bird referred to by Latin perdix, (usually translated as "partridge"), perhaps because both birds are ground-nesters, so that's a possible link back to the partridge in a pear tree. The lapwing, by the way, has nothing to do with either laps or wings, etymologically speaking; the second element is actually related to "wink", so a "leap-wink bird".

As for the word "trump", related to the drummers drumming, I'm sure you’ll probably be unable to connect Donald Trump and farting in your mind, but let's all hope he doesn’t triumph, which is the etymology of the other word "trump", as in card games.

As a final Christmas present, I’m embedding below last year’s Christmas video “Yule” if you haven’t seen it, and you can also listen to the latest episode of our podcast, in which we discuss the Yule video. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you in the New Year!

Talking Turkey

In honour (note the "ou" spelling) of Canadian Thanksgiving, this week's video looks at the word and the history of "turkey":

As often happens, I really over-researched for this one, so I have lots of extra material which didn't make it into the video. Some of this I'll put into this blog, but I think I have enough left over to make another Thanksgiving-related video next year. You can check out all the sources I drew on in the show notes page, but in particular I'd like to call attention to Dan Jurafsky's excellent book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. A version of his chapter on the turkey can be found on his blog here.

Of course Thanksgiving is all about the harvest. The word harvest comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp- which means "to gather or pluck", and the Latin form of this word, carpere, also eventually gives us the word ‘scarce’ which develops from the sense of being "plucked out" and therefore "rare", which reminds us of the scarcity of food in all of these settlements. That Latin word is perhaps most famous from the phrase carpe diem, usually translated as "seize the day", but the metaphor at work there is really a harvesting metaphor, like "harvest your crops when they're ripe before they go bad!" And this PIE root *kerp- goes even further back to the form *(s)ker- which means "to cut or shear", eventually giving us many English words, including "to share" from the idea of a division or portion — so sharing gets around scarcity, another important reminder of those early European settlements and the help they received from Native Americans. This root also leads to the Latin word caro/carnis "flesh or meat", as in the English word carnivore, which might again remind you of your Thanksgiving turkey.

On the subject of the harvest and agriculture, there is the story in Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, which I discussed in my video "The Story of Narrative". And of course there are many harvest festivals in many different cultures around the world. One worthy of note here, I suppose, is Lammas, the first harvest festival of the agricultural year in England, held August 1st when the wheat crop comes in, and involving bread specially made from that "first fruit" of the harvest. This harvest festival goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and the word Lammas comes from loaf-mass--remember the bread made from the wheat harvest--so this connects us with my video on the word "Loaf".

Another interesting English harvest festival is St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which falls on Nov. 11, and which picked up its elements of feasting and harvest celebration in addition to its religious elements after the fact, because of its timing. It’s connected with eating goose, though, not turkey, because of a story about its eponymous saint, Martin of Tours, who upon hearing that he was to be made a bishop and not wanting the job, tried to hide in a goose pen until the cackling of the geese gave him away. Geese are known as good alarm animals, as in the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy. And strangely enough guineafowl (yes them again) have a similar reputation, and even today are often kept with other barnyard poultry to warn of and even scare off birds of prey. But as for the roast goose, it also used to be the main Christmas fowl of choice in England, until it was replaced by the turkey.

Getting back to Thanksgiving itself, during the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the first president to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday (in 1863), basing it off the New England traditional harvest thanksgiving festival and fixing it on the last Thursday in November — with the express goal of fostering national unity. The driving force behind Lincoln’s decision was the author Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential women’s magazine in the US—the Martha Stewart of her time, who was also trying very hard to create national unity. For instance, in her fiction she often wrote stories of romances between northerners and southerners, with nice happy endings. She is also notable for having written the famous children’s poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb", which has the distinction of being the first recording made by Thomas Edison on his new invention, the phonograph (an invention I previously covered in my video "Bug"). Hale may also be responsible for introducing several important Christmas traditions into America, when she reprinted a picture of Queen Victoria, whom she admired as the ideal role model for women, celebrating Christmas with her family around the Christmas tree, a custom that Victoria's husband Prince Albert had imported into England from his native Germany (a fact previously mentioned in my video "Yule"). And Hale’s idealized and romanticized literary portrayals of Thanksgiving feasts did much to catch the popular imagination. She was, after all, one of the biggest trend-setters of her day. So we have Hale to thank for the whole "holiday season", I suppose.

Because of Thanksgiving’s New England roots, and Lincoln’s Unionist intentions, it's not surprising that the holiday was not initially popular in the Southern states; they took a long time to embrace its celebration. There’s therefore no small irony in the fact that the debate about the ‘First Thanksgiving’ comes down mainly to a rivalry between Plymouth in the North and Jamestown in the South. Nonetheless, since Thanksgiving was only the second national holiday (after Independence Day) to be established, it has since gained strong patriotic significance.

When Hale cooked up the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday, she didn’t initially invoke that feast at the Plymouth colony. The story itself had been entirely forgotten, in fact, until 1841, and the discovery of a letter by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth leaders, written to attract more colonists, and  mentioning a feast involving some of the native population. On this evidence Alexander Young, who first published the letter, described the feast explicitly as “the first thanksgiving”, and the story eventually became attached to Hale’s efforts to promote the holiday. And the fact that the New Englanders had tended to serve turkey at their own harvest celebrations focussed attention on the mention of wild turkeys in the account from 1621 in the journal of William Bradford, another Plymouth leader, though he makes no specific mention of a feast.

But getting back to the turkey itself, in Turkish, the word for turkey is "hindi", or in other words a reference to India, and in a number of languages, such as Hindi and Portuguese, the word for turkey is essentially "Peruvian". Not that the turkey comes from Peru, but at least it's a closer guess than Turkey or India. I guess that the Portuguese, who are so implicated in this story, at least knew they weren't from Turkey. I suppose "Peruvian" would have been a better name for the guinea pig, though! In any case, there's a Wikipedia page with various words for turkey in different languages, if you want to look further -- the Japanese "seven-faced bird" is particularly evocative, and my friend Moti at The Ling Space mentioned in a comment on the video that it's because of its colourful face and feathers, since 7 is often the number used to denote 'numerous' in Japanese -- though why Tamil has "sky chicken" is beyond me. Also have a look at this fun article by Gretchen McCulloch for more discussion of the topic.

Of course the word turkey has gained a number of slang senses in modern English, such as a stupid person or an unsuccessful film, both due no doubt to the reputation of the turkey as a particularly stupid bird. Cold turkey, as in to quit cold turkey, probably develops from the idea of the turkey being served without preparation. And "to talk turkey" supposedly comes from a "humorous" story of a swindling colonial and native American dividing up the spoils of their hunting together, with the colonial "talking the turkey" for himself, and leaving the less desirable animals to his companion. Whether true or not, this story does I suppose reflect something of the nature of the relationship between the American colonists and the indigenous population.

And this finally brings us to the real implication of this whole story, and the modern globalized world we live in. Names referring to Turkey or India or Guinea and so forth were so cavalierly assigned to all these new commodities being shipped into Europe because no one really knew where they came from and because one exotic locale was as good as another. But have things really changed that much? Do you know where your food really comes from? If you're lucky, your supermarket might tell you the source of the fruits and vegetables. Prepackaged and processed foods might tell you where they were assembled, but not the source of each ingredient. And of course many of the foods we eat are now produced half a world away from their original source, as was the turkey almost immediately after the Spanish found it, since it was selectively bred into something new in Europe after being imported from Mesoamerica. And the initial impetus for all of this was the desire for foods and other commodities that weren't available locally, like those spices from India, and we're still obsessed with having year-round access to foods we couldn't have if it weren't for these trade networks (see the 100-mile diet movement for a counter to this). The 15th and 16th century Age of European Exploration kicked off a global food system that we still live with today, and for the most part, most of us don't really stop to think about any of this. So if you're sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner, have a look at the foods and drinks in front of you and ask yourself if you know not only where they were produced, but where they came from originally. The names might give you a clue, but as with the turkey it might not be that direct a trail.

Tiki: cultural reflection and fusion

Once again the Endless Knot bar is open, and this time we're serving Mai Tais: 

When thinking about the Tiki craze of the 1940s and 1950s, the elephant in the room is, of course, the cultural appropriation. Tiki culture borrows from Polynesian sources, but it's more about mid-century America than anything else. Rather than just gloss over this, I decided that it was an opportunity to discuss the tension between cultural appropriation and intercultural communication, a story which is also reflected in the history of the World's Fairs, which has several connections to the tiki craze story, so it made a good fit. Also, this was nicely in keeping with my previous cocktail videos. "Cocktail" parts 1 and 2 explore the British / American interrelation and America's colonial period and growing sense of a distinct national identity, and also touch on other international relations, such as the British / French rivalry, US / Mexico connections, the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, and so forth. And "Gimlet" focussed on colonialism and imperialism, with the East India Companies and other efforts to explore and commercialize overseas territories, often with terrible human consequences, scientific advancement notwithstanding.

There were of course many details I had to leave out of the video. The Maori story of Tiki has parallels in many cultures around the world as a creation story, and the motif of the reflection in the pool is an interesting parallel to the Greek myth of  Narcissus (from which we get the word narcissist). Tiki is furthermore important in Maori mythology as the giver of customs and laws, so we can also think of him as a culture hero. As for the "carved human figure" sense of the word, the Maori also have hei-tiki, small pendants carved out of greenstone, which may be connected with the Tiki myth, or to ancestor worship, or to fertility as  representations of either Hineteiwaiwa, the goddess of childbirth, or a human fetus.

And of course comparison (and sometimes confusion) is often made between the Maori tiki and the Easter Island moai -- the Rapa Nui culture and language are indeed closely related to the other Polynesian traditions, and the moai may also be connected to ancestor worship. So perhaps the creation of the Pacifica statue by artist Ralph Stackpole for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition is an appropriate symbol. The tiki mugs, which were often given away as souvenirs to tiki restaurant goers, are, of course, the American commercial adaptation of the tradition.

Polynesian culture first came to widespread attention in the western imagination in the 19th century, with artistic reflections such as Herman Melville's book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and artist Paul Gauguin's trip to and art inspired by Tahiti. These sorts of reflections did much to inspire this notion of a south seas paradise. (Lots more about Gauguin here).

As for the Polynesian languges, I relied mostly on the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, as well as Edward Tregear's The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891). The Polynesian Lexicon Project is  great way of checking out cognates in the related languages, and is a lot of fun to play around with, so check it out if you're into comparative linguistics. Even from just the two etymologies in the video, tiki (Maori tiki, Hawaiian ki'i, Tahitian ti'i, and other cognates here) and mai tai (Tahitian maita'i, Hawaiian maika'i, Maori maitai, and other cognates here), some clear phonological correspondences are clear: /k/ and the glottal stop, /t/ and /k/. Also, it's an interesting semantic trajectory to go from the name of the first human, to the carving of a human figure, to an umbrella term for an entire aesthetic in another culture and language.

Of course there is much more that could be said about the history of the tiki craze, and Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in particular -- there are many who have written much more authoritatively on the subject than I could, so do check out the links on the sources page for some detailed accounts. In particular, have a look at this interview with researcher and writer Sven Kirsten on the history of tiki culture, which goes into much more detail than I could in the video. Don and Vic seem to owe much of their success to their flamboyance and showmanship. Don would spray a water hose onto the roof of his restaurant to simulate a tropic rainstorm (or to convince patrons to stay a little longer rather than leave during a downpour). And while Don was inspired by his actual South Seas travels, Vic mostly invented his adventurer persona, pretending for instance that he lost his leg not in a childhood illness, but in a shark attack. But tiki culture is about creating the appearance and fantasy of something, just like the story of Tiki and the reflection in the pool. And just like that reflection, something new can, as a result, take on a life of its own, as was the case with the tiki craze. Fusion is something American culture excels at, often producing something quite new by combining disparate sources.

And it's appropriate that Monte Proser, the British-born nightclub owner who stole the Zombie recipe, was a press agent for Walt Disney. One of Disney's themepark attractions is the Enchanted Tiki Room (opened in 1963), a Disneyfied reflection of tiki culture, a fantasy of a fantasy. So art imitating art imitating life, I suppose.

The Hawaiian or more properly Aloha shirt is itself an example of cultural blending too. The shirts, originally made from kimono fabrics, seem to have been the invention of Koichiro Miyamoto, the son of a Japanese immigant to Hawaii, and first appeared in the family shop in Honolulu. The style of shirt was then taken up in the 1930s by Chinese merchant Ellery Chun in his Waikiki shop, and soon became very popular with both local residents and tourists.

When discussing the Exotica music genre that went along with the tiki craze, I perhaps should also have mentioned vibraphone player Arthur Lyman. Born in Hawaii, and of Hawaiian, French, Belgian, and Chinese descent,  Lyman was part of Martin Denny's band for his first exotica album, and did much to help define the vibraphone-heavy sound of the new genre. After that first album, Lyman went his separate way and recorded many exotica albums of his own. The genre itself, as well as i's practitioners, is a good example of fusion and cultural blending. As are American musical genres such as jazz, blues, rock, and so forth, which are all predicated on musical fusion.

As an interesting sidenote to the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the fairgrounds also included a Japanese Tea Garden, which still exists today. It was here that the fortune cookie seems to have been introduced to America, being served in the Tea Garden. So though we now most associate the fortune cookie with Chinese-American food, it actually had its origins in Japan in the 19th century, and made its way to the US through this World's Fair (or shortly thereafter). So another gift to popular American culture.

As for the drink recipes, much research has been done to uncover the more authentic 1930s and 1940s recipes and syrups, perhaps most importantly by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who has written several books on the subject. For a detailed discussion of the Mai Tai recipe, see here, and if you want to make an authentic Zombie, have a look here. So mix yourself up your favorite tiki cocktail, and thanks for watching the video! Mahalo!

What's bugging you

This time we have the deceptively simple seeming word "bug":

This is kind of a mysterious one, and the etymologies presented here (and anywhere else you might see) are tentative and uncertain. The "puffed up" origin is perhaps further strengthened by the Norwegian dialectal word bugge meaning "an important man" (think puffed up or big). Another etymology entirely that has been suggested for bug, which I didn't mention in the video, is that it might come from a West African word bagabaga meaning "insect",  being imported into English during the West African slave trade, along with another West African word bugu meaning "annoy". The insect word comes into English at around the right time for this West African connection, so it's at least plausible, though few etymologists seem to pick up on this idea. On the other hand, if the goat/buck etymology of bug is correct, that would I suppose connect the various boggarts, bogeys, and bugbears to the Julbok I mentioned in the "Yule" video.

On the subject of slang senses for bug, they're quite numerous with some twenty or more listed in various slang dictionaries, between the noun and verb. Some of the more well known senses and expressions I didn't mention are an enthusiastic interest or person (as in " to catch the acting bug" or fire-bug), to bug out or make a hasty retreat (which seems to come from US military slang), and the bug-eyed monster of scifi fame, which really means bulging eyes but is also taken in the insect sense sometimes.

An interesting older slang sense takes us back to the world of criminal lingo: "Bailiffs who take money to postpone or refrain the serving of a writ, are said to bug the writ". This is reported in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue originally compiled by 18th century antiquarian and lexicographer Francis Grose, also the source of the bugaboo sense "a sheriff's officer" that leads to the burglar alarm. Grose's slang dictionary continued to be added to after Grose's death (you can access the two different editions here and here), and it's one of those later editions that gives us these two senses (though the earlier Dictionary of Slang by Nathan Bailey also lists the bribery sense). Edward Bulwer-Lytton uses the word bugaboo to refer to the police in his novel Pelham: "Many a mad prank ... which I should not like the bugaboos and bulkies to know." I've mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, coiner of many now clichéed phrases, in my previous video "Beef". Pelham, Bulwer-Lytton's first big hit, tells the story of an upper class dandy, and thus reflects the language (like bugaboos and bulkies for the police) and fashion of the hip set of the day, and apparently even set one fashion trend, the wearing of black evening wear by men, which has been the norm ever since the novel came out. So you can thank Bulwer-Lytton next time you don a tuxedo to avoid the fashion bugaboos, I mean, police!

On the topic of burglars and burglar alarms, that word comes into English from the medieval Latin word burgus which is itself a loan from a Germanic root that means “fortified place”, and is related to the words burg and borough, and might be more distantly related through Proto-Indo-European to the word “fort”, which came into English through French, from the Latin adjective fortis meaning "strong". And speaking of Latin, I mentioned the use of guard animals, most commonly guard dogs, but there is also the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy.

I mentioned that Edwin Holmes came up with the idea of using existing telegraph lines to connect his burglar alarms to a central monitoring station. In fact the idea of a central monitoring station was probably first developed by Edward A. Calahan, but Calahan's idea was that the houses would have emergency call boxes, rather than window and door sensors, as in Holmes's burglar alarm system. The story goes that Calahan came up with the idea after the president of the company that was formed to implement his previous invention was burgled. And that previous invention was also an adaptation of telegraph technology, the stock ticker, which transmitted stock and gold prices over the telegraph system and printed them out on ticker tape. (Presumably Calahan wasn't given a ticker tape parade for his work.) As it happens, the clockwork powered telegraph printing system necessary for Calahan's stock ticker had been invented by our old friend David Edward Hughes (inventor of the carbon microphone). It looks a bit like some outlandish musical instrument:

And finally a little more on the early history of patents. While authorship was important in the ancient world, control of intellectual property, the example of Sybaris not withstanding, was generally not. Craft secrecy, however, was important in the middle ages, particularly in the context of the craft guilds. Apparently the earliest mention of the windmill in Europe is in a diploma in 1105 CE granting the right to build them in a particular area, but it's unclear if this was as a newly invented technology. Certainly monopolies could be granted in the middle ages, but the earliest monopoly for a newly invented technology seems to be the Brunalleschi patent mentioned in the video. The penalty for violating Brunalleschi's patent, by the way, was burning. Harsh! The systematic patent laws that started in Venice before spreading throughout Europe seem to have been initially particularly associated with glassblowing technology and techniques. The first patents in England came under Queen Elizabeth I, while the idea that a patent needs to have an element of novelty seems to have been introduced by King Henry II of France. Design patents also date back to the early modern period with a patent for italic type granted in 1502 to the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who also invented the modern use of the semicolon and the modern appearance of the comma -- not a bad hat trick! The earliest literary reference to a patent seems to be in Ben Jonson's comedic play The Devil is an Ass, which makes fun of "projectors", that is inventors/swindlers. One of the character, Meercraft, is trying to get patents for individually wrapped hygienic toothpicks with instructions for their use, and forks, which were only then being imported from Italy into England. Jonson seems to be poking fun at real-life travel writer Thomas Coryate who did in fact introduce the fork to England, as well as the word "umbrella", both from Italy. For importing the fork, by the way, Coryate was given the highly amusing Latin nickname 'Furcifer'.

A last note, I'm grateful to my friend Madhava for pointing out to me Linus's Law that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". However, if there are any bugs in the video or this blog post, the fault is entirely mine.

Greek myth has its fingerprints all over the word "Clue"

This week's video explores the etymology of the word "clue", from Greek myth to detective fiction:

The idea for this one obviously came from the narrative metaphor of the Ariadne story leading to current meaning of the word clue, and the interesting references in Agatha Christie's writings to Greek myth made for a nice closed loop. The story of the development of fingerprinting, with the nice visual analogy between the contours of a fingerprint and the labyrinth of the Minotaur, became the centrepiece, and looking backward from clew "ball of thread" to the Proto-Indo-European root *gel-, leading also to clay and glia, gave some additional connections. I've already touched on the importance of narrative and metaphor, and for that matter on detective fiction, and Sherlock Holmes specifically, in "The Story of Narrative", "Paddle Your Own Canoe", and "A Detective Story" respectively, so in a sense this video is a culmination of that initial series of videos. Oh, and speaking of sailing technology in "Paddle Your Own Canoe", another meaning for the word clew is the bottom corner of a sail. And while I'm on the subject of links to previous videos, Chaucer has come up before, not only in "Paddle Your Own Canoe" but also "Cuckold", and Erasmus Darwin in "Coach" and "Gimlet". The illustrious Darwin-Wedgwood family will no doubt come up again.

And speaking of Geoffrey Chaucer, I should stress his importance along with other medieval and early modern writers for associating the word clew with the Theseus and Ariadne story. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the passage quoted in the video as the earliest with specific reference to the Labyrinth story. The passage is from Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, which recounts the stories of various virtuous women, several of them drawn from Greek myth. I mentioned some of the most obvious reference to weaving and other textile arts in Greek myth, the Fates, Penelope, & Ariadne, but it should also be noted that Athene herself, who appears in the story of Theseus leading him away from Ariadne, and in The Odyssey helping Odysseus as he arrives home to Penelope, is also particularly associated with weaving. For instance, there is the story of Arachne, a talented weaver who wins a weaving contest against Athene, and as punishment is transformed into a spider (hence "arachnids" as a term for spiders).  Athene is the goddess of wisdom, which for men expresses itself as strategy -- she was thus a goddess of that side of warfare as opposed to Ares who represented the bloodlust of war -- and for women expresses itself as weaving and other domestic arts. A double standard that reflects Greek patriarchy, but it shouldn't be forgotten that wisdom is being anthropomorphised as female, with her mother Metis also being associated with wisdom. There is indeed a thread of clever and cunning women running through Greek myths. Penelope is an ideal match for the cunning Odysseus (who was for instance the one who came up with the Trojan horse idea) because she too is clever, tricking the suitors to keep them at bay until Odysseus returns home.

Another interesting instance of weaving in Greek myth is the story of Procne and Philomela. As the story goes, when Philomela was visiting her sister Procne, her brother-in-law Tereus raped her, and in order to conceal the attack he cut out her tongue. Philomela, however, was able to communicate the crime by weaving it into a tapestry, and the two sisters are able to exact their revenge. Chaucer also includes this story in The Legend of Good Women. An interesting modern parallel to the idea of communication through textiles is the idea of knitting in code. During the Second World War, the British government banned the sending of knitting patterns out of the country for fear that they might contain coded messages, and in Belgium the resistance recorded the movement of trains in their knitting. And in a more literary example, Charles Dickens wrote of the macabre Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, who sat by the guillotine recording the beheadings in her knitting.  (See here and here for this and these and other knitting trivia from QI). An often repeated though unfortunately apocryphal story is that Irish knitters used the intricate patterns of Aran sweaters to identify the bodies of men drowned at sea. The story seems to have grown out of a passage in the play Riders to the Sea by the Irish playwright J.M. Synge, where a drowned man is identified not by a knitted sweater but by his knitted stocking: "It's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three-score stitches, and I dropped four of them." (See here and here for more details.) Too bad too, because that story would make a nice parallel to the use of fingerprints for identification, tying clew and clue together again.

So back to fingerprints; the original motivation for the fingerprinting system in the 19th century was not so much detection but for identification of repeat offenders, who were supposed to receive harsher penalties. As a result of increased population and greater mobility throughout the country due to the industrial revolution, while it used to be the case that local repeat offenders would be quickly recognized, repeat offenders who moved around a lot were much harder to track. Before fingerprinting was settled on, a number of other systems of identification were mooted, most significantly anthropometry, a the detailed measurement of a person's physical characteristics similar to what we now call biometrics. A system for this was worked out by the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon, unsurprisingly attracting the attention of Francis Galton, who was interested in quantifying human heredity through both physical and mental characteristics. Edward Henry had also been using Bertillon's system in India, until Galton's book was forwarded to him. And speaking of Bertillon, he and his system are referenced twice in the Sherlock Holmes canon, in "The Naval Treaty" and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as being admired by Holmes, who is himself referred to as the "second highest expert in Europe" behind only Bertillon. And in a fictional crossover going the other way, Edmond Locard of Locard's Exchange Principle fame was known as the Sherlock Holmes of France. And of course, as is well known, the character of Sherlock Holmes is based on the real-life Dr Joseph Bell, a former medical school teacher of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was himself a pioneer of forensic science.

As for Francis Galton, the archetypal 19th century gentleman-scientist, though it should be noted that Galton himself was not directly related to Josiah Wedgwood (Wedgwood was Charles Darwin's grandfather on the other side of the family -- Erasmus Darwin was their common grandfather), the whole Darwin-Wedgwood clan was full of illustrious go-getters. Galton's other grandfather, Samuel Galton, was a founding member of the Lunar Society (previously mentioned here), along with Erasmus Darwin, as well as Joseph Priestly (previously mentioned here), in whose former house Galton was born. The Darwin-Wedgwood family also later includes the likes of composer Ralph Vaughn Williams and Anglo-Saxonist Simon Keynes (a connection of particular interest to me as an Anglo-Saxonist myself).  In addition to his important work on fingerprints and statistics, and his rather more questionable work on the pseudoscience of eugenics and that crazy beauty map of Britain, he is also significant for his pioneering of the science of meteorology. You can read more about him and his contributions to science in this article. One last bit of trivia about him: he worked out through careful study the ideal procedure for brewing tea, which you can read below, take from the excellent website galton.org, which has collected works available online:

Edward Morse is another fascinating Victorian polymath. In addition to his important work as a naturalist studying shells, as noted in the video he made pioneering contributions to the study of Japanese pottery, particularly the cord-marked pottery of the Jomon period (pictured in the video) which dates as far back as 16,000 years ago. He also wrote the book Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, which described the construction and furnishings of Japanese houses, including sections on bonsai and flower arrangement, and as a result of his friendship with astronomer Percival Lowell he wrote Mars and Its Mystery about the possibility of life on Mars.

I'll leave you with one last bit of trivia, concerning Agatha Christie. Reasonably well known is Christie's disappearance for a little over a week during the break-up of her marriage (the subject of a Doctor Who episode no less). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, surprisingly a proponent of the occult, even enlisted the help of a spiritualist to assist in locating her. But perhaps less well known is that she was one of the first Brits to surf standing up, a pastime she took up while on holiday with said former husband. Here she is with her surf board, apparently named Fred: