Category Archives: history

C is for celebration

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Today. Thursday, 24 November – the last Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States, officially kicking off the holiday season. In fact, more people in the US celebrate Thanksgiving than Christmas – making it the country’s most loved holiday.

In 1939, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to create a boost to retailers before Christmas. The precursor to what is now known as “Black Friday” – the biggest shopping day of the year.

If you are interested in the history of this holiday check out Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fascinating book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience”.

But if pop culture is more your thing, you can read all about what the late Joan Rivers served up as a thanksgiving feast.

Many celebrities get involved and share their thanksgiving stories and time.

And in New York there’s the annual and colourful Macy’s Parade.

Wherever you are, however your year has been, take time today to be reflective and give thanks for the things important to you.

Happy celebrations from all of us at the c word.

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Cats in bags and other common sayings

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20500417382_c1edcbd265_mIt’s time we let the cat out of the bag. If you take everything literally, you might be thinking why would someone put their cat in a bag? What did the cat do to them? Isn’t this animal cruelty? In fact, this crazy sounding sentence is just an idiom. What the saying actually means is to let a secret out to the public, that was supposed to be kept, well, secret.  So the next time someone lets the cat out of the bag do not immediately pick up your phone and call the RSPCA.

Every culture has its own collection of wise sayings or idioms. They offer advice about how to live and also transfer some underlying ideas, principles and values of the given society. These sayings are called idioms – or proverbs if they are longer.

We don’t want to put all our “eggs in one basket” but some of our favourites are the common good luck call to “break a leg” and the classic thanks but no thanks “it’s just not my cup of tea”.

Here are a few common sayings explained and their origin: 

1 / Steal someone’s thunder

Nothing to do with the weather…

Meaning: To use someone else’s idea or take attention away from him

Origin: In 1704, John Dennis, a British playwright, created a new technique for simulating the sound of thunder for his play, Appius and Virginia. The play flopped and quickly closed, but Dennis’ method of replicating thunder’s sound was used shortly after in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was upset that someone had poached his idea and was later quoted as saying, “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder”.

2 / Mad as a hatter

Meaning: Crazy or insane

Origin: In the 18th and 19th centuries, hatmakers treated hats with mercury. The mercury vapor affected the hatmakers’ nervous systems, causing them to tremble and appear mad.

3 / Paint the town red

Meaning: To have a big or a wild night out – usually alcohol related

Origin: In 1837, the Marquis of Waterford (a known troublemaker) took a group of friends out drinking in the English town of Melton Mowbray. During the evening, the crew created a path of destruction by breaking windows, tipping over flower pots and pulling knockers off doors. They ended the night by painting a tollgate, the doors of several homes and a swan statue red.

A second possible origin for this idiom is the American West, and it refers to men behaving as if their entire town was a red-light district.

4 / Wear your heart on your sleeve

Meaning: To make your feelings obvious

Origin: This idiom has a few possible origins. One theory is that it comes from the Middle Ages, when knights would dedicate their performance in a tournament to a woman of the court. The knight would tie a token from the woman, such as a handkerchief, to his arm to indicate his performance would defend her honor.

A second theory also originates in the Middle Ages. Emperor Claudius II believed men performed better in battle when they were not romantically attached, so he declared marriage illegal. However, as a concession, he allowed temporary coupling. Once a year during the Roman festival of Juno, men drew names to determine whom they would date for the year. The men would wear the names of their chosen women on their sleeves during the rest of the festival.

The third theory is that William Shakespeare invented the expression. He used it in Othello.

5 / Butter someone up

Meaning: To flatter a person

Origin: This idiom dates back to an ancient Indian custom of throwing balls of ghee (a type of butter used in Indian cooking) at the statues of gods to seek their favor. Tibetans also have a tradition of making butter sculptures each New Year in the hope that it will bring peace and happiness.

6 / Turn a blind eye

Meaning: To purposely ignore something

Origin: During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the one-eyed British naval officer Horatio Nelson ignored his superior officer’s signal to withdraw by moving his telescope to his bad eye and saying, “I really do not see the signal”. Nelson went on to win the battle.

7 / Once in a blue moon

Meaning: Something that happens rarely

Origin: A blue moon refers to when we see a full moon twice in one calendar month-not the moon’s color. This phenomenon occurs every two or three years. Some people believe “blue” may come from the obsolete “belewe,” which meant “to betray.” A betrayer moon was an additional full moon that appeared in the spring that meant Catholics would have to fast for an additional month during Lent.

We had a blue moon at the end of July, so it will be a while until the next one.

8 / Spill the beans

This has nothing to with lentils…

Meaning: To let a secret out

Origin: In ancient Greece, people would cast votes by placing black or white beans in a jar. If someone spilled the jar, the outcome of the election would be revealed prematurely.

9 / Bite the bullet

Origin: In the olden days, when doctors were short on anesthesia or time during a battle, they would ask the patient to bite down on a bullet to distract from the pain. The first recorded use of the phrase was in 1891 in The Light that Failed.

This is just a quick look at some commonly used sayings. These all stem from historical events, legends, important figures, and religion for the basis of many of these expressions. They are still “going strong” on todays everyday language.

10 / What’s your favourite idiom?

Do you know where it comes from? Please share in the comments.

cracking up, chuckle, cackle on the world wide web

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How do you haha? LOL through the ages

Lauren Collister, University of Pittsburgh

Laughter is uniquely human. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes uncontrollable, we laugh out loud to signal our reaction to a range of occurrences, whether it’s a response to a joke we hear, an awkward encounter or an anxious situation. The way we laugh is, according to anthropologist Munro S Edmonson, a “signal of individuality.”

And an outburst of laughter is an important enough part of communication that we represent it in text.

In a recent The New Yorker article, Sarah Larson wrote about laughter in internet-based communication – the use of hahaha and hehehe, even the jovial hohoho.

Larson writes, “The terms of e-laughter – ‘ha ha,’ ‘ho ho,’ ‘hee hee,’ ‘heh’ – are implicitly understood by just about everybody. But, in recent years, there’s been an increasingly popular newcomer: ‘hehe.’”

However, even before texting and online chatting, textual representations of laughter – most of which have onomatopoeic forms – have appeared in writing since Chaucer’s time.

Like all language, it has merely evolved with our culture and adapted to new technology, becoming in the process far more nuanced – much like the true “spoken” laughter it’s intended to represent.

A brief history of laughter

In her 2011 book Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, Observation, Interpretation, linguist Sali Tagliamonte shares three historical examples of laughter in literature.

Page 340 from Variationist Sociolinguistics (click to zoom).

As Tagliamonte shows, hehe is not exactly a new invention: it appears in a Latin grammar book written by Ælfric of Eynsham in about 1000 AD. Haha appears in Chaucer 300 years later, while ha, ha, he can be found in the works of Shakespeare.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows users to search for words and phrases in all of the books that Google has scanned, it is evident that hehe – along with haha and hohohas been in use for quite some time.

A Google Ngram graph depicts the prevalence of laughter in text through the centuries (click to zoom).
Author provided

If you look closely at the examples from this search, you’ll see a number of misreads of the text by the search function (for example, hehe is often confused with the name of the Greek goddess Hebe). However, you’ll also see texts from plays and scripts, along with dialogue in novels and even dictionaries of other spoken languages. All of these representations of laughter are connected to words being spoken out loud.

The evolution of LOL

Words like haha and hehe have traditionally been used to represent actual laughter in text, whether in response to a joke or to indicate nervousness or awkwardness.

Only in recent years have various acronyms arisen to represent laughter in text. From ROFL (Rolls On Floor Laughing) to LMAO (Laughing My Ass Off) – and, of course, LOL – these acronyms have become increasingly popular as internet and online conversation has proliferated.

LOL is perhaps the most ubiquitous of these acronyms. According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the first recorded use of LOL is from the May 1989 edition of the FidoNews Newsletter (though some have disputed this).

Almost everyone who has typed these acronyms knows that don’t always represent physical laughter. As linguist David Crystal asked in his 2006 book Language and the Internet, “How many people are actually ‘laughing out loud’ when they send LOL?”

Not many. In one study of online teen language, researchers found that LOL is “used by our participants in the flow of conversation as a signal of interlocutor involvement, just as one might say mm-hm in the course of a conversation.”

And another linguist, John McWhorter, pointed out that LOL has changed from indicating real laughter to a signal of “basic empathy between testers” – in other words, a sign that you have read and acknowledged the message. It’s also a way to interject a bit of a casual flair to a conversation, much in the same way we might use a short laugh or a nod in face-to-face conversation.

So LOL – just like some of the basic laughs that it represents – doesn’t really mean any one thing in particular, but rather displays the speaker’s (or typer’s) attitude. In a sense, LOL works much in the same way emoticons and emoji do: when people send a smiley face, they may not actually be smiling; they simply want to convey that they’re feeling happy.

Just like the many variations of emoticons and emojis, so too are there many flavors of lol: the emphatic lololol, the sarcastic lolz and even lulz-seeking internet trolls.

Laughter signals individuality in text, too

What about haha, hehe, and hoho in our e-language? Returning to the online teen language study, researchers found that haha was the most widely used representation of laughter after LOL on instant message.

Hehe was the third most widely used form – and this one, they say, represented giggling. But what may be new are the connotations that hehe has taken on to differentiate itself from its competitors, haha and hoho.

For example, the users of hehe interviewed in The New Yorker article agree on the giggling aspect of hehe, but vary in whether they view it as friendly or conspiratorial: it all depends on how many E’s the word has.

Clearly, the connotations associated with each form seem to be as unique as the people using them. These variations give all the more support to Edmonson’s assertion from 1987 that our laughter is a sign of our individuality – even in text.

The Conversation

Lauren Collister, Electronics Publications Associate, University of Pittsburgh

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Celebrating four centuries of Shakespeare

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‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come’ – Hamlet

3211616890_f94356abe6_mShakespeare’s dreams have certainly continued over the past 400 years, and we couldn’t let the week pass without reflecting on his impact on modern communications.

How does an individual maintain such a dedicated fan base, such loyalty to their brand, for more than four centuries?

One reason, perhaps, is that his plays and sonnets are responsible for adding thousands of words and phrases to the English language – examples include: gloomy, lonely, majestic, reliance, hurry, leapfrog, excellent, tongue-tied, seen better days, fair play, foul play, dead as a doornail, my own flesh and blood, set your teeth on edge, without rhyme or reason, laughing stock, didn’t sleep a wink and if the truth were known. (Find more words here).

Love him or loathe him, he was a master of choosing the right word or phrase for the moment. He was a genius when it came to inventing totally surprising yet deeply evocative ways of saying things. He worked artfully with words, leaving you to feel and see the imagery he was creating. All without television.

Although we can only imagine the amazing work he could do with modern television.

Thinking back to year 12 English (gasp, no Literature Majors in the office today!), his plays underlying themes often deal with lies and sin, and the consequences of these behaviours. Think Macbeth. His plays are a looking glass into to the lives of others – much like a modern soap opera or reality TV program. We love to hate some characters. We want to see and know more about all characters – the good and the bad. Shakespeare touches on all great human emotions: love, hate, greed, honesty, selfishness, mercy, lust, power and justice to name a few.

400 years later we still talk about Shakespeare’s work, we study it at school and there have also been adaptions of his work into contemporary works. His characters have stood the test of time so well they have continued to see Shakespeare’s imprint on some of today’s most popular television shows and films.

Shakespeare’s characters full of depth, psychological mysteries and suspense have also continued to take their place on the modern stage.

A few examples:

  • Romeo and Juliet 1996 – featuring guns instead of swords. A baby-faced (now) Oscar winner Leonardo Decaprio
  • 10 Things I Hate about you 1999 – An adaption of The Taming of the Shrew – the ‘Shrew’ in this case being Julia Stiles.
  • Another Romeo and Juliet adaption: Sharks and Jets anyone? Capulets/Montagues. West Side Story basically takes the pressure between the star-crossed lovers from Romeo and Juliet and sets the story in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the ’50s, roll in costumes and super catchy music.

William Shakespeare is remembered for both his work and and what seems a great understanding of human nature.

To end. A favourite quote. Let’s see if you studied this one at school…

“Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” — Twelfth Night

Celebrating HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s latest milestone

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Official photograph from Buckingham Palace to mark ERII’s record-breaking reign

The 9th of September 2015 will be forever noted in the history books as the day Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history; passing the record set by her great-great-grandmother Victoria and marking day 23,226 of her reign – and counting. That’s long in such an old institution.

Buckingham Palace released an official photograph of the occasion – so it must be big. But the Queen let it be known to the public that it should in no way be an exceptional day, she did not want a fuss to be made.

The Queen may not want a fuss, but if the British papers and the state of Twitter is anything to go by – people are latching onto this record-breaking reign and giving it the recognition it deserves. It would be hard for ER II not celebrate a little, given PM David Cameron mentioned the occasion in cabinet on Monday.

The Queen ascended the throne at age 25, upon the death of her father in February 1952. We thought we’d use this occasion to look at how communication has changed from the royals, and how the transition from the handwritten letter to instant tweets can alert us to changes and events.

The Guardian printed a great article this week about how The foundations for Queen’s record reign were set by Victoria. If you don’t get a chance to read it, here are some royal takeaways:

  • Pictures of the royals have always been popular – from the very formal to the paparazzi storm that seems to surround the family – and social media has just added to the thirst for snaps of the Royals and their corgies.
  • In Queen Victoria’s reign and during the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s, big royal events such as weddings were semi-private affairs, seen only by the privileged few. Now they tend to run like clockwork – the media is invited, events are normally televised and the Royal family is out and about to be seen.
  • The Royal family and their role in politics has evolved – QEII is seen as a trusted advisor to government decision making rather than having strong opinions or viewpoints in any direction. You can’t manufacture that sort of institutional knowledge.

Cheers to the Queen on her record reign,

Jack and the c word crew

PS. I wonder when she started the countdown? 23,200 …. cross … 23, 226 TICK!