Money for old rope – literally

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The phrase ‘money for old rope’ stems from the days of public hangings, according to a game I was playing at the weekend. Actually I know that story’s up for debate but I like it so I’m going to believe it.

Legend goes that ghoulish spectators wanted to buy pieces of the rope used for the hanging as a sort of souvenir and it was regarded as a perk of the job for the hangman to sell it.

Another explanation has it that workers in the workhouse were given used and damaged rope to pick apart to salvage the good stuff to be spun into new rope. Possible but not nearly as interesting a story so I’m afraid I’m going to dismiss it in favour of the ‘hanging’ version. Any thoughts?

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Do you know about Bowler Hat?

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Actually I don’t mean do you know about Bowler Hat Media, the agency, but do you know about bowler hat, the hat? I confess I didn’t until just now when I was looking though a new book I bought the other day, Bloomers, Biros & Wellington Boots – How the Names Became the Words.

It talks about the famous one we all know, for example – Hoover – which is a word many of us tend to use for a vacuum cleaner but was in fact handed down by Henry Hoover who invented a contraption to suck up dirt so should really only be applied to that specific brand.

Bloomers, biros and wellington boots are similarly named after their inventors and, I was surprised, to see, so is the bowler hat. Well, sort of – I’m not sure how convinced I am about this one. I thought the hat got its name from being bowl-shaped but the book maintains that bowler is a derivative of Beaulieu, the surname of feltmakers Thomas and William who were involved in its production.

This book by Andrew Sholl is full of gems and some others I liked  were:

  • mentor – in Greek mythology Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus who acted as an adviser to his son;
  • plimsolls – English politician Samuel Plimsoll (late 19th century) campaigned against unsafe conditions at sea. He became known as the sailor’s friend and gave his name to new rubber-soled footwear introduced on boats;
  • mesmerise – Austrian physician Frank Mesmer used hypnosis as a therapy back in the 18th century and gave his name to the word;
  • galvanise – Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy in Italy discovered that frogs’ legs would move and twitch when they came into contact with metal during a thunderstorm;
  • biro – it was Lazlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, who hit upon the idea of a pen with a steel ball to control the ink flow and he registered his first patent in 1943;
  • bloomers – womens rights campaigner Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94) saw the baggy knickers as good, comfy wear for women;
  • wellington boots – it was the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who made them popular and gave them his name.

It got me thinking, what legacy have I left that should be named after me in years to come? But, you see, there’s a major flaw in that thought, nobody can pronounce the name, Lefebve and that includes some of my own family…..

Why a dead ringer’s a dead ringer!

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I love finding out the origin of phrases and ‘dead ringer’ is a pretty spectacular one, to say the least.

A ‘dead ringer’ is somebody who looks very much like someone else and the expression stems back to Medieval Ages. Back in the day medical science wasn’t what it is now and when someone seemed to have stopped breathing, medics weren’t terribly sure that they were actually dead. Ridiculous as this may sound, the poor sickly person was buried anyway, rather than clutter up the place! To be fair, it’s thought that comas weren’t understood at that time and that could be one of the reasons that people were thought to be lifeless.

Often bodies were exhumed and corpses were found with their fingers literally worn down to the bone and the insides of coffin lids scratched silly by the poor people, who had regained consciousness, trying to escape. So nightmarish was this vision that the gentry began to bury their loved ones with a string attached to their wrist, connected to a bell – and should the medics have the diagnosed death wrongly, the prematurely buried body could ring for attention.

It sounds like a bit of a pantomime but it actually worked and many bodies were dug up and returned to where they belonged (above ground).

As the freshly-exhumed went about their normal life, though, they shocked acquaintances who thought they were dead. Friends would wonder: ‘That looks like Fred Smith – he was buried last month’ and then they’d figure ‘Oh, he must be a dead ringer.’ And, of course, they would have been right!

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