Peacocks!

PeacockSpring is advancing which means that in villages and stately homes across the length and breadth of the British Isles the mournful cry of the peacock will start to ring out, followed by various news stories about how bad-tempered and/or exhausted peacocks have been causing havoc. Last year there was Kevin, a mischievous peacock causing mayhem in a Derbyshire village, then we heard about Henry the peacock who was so tired of being the only male in a flock of peahens (exhausting work!) that he flew away for some rest.

The peacock is a familiar sight at many of our stately homes in the UK. This one was displaying Peacock 1 for us at Corsham Court in Wiltshire when we visited. The peacock is a native bird to India and was probably introduced into Britain by the Romans. It has many sacred connotations. The name derives from the Old English and the earliest example of it referred to in writing comes from 1300: “Foure and xxti wild ges and a poucock.” In the 14th century Chaucer first used the word to describe ostentatious people who strutted about and it still carries this meaning to this day. In art a peacock feather in a painting was used as a symbol of pride and vanity.

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An Apple A Day…

Red_AppleA few weeks ago Wench Joanna celebrated oranges and lemons
in a blog post. Today, as Apple Day approaches in the UK, I thought I would
talk about apples. Apples are like reverse oranges and lemons; they aren’t
rare, they aren’t generally exotic although these days some apples have been developed especially for their exotic look and taste, and they will grow just about anywhere in
the UK. Yet until the 18th century most eating apples were
considered luxuries and sold mainly in London. It was the humble cooking apple
that was a staple of the ordinary man and woman’s day-to-day diet, which was
why it was particularly important to store apples correctly so that they would
last over the winter. Chaucer, in The Cook’s Tale, laments
the way that one rotten apple can turn the entire barrel and this was pretty important when the apple was a fundamental source of food.

Apples have a rich and varied mythology. Greek and Roman mythology refer to them as symbols of love
and beauty but equally they have a bad side. Although the bible does not
specify that it was an apple that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden, referring to
it only as fruit, an apple has often been used to depict the forbidden fruit.  Apples also get a bad reputation in some fairy
tales, most notably in Snow White. In Arthurian legend the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur is laid to rest, translates as the Isle of Apples. The Swiss National hero William Tell was said to have shot
an apple off his son’s head with a crossbow in order to ransom both their
lives. The symbolism and mythology of apples is everywhere, perhaps because of
their satisfying shape, perhaps because they are everyday items yet beautiful.

The arrival of the apple

Apples arrived in Europe from the Tien-Shan Mountains of
China, accompanying traders along the Silk
Apples Road. Homer’s Odyssey mentions
apples and apple orchards. Whilst there is some evidence that apples actually
grew wild in England during the Neolithic period it was the Romans who brought
the cultivated varieties to England – (apples, rabbits, carrots, parsley, feet and inches…That’s
what the Romans did for us!) The apple was particularly valued because all of it is edible, even the pips and core. However too many apple pips can be fatal as they contain a cyanide compound.



The Costermonger

Many Roman villas had their own orchards. These were
abandoned after the Romans left England in AD 383 but the apple flourished in
the wild and King Alfred the Great was the first to mention English apples in a
document of 885 AD. The Normans brought with them new, improved flavours and
the orchards of medieval monasteries grew apples of the variety Costard, from
which the word costermonger, an apple seller, comes. Costard was a cooking
apple. It’s counterpart as an eating apple was the variety Old English, which
is recorded as far back as 1204.

Costermonger 1631Costermongers are first mentioned in the 17th
century and they developed their role from apple sellers to being all-purpose
fruit sellers on the streets of Regency and Victorian cities. They would use a loud sing-song chant to attract attention
and would generally sell their fruit from a hand cart or basket. (Hence the
phrase “don’t upset the apple cart” which was first used in the late 18th
century). Costermongers gained a fairly unsavoury reputation for their
"low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, total want of
education, disregard for lawful marriage ceremonies, and their use of a
peculiar slang language." 

The Queene Apple

You often hear about the great devastation caused by the
plague the Black Death in 14th century
Old apples England; it’s a little
known fact that it wiped out apples too because there were so few people left
to cultivate the stock. A series of droughts in the Middle Ages put orchards
under further strain and the Wars of the Roses finished them off. It was Henry
VII who was the unlikely saviour of the English apple. He instructed his royal
fruiterer, Richard Harris, to establish large-scale orchards in Kent. The most
common apple in the Tudor period was called The Queene after Elizabeth of York,
Henry’s wife.

The Gravity Tree

WoolsthorpeA couple of years ago I visited Woolsthorpe Hall in Lincolnshire where Isaac
Newton is said to have formulated his law of gravity when an apple either fell on his head
or he saw one falling from the tree. The orchard at Woolsthorpe still contains
the variety of apple that supposedly fell on Newton from what is now know as
the “tree of gravity.” It’s a pretty amazing thing to stand there and look at
those apples and think about the role they played in scientific discovery!

The New World Apple

Meanwhile, over the other side of the Atlantic, the Pilgrim
Fathers discovered that there weren’t many edible apples around. The
Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England and other
settlers brought apple stock to Virginia and the South West. The first apple orchard in North America was planted in 1625 by Reverend William Blaxton but it is probably John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, who was the most famous pioneer nurseryman for the apple, planting nurseries rather than orchards across a number of states.

Regency Pips 

The most famous pip of the English Georgian period was planted in 1809 when Mary Ann Brailsford grew an apple tree that was to become
the mother of all Bramley apples. This was a very useful cooking apple as it worked well in pies, desserts, chutneys, jellies and cider making. By this period almost every farm from Northumberland to Cornwall had an orchard. Labourers were paid in cider right up until the end of the 19th century. 

Such was the reputation of Oxfordshire’s famous 1818 Kempster Pippin apple, which was developed into
220px-Deutsche_Pomologie_-_Aepfel_-_036 the Blenheim Orange variety (which is confusing!) that coaches would stop at Woodstock to allow people to glimpse the apple trees and thieves would shin over the orchard wall at night to steal some wood to graft! Here's a Blenheim Orange on the right.

Traditions

Unlike exotic fruits, which can only survive the British climate in a hothouse, apples flourish here, and apple trees still grow wild in the hedgerows. The number of customs and games that we have created around the apple echoes the importance it has had in our lives. Bobbing for apples used to be a traditional Halloween game when I was a child. I can't say I enjoyed putting my face in a bowl of water in an attempt to catch a fruit but it was a custom that went back centuries. 

And that brings us on to cider.  In England we have the Normans to thank once again for popularising cider drinking and the medieval monasteries enthusiastically applied themselves to cider production. To this day the UK is the largest cider-drinking nation in the world.

Cider wassailI'm a big fan of cider and when we lived in Somerset 20 years ago we enthusiastically
took part in the old tradition of the cider wassail, first recorded in 1585.
This was a ceremony of drinking a toast to the apple trees in the hope that
they would give a good harvest the following year. I wrote my first traditional
Regency, True Colours, when I was living in Somerset and I included a cider
wassail in the story. In the Regency period as well as marching to the orchard
and raising a glass of cider to toast the health of the harvest it was also the
custom to loose off several rounds of ammunition in order to scare away any
evil spirits that might be lurking around the trees to put a blight on the
harvest. Needless to say, by the time we were taking part in the cider wassail
ceremony that element had been banned for health and safety reasons. In True
Colours and in my own experience the wassail was followed by a big barn dance
with mulled cider for refreshment and plougman's cheese, bread and pickle to go with it. A fine feast.

Tonight I'll be celebrating the apple harvest with a dish of monkfish served with potatoes, pancetta and cider. I heard a celebrity chef say recently that fish and fruit should never be served together but in this case I definitely make an exception to that rule! it's delicious.

Are you a fan of apples? Do you cook with them or enjoy apple juice or cider? And are there any apple-related traditions where you are?

Terms of Endearment

HeartNicola here, reflecting on the way in which people have
expressed their affection for each other over the centuries. I started thinking
about this last week when a reader asked me if my use of the endearment
“sweetheart” was authentic to the Regency period. I was pretty sure that the
word originated long before the 19th century but I ran to check my
dictionary anyway and found that sweetheart was first used in the 14th
century. (Back in the days when Henry VIII actually liked Anne Boleyn he called her sweetheart a lot.) "Darling" is even earlier usage, dating to before the 12th century. Evidently finding an affectionate term for a loved one is something people have been doing for a long, long time.

By coincidence, the BBC also published a list last week of the ten
most unusual endearments people choose to describe their beloved, so I
thought I would share some of those with you today and also talk a bit about
the historical background to terms of endearment.

 A Sweet Tooth

 Like sweetheart, the word honey has been used an endearment
since the fourteenth century. It derives
Honey from the Old English word “hunig” and
is also found as a term of endearment in many other languages. In the 16th
century a Scots poet romantically called his love a “honey sop” which is a
piece of bread soaked in honey. In the same verse he compared her to a “swete
posset” a drink made from hot milk curdled with ale, sugar and spice. That
might not sound very attractive to us but on a cold Scottish night it might be
just what you needed! 

Whilst honey in all its forms works as a complement in the
Germanic languages it doesn’t translate well into the French. If you call a French
person “miel” they may think you are suggesting that they are a bit of a sticky
mess. To endear yourself to the French, go for “chouchou” which literally means
“little cabbage.” This suggests something small and round and like a delicious
(chou) pastry.

 
PumpkinIn South American Portuguese the word “chuchu” means a
squash and the word “chuchuzinho,” little squash, is a term of affection in
Brazil. I suppose this is pretty close to pumpkin!

It was not only sweets and vegetables that were used to
express love in the past. In Chaucer’s day it was complimentary to compare
someone to some of the more attractive spices. In the Miller’s Tale he wrote: “My faire bryd, my swete
cynemome.” Spices were expensive and exotic in Chaucer's day – pretty special, in fact – so being a stick of cinnamon was a real compliment! 

In A Pig’s Eye

Hard as it is to believe, the word “pigsnie” deriving from
pig’s eye, was once a term of great
Pigsnie admiration. I first came across the word
pigsnie used affectionately when I read The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis.
Again, this dates back to the time of Chaucer who wrote admiringly: “She was a prymerole, (primrose) a
pigggesnye, for any lord to leggen in his bed.”

The Japanese also admire fine eyes and a particular
compliment in Japan is to call someone Tamago gata no kao, an egg with eyes, the classic
oval-shaped face being much admired in Japan.

Other Birds and animals

“Little dove” may be the earliest recorded term of
endearment there is, as it is mentioned in the Bible in the Song of Songs. “Oh
my dove… Let me see thy countenance.” Dove is still a term of affection in Russia
to this day. Interestingly the word “turtle” which was also used to mean
“lover” as early as the 16th century derives from turtle dove rather
than the turtle with the shell. This term was still popular in the 18th
century when Lady MW Montagu described a ball where there were “several couple of true turtles… saying
soft things to one another.”

ElephantMeanwhile it is the term chang noi, “little elephant,” that
is used affectionately in Thailand, elephants being the most prized of animals in Thai culture. 

When I was growing up in the North of England I was
frequently called “pet.” This northern term of endearment is very old and was
found only in Scotland and the North of England until the mid 18th
century when it started to spread south. Comparing your loved one to a favourite
tamed animal is very cute, furry and cuddly.

 Some terms of affection have sinister origins, however. The
word “poppet” originated in the 1300s as a small human figure used in sorcery.
Its usage had changed by the late 14th century to also mean a small and
dainty person.

Shakespeare’s Sweet Chuck

ChickShakespeare contributed a great many words and phrases to
the language and so it is only appropriate that he should have given us some
fine terms of endearment. In Romeo and Juliet the nurse calls Juliet a
ladybird. Then there is “sweet chuck,” an ancient variant on “chicken.” Chuck
is still used affectionately in the north of England, and chicken was another endearment I heard a lot when I was growing up.

 Less attractive to our modern taste, perhaps, is the comparison of a loved one to a bat or “flitter-mouse.”  Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, used this term of endearment in a play published in 1610. The heroine was so touched to be compared with a bat that she kissed the hero!

Jane Austen's Restraint

Jane Austen did not show intimate scenes between characters so it is not surprising that her characters
Mrs Elton are so seldom demonstrative in their use of language. The occasional use of the word "dear" and the reference to a spouse by their formal name is about as affectionate as they get. The only character who
appears to be addicted to terms of endearment is Isabella Thorpe in Northanger
Abbey who calls Catherine Morland “dearest, sweetest Catherine.” Isaballa's terms of endearment are empty of true affection. Jane also
pokes fun at Mrs Elton whose use of the term “caro sposo,” “dear husband” seems
pretentious and flowery given the restraint with which the other characters
speak.

Some endearments that sound modern to us actually have
origins much earlier than you might imagine. I had no idea that “baby” was
first recorded as a term of endearment back in 1839. Even bunny, with or without the snuggle, dates back to the 1680s in Scotland! 

Do you have a favourite term of endearment? Or one you can't stand? Has anyone ever called you "my little marmoset"? Are there unusual local terms of endearment used where you live? (Just out of interest, the word "Wench" originated as a wanton woman but by the 1580s had become a tem of endearment meaning sweetheart!)

Mind your language – A (very) short history of swearing!

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here. Those readers who do not like profanity may wish to look away now, as this blog post carries an 18 certificate! Today I am writing a little about the history of swearing. I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty I had in trying to work out how to illustrate this blog with pictures.

Swearing, profanity and vulgar slang is a complicated subject. It’s one of those topics that can divide the British and the Americans, with certain words meaning quite different things depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. Mention a fanny pack to a Brit or an Australian, for example, and you will get a blank look at best and possibly a far more extreme reaction. As the online dictionary says when defining the word fanny: “Serious misunderstandings may arise…”

 Taking the name of the lord in vain

 If we go back to the Tudor and Stuart periods we find that swearing was mainly a religious issue. Just as taking an oath was to call upon God to guarantee the truth of a statement (so help me God), profane swearing took God’s name in vain. Then as now, some individuals tried to shock by transgressing against the accepted standards of the age. It was also a way to show one’s worldliness and social standing – showing off, in fact. The dissolute libertines of the Restoration court were very free with their profanities, using oaths such as “damn me”, “God’s wounds” or “By Our Lady” in an attempt to get a horrified reaction from the more god-fearing members of society.

Swearing was equally as common amongst the lower social classes and wherever The libertine men in particular were gathered, for example in the army or at labour. At male-dominated social events it was likely that “several volleys of execrable oaths,” to quote one disapproving gentleman, would resound from all sides. Moralists saw the rise of religious swearing as a sign of the decline in society. Protestants were keen to stamp out the Catholic oaths. Between 1603 and 1820 in England, laws were passed criminalising swearing with the punishment being a fine or some time in the stocks. Slowly, however, attitudes changed towards the religious profane oath so that words such as damn and even bloody, deriving of course from “by our lady”, came to be seen as less offensive than some other forms of swearing. Today in England damn is generally considered a very mild swear word indeed.

Meanwhile back in the Tudor and Stuart period, we have Shakespeare, master of the oath. He tended to make up his own insults rather than draw on the religious profane. Some examples from his plays: "Thou beslubbering, swag-bellied maggot pie." "Thou mewling, sheep-biting hugger mugger." "Thou yeasty, reeling, ripe bum-bailey." A bum-bailey was actually a bailiff or sheriff’s deputy in Shakespeare’s time but some scholars suggest he was giving the phrase other, more sexual, connotations as well.

Vile Bodies and their functions

Which brings us to swearing that is sexual or scatological in nature, and to the Anglo Saxons, who frequently get the blame for words which later came to be used in swearing. In fact many of these taboo words came into the English language from other sources. The origin of the f-word, for example, is disputed with some scholars suggesting that it derives from the old German ficken, to strike or penetrate, which in turn was related to the Latin for to prick. The verb futuere in Latin had the slang meaning of to copulate. A record of 1278 refers to a man named John LeFucker – one hopes this was not an instance of someone being named after their occupation – and the f word was in common usage in England by the 16th century. However it was not used in the vulgar sense until the 18th century.

Sard Swear words can fall from popularity as well as attain it. Back in the Middle Ages the word “sard” meant the same as the f-word but these days you never hear anyone muttering “sarding hell” when something goes wrong. Some words change usage or fade altogether. Today sard is a gemstone (pictured)!

The c-word is the last taboo in British English and again is derived from various Magpie Lane words in Old Norse, High German and Latin. The word appears to have entered the English language in the 13th century and both Oxford and London had districts called “Gropecunte Lane” in explicit recognition of the prostitutes who plied their trade there. The Oxford name was later changed to Magpie Lane, (in the picture of the right) and the London one to Threadneedle Street. It is now the home of the Bank of England…

Old berkshire hunt Interestingly the English insult “berk” also derives from the c-word, being Cockney rhyming slang for the “Old Berkshire Hunt.” This word was very popular in the 1970s and 80s but again has almost fallen out of usage now and I suspect many people who used it would have been appalled to have discovered its derivation.

The word sh1t is a true Anglo Saxon word. It appears in literature in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, but at this stage of its usage it was simply a word not a swear word. By the 18th century it was used in the vulgar sense, notably in Jonathan Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room, which contains the immortal lines:

“Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia…” (I’ll leave you to complete the rhyme!)

Finally I have to say a few words about the word “pish” as they call it in Scotland since it has such an Mannekin Pis interesting history. It’s origins are pissare (Latin) and pisser (French) and it has long been used as a vulgar word. In the 17th century a man who was considered full of himself would be called “p*ss-proud.” The new canting dictionary of 1725 sums it up in a derivation of ostentatious and vainglorious:

“One that boasts without reason or pisses more than he drinks.”

The illustration is the famous Belgian statue the Mannekin Pis in Brussels.

I could go on – there are many more swear words with interesting historical derivations and usage. But I’ll end with the news that the BBC is introducing swear words into its latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights, in order to give the book “a more contemporary feel.” This prompted one national UK newspaper to speculate on what it would be like if swearing was introduced into other classics such as Dickens Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the time when everything was totally, like, cr*p.”

Where do you stand on swearing in books? Do you think that the judicious use of profanity reflects society and can add something to the language or do you think we can do without it altogether? Would you like to invent your own profanities, like Shakespeare? Is there too much swearing around these days or is it all part of a rich cultural heritage?