Bill's Pearls Of Wisdom

TO Where Did That Come From

Next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temp isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be... Here are some facts about the 1500s.

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and were still smelling pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body Odor. Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it, hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pet dogs, cats and other small animals: mice, rats bugs - lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs."

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That is how canopy beds came into existence. The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying "Dirt Poor."

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entryway, hence a -"Threshold."

They cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been in there for a quite a while, hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth and that a man "Could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "Chew the fat."

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood, with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms got into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, one would get "Trenchmouth."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the "Upper Crust."

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up, hence the custom of holding a "Wake."

England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a house and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "Graveyard Shift") to listen for the bell, thus, someone could be "Saved by the bell," or was considered a "Dead Ringer."

The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.

There was once a storyteller who told many people of her life. They listened and heard their own stories in hers. Hearing her story, they didn't feel so lonely anymore. Hearing about someone else who had lost things and people she loved, who had felt lonely, scared, and unsure of herself, let them feel less crazy when similar things happened to them.

Because of the healing they felt through hearing someone else's story, some of the listeners decided to become storytellers themselves. As they recounted their stories, they found that letting out secrets that had bothered them for years freed them to feel good about who they were and who they had always wanted to be. What secrets can I share today?


The abbreviation for 1 pound (lb.) comes from the astrological sign Libra,meaning balance?

If you took a standard slinky and stretched it out it would measure 87 feet

1/100th of a second is called a "jiffy?"

There are 1,929,770,126,028,800 different color combinations possible on a Rubik's Cube?

The oldest known goldfish lived to 41 years of age. Its name was Fred.

America's first nudist organization was founded in 1929, by 3 men.

A Saudi Arabian woman can get a divorce if her husband doesn't give her coffee.

Einstein couldn't speak fluently when he was nine. His parents thought he might be retarded.

In 1983, a Japanese artist made a copy of the Mona Lisa completely out of toast.

In 1984, a Canadian farmer began renting ad space on his cows.

An average person laughs about 15 times a day.

The average person is about a quarter of an inch taller at night.

There is a town in Newfoundland, Canada called Dildo.

Kotex was first manufactured as bandages, during WWI.

The condom-made originally of linen-was invented in the early 1500s.

The first-known contraceptive was crocodile dung, used by Egyptians in 2000 B.C.

The Neanderthal's brain was bigger than yours is.

The average bank teller loses about $250 every year.

Every person has a unique tongue print.

Women's hearts beat faster than men's.

Only 55% of all Americans know that the sun is a star.

Most American car horns honk in the key of F.

About 70% of Americans who go to college do it just to make more money.

Sigmund Freud had a morbid fear of ferns.

Most lipstick contains fish scales.

Hypnotism is banned by public schools in San Diego.

The three best-known western names in China: Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, and Elvis Presley.

27% of U.S. male college students believe life is "a meaningless existential hell."

Thomas Edison was afraid of the dark.

"Kemo Sabe" means "soggy shrub" in Navajo.

Subject: Language Trivia

Here's some language trivia for you. Let's face it -- English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fig, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese?

One index, 2 indices?

Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn't a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

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The Story Of The English Language

The English language is derived from Germanic , which is derived from Indo-European , but it is not definitely known how, when, or even where Indo-European began. Ever since the Elizabethan Age the number of people speaking English as their first language, or mother tongue, has grown rapidly. Today, however, several languages are adding speakers at a faster rate--Spanish will soon have more speakers than English.

Nevertheless, the situation and prospects enjoyed by English have never seemed better. For several years now English has been accepted in virtually every part of the world as the preferred second language--the language that two people will turn to when they cannot understand each other's tongue. It is no accident that the leaders of France and Germany speak to each other in English, and the English language shows no signs of losing its international preeminence.


English carries the story of its origin as an independent language in its name. The "Engl-" part of the word goes back to the Angles, a Germanic tribe that invaded and colonized much of Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries. The "-ish" part means "belonging to": in this case, the language that belonged to the Angles--the "Angle-ish" language.

The Angles lived in northern Germany alongside a number of kindred tribes, including the Saxons and the Jutes. Beginning about the year 450, members of these three tribes, joining in the widespread barbarian migrations that marked the end of the western Roman Empire, crossed the North Sea to find new homes in Britain. For the next 50 or 60 years the would-be colonizers, aided by reinforcements, fought with the original inhabitants of the island, the Britons, and pushed them back to the north and west into present-day Scotland and Wales. The territory that Angles, Saxons, and Jutes thus carved out for themselves can be called the land of the Anglo-Saxons, or, for short, "Angle-land"--England. Similarly, their language can be called Anglo-Saxon or OLD ENGLISH.

The Britons spoke one of the closely related languages termed Celtic. CELTIC LANGUAGES spoken today include Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic, all found in Great Britain, and Breton, the native language of Brittany, on the northwest coast of France. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a form of Germanic. Both Celtic and Germanic have a common source language, Indo-European. By the 5th century, however, speakers of these two branches of Indo-European would have been totally unintelligible to each other.

At first the Anglo-Saxons who went to Britain continued to speak the same tongue as their cousins whom they had left behind in northern Germany. With each passing generation, however, the speech patterns of the two peoples, now separated by the North Sea, grew less and less alike. After a while it could be said that they spoke different dialects of the same language--much as today the inhabitants of Montreal and Paris speak different dialects of French. Finally, at that time (probably during the 7th century or even later) when the Anglo-Saxons and the people of Germany could no longer understand each other, the English language came into its own: the Anglo-Saxons spoke English--Old English to be precise--and the people of Germany spoke early forms of the German language.

Old English

Present-day English descends directly from the speech of the Anglo-Saxons. English has, however, changed so much during the course of the past thousand years that today Old English seems like a foreign tongue to us. The Norman Conquest explains many of the shifts in vocabulary that have taken place since the time of the Anglo-Saxons. Before 1066 only a handful of words had been borrowed from French; since then, tens of thousands of French words have entered the English language. Instead of the Germanic word rice (compare present-day German Reich), we might say "realm," "dominion," "region," or "possessions," all of which are French loanwords that first appeared in English during the course of the 13th and 14th centuries.

William the Conqueror and his French-speaking court influenced English mostly from the top down. The vast majority of the inhabitants of England continued to speak English after the Conquest, although Henry IV, who succeeded Richard II on the throne in 1399, was the first king since Harold II whose mother tongue was English rather than French. It is not surprising that our words veal, beef, mutton, and pork for the prepared meats that would have been eaten by the Normans inside their castles are all of French origin, while our names calf, ox, sheep, and swine for the corresponding animals raised and slaughtered by the English-speaking farmers outside the castle walls are all of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Despite the many French loanwords, English remained English, not a dialect of French. English grammar, as opposed to vocabulary, remained virtually unaffected by French, and grammatical developments that had begun much earlier during Anglo-Saxon times continued without interruption through the Conquest. Even today it is still obvious that the grammatical structure of English resembles that of German far more than it resembles that of French.

Middle English

Although 1066 in no way marks a change of languages for the people of England, the date nonetheless serves as a convenient divider between two periods of English: Old English and MIDDLE ENGLISH. Middle English is characterized both by its greater French vocabulary and, more importantly, by the loss of inflections. By the close of the Middle English period, however, only two of these inflections remained in use: -es for plural nouns (descended from -as) and the past tense marker -ed (from -od). The poet Geoffrey CHAUCER, for example, who died in the year 1400, was no longer able to indicate by means of the inflection -ne that the phrase urne . . . hlaf was a direct object even though it preceded its verb sele ("give"). Chaucer's equivalent phrase, our loof--like present-day English "our loaf" (or "our bread")--could function either as a subject or as an object. To show that the phrase was the object in a sentence, Chaucer, like us, had to place it after the verb.

Effect of Printing on English

The year 1476, a date not nearly so well remembered as 1066, was every bit as important for the English language. Just as the earlier date can serve as a dividing line between Old English and Middle English, the later date is often used to separate conveniently Middle English from the third and most recent period of our language, Modern English. In 1476 the first English printer, William CAXTON, set up his press in London. Previously, spelling had changed to reflect changes in pronunciation. Printing froze spelling: we spell essentially the way Caxton did. The Anglo-Saxons wrote hlaf because they pronounced the h; Chaucer wrote loof or lof because he no longer did so. Although we say "nite", we write knight because Caxton still pronounced both the k at the beginning of the word and the gh, which sounded something like the ch in the present-day Scottish pronunciation of loch or in the German word ich.

Printing had a decisive effect on spelling because until the development of printing all books were copied by hand. Each copy of a book was spelled differently because no two copyists or scribes spoke in exactly the same manner. (If this seems strange, consider how a person with a New York City accent might spell the word earl, if he or she had not been taught otherwise: oil.) Thus, when Caxton began to turn out dozens or even hundreds of virtually identical copies of a book, his spelling system at once became familiar all over England. Because their readers were accustomed to Caxton's spellings, his immediate successors decided to adapt these spellings for their books. Aside from occasional modifications and reforms, printers have followed the same spelling system ever since--that of Caxton's late-15th-century London.

Pronunciation Shifts

Two far-reaching changes in pronunciation that had nothing to do with the introduction of the printing press also took place in the 15th century: the loss of final unaccented e, and what is called the great vowel shift--a series of changes in the pronunciation of the long stressed vowels. The loss of final e left Modern English with even fewer inflections than Middle English had. The great vowel shift explains many of the most striking differences between Chaucer's pronunciation of English and ours.

In Middle English, plural adjectives--adjectives modifying plural nouns--ended in e. Singular adjectives, on the other hand, often remained uninflected. Thus Middle English cold dai but colde daies, with colde pronounced "cold-a." The loss of final e, however, brought about the Modern English situation, in which the adjective is never inflected: cold day and cold days.

Chaucer's speech had seven long vowels, which he pronounced as follows: his long a sounded like the vowel in present-day English "hat"; long open e, "air"; long closed e, "bay"; long i, "bee"; long open o, "oar"; long closed o, "go"; long u, "do." During the course of the 15th century, however, all seven vowels came to be pronounced differently. The pair of vowels i (pronounced "ee") and u (pronounced "oo") vocalized at the top of the mouth broke into diphthongs or "double vowels." Chaucer pronounced "by" the way we pronounce "bee," and he pronounced "cow" the way we pronounce "coo." His ee and oo sounds broke into the diphthongs a-ee and a-oo (one can hear the two diphthongs by pronouncing "by" and "cow" slowly and carefully). The other five Middle English long vowels all moved up the mouth: a, open e, and closed e moved up the front of the mouth, and open o and closed o moved up the back. Closed e and closed o took the positions vacated by i and u; open e and open o began to be pronounced the way their closed counterparts had been pronounced; and a became pronounced as open e had been. Thus, for example, Chaucer pronounced "do" with the vowel sound we use in "go," and "bee" with the vowel now given to "bay."

English Today

The Modern English period has already lasted longer than either of its predecessors. Middle English covers the 410 years from the Battle of Hastings to the first book printed in England; Old English goes from 1066 until that time, almost certainly no earlier than the 7th century, when the Anglo-Saxons could no longer understand their German cousins. One cannot know what future event or even what kind of event--a war, an invention, or something else--will mark the end of Modern English and usher in a new era for the language.

Of course it is possible that a new period of English has already begun without our realizing it. Centuries passed before anyone realized the full linguistic significance of the years 1066 and 1476. Specifically, a fourth, "post-Modern" period of English may have originated in 1876 or 1877 with Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone and Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the phonograph. These machines, along with a few others that have followed--radio, talking pictures, television--were able to do for the spoken word what the printing press did for the written word. Before 1876, speakers could be heard only by those within earshot; now, however, a speaker may have a virtually unlimited audience, situated anywhere on the Earth or even in outer space.

Just as printing standardized spelling, one result of the latest communications breakthrough has been a leveling of differences in the pronunciation of English. People no longer hear the speech only of those from their own neighborhood or village. Instead, a whole nation listens to the same newscasters every evening.

British English (the brand of English spoken in Great Britain) and American English (that spoken in the United States) diverged as soon as the American colonies were founded at the start of the 17th century. Nonetheless, because of the constant interchange of people and books across the ocean, American English never developed beyond being a dialect of English. With the advent of records, cinema, radio, and television, the two brands of English have even begun to draw back together again. Britons and Americans probably speak more alike today than they did 50 or 60 years ago.

Canadian English, Australian English, South African English, and the many other dialects of English scattered around the world are coming increasingly to resemble one another. Within each dialect area, subdialects are also losing their distinctive characteristics. Within the United States, for example, the speech of Northerners and Southerners is becoming less obviously distinctive.

Although the English language is becoming more uniform, this does not mean that it will come to a rest once all dialectal differences are gone. Languages never stop changing, and English is no exception. To take a well-known example: at present the indefinite or interrogative pronoun who seems to be in the process of assuming all the functions once reserved for the inflected form whom. In time everyone, even pedants, may give up saying, "Whom do you wish to see?"

English, once a highly inflected language--though never so inflected as Latin or Greek or many American Indian languages--is now largely uninflected. Unlike the m of whom, however, most of the few inflections that remain in English show no signs of fading: -s for plural and possessive singular nouns, -s for the third person present singular of verbs (I want, but he wants), -ing for the present participle, -ed for the past tense and past participle. English also makes grammatical distinctions on the basis of the interior forms of words--sing, sang, sung, for example--and most of these distinctions likewise seem to be as alive as ever.

Less than four centuries ago, in Elizabethan times, English was spoken by no more than a few million people on a corner of one small island in the North Sea. Today it is the mother tongue of nearly a third of a billion people, and tens of millions of others use English as a second language. English nevertheless trails further than ever behind Chinese in number of speakers; and several other languages, notably Spanish, are now expanding more quickly than English. Still, even if it never becomes the world's native tongue, English is already in a real sense the international language. Whether for business, diplomacy, science, or the arts, people everywhere choose English to secure the widest possible audience.

The preeminence of English is not, however, due to any special excellence of grammar or structure. In fact, English is often considered a difficult language to learn because of its many irregularities or exceptions to the rules. The past tense of bite is bit, for example, but the past of sit is sat, and the past of cite is cited.

English has a larger vocabulary than any other language; and because it is the world language, words newly coined or in vogue in one language are very often added to English as well. A recent instance is the word detente, taken from French. Thus present-day speakers of English have become managers of a sort of international clearinghouse for words, while remaining guardians of their own mother tongue with its great history and traditions.


The American language is the name given to the type of English spoken in the United States. American English has dialects of its own--the speech of the South, for instance--but all of its dialects share enough characteristics so that the English found in the United States as a whole can be distinguished from that of other countries, such as Great Britain or Australia.

Until the middle of the 20th century, many commentators believed that the American language would grow increasingly distinct, until it bore a relation to British English similar to the relationship between Portuguese and Spanish, or Norwegian and Danish. Lately, however, American and British English are clearly beginning to converge. The most apparent reason for the convergence is the immense influence of the electronic media, but each country has also become more willing to borrow linguistic features from the other.

The essential difference between current American and British English is probably in intonation--an elusive quality consisting of voice timbre, pitch, sentence rhythm and stress. Almost no syntactical differences are evident between American and British English, and comparatively few differences exist in vocabulary, pronunciation, or spelling. The British, however, do say rubber instead of eraser, and vest instead of undershirt. They also drop their r's before consonants--pronouncing lord as laud, for example--and spell honour, colour, and many other words with -our instead of -or.


Among the first Americanisms--words or usages found in the United States but not in Great Britain--were the names coined to describe the new animals, plants, and landscape features that the British settlers found in North America. Raccoon was borrowed from Algonquian, prairie from French; foothill was a new compound forged from two familiar English words. Later, terms such as presidential, congress, and gubernatorial were applied to the newly established American political institutions.

The British had no objection to the use of neologisms to describe new phenomena. From the middle of the 18th century, however, they did object, often vehemently, to other kinds of Americanisms. The writer and lexicographer Samuel JOHNSON, for instance, denounced to wobble, to budge, and fun, because, in his opinion, English already possessed words adequate to express these ideas.

Americans fought back, however. Noah WEBSTER believed that words and usages should be evaluated on their own merits, not on the basis of their place of origin. His American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) included thousands of new words, old words with new meanings, new pronunciations, and new spellings--solely on the grounds that they were all used by educated American speakers. It was Webster who insisted on -or instead of -our in words like honour; who took the k off the end of words like musick and traffick; and who substituted the suffix -er for -re in words like centre.

David Yerkes

Bibliography: Baugh, Albert C., and Cable, Thomas, A History of the English Language, 3d ed. (1978); Chapman, Robert L., ed., New Dictionary of American Slang (1986); Claiborn, R., Our Marvelous Native Tongue: The Life and Times of the English Language (1983); Dillard, J. L., Black English (1972); Gordon, James D., The English Language: An Historical Introduction (1972); Greenough, James B., and Kittredge, George L., Words and Their Ways in English Speech (1901; repr. 1962); Jesperson, O., Growth and Structure of the English Language, 10th ed. (1982); Jones, Charles, An Introduction to Middle English (1972); Kispert, Robert J., Old English: An Introduction (1971); Krapp, George Philip, The English Language in America, 2 vols. (1925); Marckwardt, Albert H., American English, 2d ed. (1980); McCrum, R., et al., The Story of English (1986); Mencken, H. L., The American Language, rev. ed. (1963; repr. 1977); Orkin, M. M., Speaking Canadian English (1971); Pyles, Thomas, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 3d ed. (1982); Stageberg, Norman C., An Introductory English Grammar, 4d ed. (1981); Tucker, Susie I., English Examined: Two Centuries of Comment on the Mother-Tongue (1961; repr. 1974); Turner, G. W., The English Language in Australia and New Zealand (1966); Wilson, K., Van Winkle's Return: Change in American English, 1966-1986 (1987); Wrenn, C. L., The English Language (1949; repr. 1977).

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