Monday 9 October 2023

The Gift of Thrift


Start with something simple. We've got the verb give, which we all know, and the thing that you give is a gift. They're quite obviously related. This is Not Interesting.

Then you've got people who use the word gift as a verb, as in "I gifted it to him." That's a bit odd because it's verb to noun to verb again. But it's still pretty obvious.

Then you have the verb drive. And when the wind drives the snow into a pile that is a snowdrift, because the thing you drive is a drift. And when the wind and the waves drive a ship from its course, that movement is called the drift.

And then the noun drift can get turned into a verb and the boat starts drifting. It is the gift that keeps gifting.

And then you've got the verb thrive, meaning to prosper, flourish and generally quomodocunquize. And from that you get the noun thrift, but only because thrift used to mean wealth. Then its meaning wandered until it meant savings, and then the foolish habit of saving money, which is thrifty.

(I should point out that I always save all my money for a rainy day, but I live in England, so my savings don't last long.)

But that's why we still have spendthrift meaning someone who spends all their fortune.

And then you have sieve and sift, which has also been re-verbed to mean exactly the same thing. And just as gift relates to given and drift to driven, so rift relates to riven (although the connection there is much further back in the Norse). And even swift is related to swivel. The verb in between was swive/swifan which just meant to move. But then it became the standard medieval term for to have sex with, as in:

'For John,' said he, 'als ever moot I thrive, 

If that I may, yon wenche will I swive.

Swive was a bit rude, even then, and has since vanished, but swift and swivel remain. 

It's a bit like how true relates to truth, just as rue relates to ruth. Ruth is the opposite of ruthless. But we don't use ruth anymore, largely because Milton used it in the line:

Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth

And that's so beautiful that nobody will ever better it; even though, to modern ears, it sounds like an invitation from a woman with a raclette*. 

That's it. That's what I was driving at, if you catch my drift.

A bit rude

*Ruth's cooking is very interesting, partially because she uses alien corn.

Thursday 11 May 2023

Today is Mayday


Today is the first of May, or that's what Shakespeare thought, as did all proper Englishmen. May, for him, ran from May 11th to June 10th. 

The reason for this is reasonably simple. 

Ancient folk noticed that there were 365 days in a year. This allowed for calendars etc. Life was simple.

Then Ancient Romans noticed that this wasn't quite right. In fact, there were 365 and a quarter days in a year. That's how long it takes for the earth to go round the sun once.

So Julius Caesar decreed that everyone should have a new calendar with an extra day every four years. This is pretty familiar stuff: it's February 29th, a leap year.

Because the calendar was decreed by Julius, it got called the Julian Calendar. Life was simple again for a millennium and a half.

Then Renaissance Italians noticed that, in fact, a year was 365 and just less than a quarter days. This upset them terribly. 

The reason they were so terribly upset was that religious festivals. Christmas is meant to happen on the exact anniversary of Christ's birth. The same went Epiphany and Assumption and Annunciation, not to mention all the Saints' Days. Th dating of Easter was also terribly complicated, but terribly important.

The Renaissance Italians realised that they had been celebrating everything on the Wrong Day. That's because the day-calendar had been slipping out of sync with the solar-calendar. Not by much, mind you. Only by one day every century and a half. But as this had been going on for a millennium and a half, it meant that everything was wrong by ten days. 

So Pope Gregory decreed a new calendar where a leap day is missed out every century or so. And he also decreed that we had to get everything back to it's proper anniversary. So on October the 4th 1582, he announced that tomorrow would be October the 15th.

Thus all of Catholic Europe moved forward ten days, and called the new system the Gregorian Calendar.

But England was Protestant, and we were very suspicious. We decided that all this looked very like a dastardly Catholic plot and that we weren't going to fall for it, and Brexit meant Brexit, and we were quite happy with the old system, thank you very much.

So you had the odd situation of a ten day gap between England and Europe. When, it was May 1st in Dover, it was May 11th in Calais, even though France is (alas) only 26 miles away. 

This had all sorts of odd effects. One is the belief that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day. In a way they did. They both died on April 23rd 1616. It's just that that wasn't the same day. April 23rd was really May 3rd, or perhaps the other way around.

It does mean, though that Shakespeare's May was a lot merrier than ours. It skipped out early May, which is cold, and added in early June. If you are in England now, you'll notice that trees are much leafier than that they were ten days ago. So all his references to sun and flowers and darling buds of May, are a little bit off.

It also means that Chaucer's April was a lot more springlike that our is, and that December was a lot colder, because it contained what we'd call early January (which is when Christmas was).

This whole amusing situation lasted until 1752, when Britain finally capitulated and joined the Gregorian Catholics. That in turn really pissed off our colonists in North America, and caused the American revolution.

Well, not quite. But it was a small contributing factor. America was a lot more puritan and anti-catholic that Britain was. So if you were a Puritan farmer in Massachusetts, and you were already annoyed about being ruled by people thousands of miles away, forcing silly laws on you without so much as a 'by your leave', then it didn't help. And it was, for years, a contentious bone.

And the Russian Orthodox Church is still on the Julian calendar, which is why they have their Christmas in what we call January. This even caused some kerfuffle in Ukraine, with people undecided about whether to use the Western date or the Russian (boo!) one.

Midsummer Night's Dream actually takes place on the night of April 30/May 1st. When Theseus finds the young lovers he says:

No doubt they rose up early to observe

The rite of May, and hearing our intent,

Came here in grace of our solemnity.

And today is the day. Today is Mayday. And the distress call MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! is just the French way of saying 'Help me!'


The Inky Fool responds to the fuel crisis.

P.S. Obviously this could all have been solved if we'd just used Stone Henge, which marks the solar year. So, really, the English were right all along.