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Ghost Dancing

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Bringing Owls to Athens

Tony Fenton | February 21st 2015 | Words

I have always found words interesting. Their meaning and how they came into being, i.e. their etymology. But before we look at some real words and expressions, here are some interesting slang words that I’ve heard recently.

The first word is Bennies. During the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982, the British soldiers who liberated the islands nicknamed the locals Bennies after the slightly simple character Benny in the TV soap Crossroads (on our TV screens between 1964 – 1988). At the time the Falkland islanders wore woollen bobble hats, as worn by the Crossroads character Benny, but otherwise unfashionable at the time in the UK. As it was a bit of a derogatory term and caused a fair amount of upset, the soldiers were banned from using the word.  Naturally they immediately started to use an alternative word . . . Stills , as in “Still a Benny”.

The next word also has it’s roots in the military. Wheni. Used to describe someone who has become a bit of a bore going on about their various tours of duty, as in “When I was in Iraq . . .”

Still with the military, I came across a slightly poignant slang phrase used in the US army – Gone Elvis, used to describe someone as gone missing in action.

Other words we use seem to be just made up. Take, threshold. We all know what one is, but where did the word originate? One explanation of its origin is that it derives from two words thresh and hold.  When house floors were nothing more than dirt and reeds or rushes were laid down as a form of matting, a wooden bar or stone was put across the doorway to prevent the reeds (or thresh) from slipping outside. The bar being the thresh – hold. Sounds very plausible.

This origin of the word is described in an essay about English life in the 1500s that has been circulating on the internet since about 1999, a year after the popular movie, Shakespeare in Love. Unfortunately the essay appears to be flawed.

The word threshold seems to have first appeared in Old English as therscold or threscold. The first part of this word is indeed thresh, but this has a meaning of something along the lines of to stamp with feet. Indeed stamping on wheat was the earliest method of separating the grain from the chaff. The second part of the word is not our modern word hold and it’s origins are not definitely known.

What we can say though, is that the modern word threshold does not refer to a wooden bar placed across doorways to prevent reeds or rushes from slipping out of the house.

So sadly, this explanation, as well as a lot of other “facts” in the aforementioned essay have proven not to be correct. I am particularly disappointed that the expression raining cats and dogs doesn’t derive from household pets living in household lofts and falling through the ceiling during heavy rain as the essay would have you believe.

Elsewhere, some expressions are better researched and their origins understood. Take Sending Coals to Newcastle. This expression, which we all take to meaning a pointless task comes about from the period in history when Newcastle was a major exporter of coal. Thus, sending coal to the port would have indeed been a waste of time. Similarly for the expressions Selling ice to the Eskimos, or Selling sand to the Arabs to indicate a truly good salesperson who is able to sell a product to someone who already has more than enough of what is being sold.

But have you ever wondered how these expressions would translate into another language? Or whether other cultures have their own equivalent expressions? After a bit of digging I came across the lovely German expression : Eulen nach Athen tragen – Bringing owls to Athens.  The owl was the symbol of the city of Athens, and was sacred to its patron goddess, Athena. As such it was featured on Athens’ silver coins, and as Athens both mined its own silver and minted its own coins, bringing owls (either the real birds, or the coins) to Athens would be pointless. Sounds a bit nicer than coal to Newcastle?

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