Sunday, 23 November 2014

rule of thumb

A rule of thumb is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and applied way of approximately calculating some value. 

The exact origin of the phrase is uncertain. It likely refers to one of the numerous ways that thumbs have been used to estimate things – judging the alignment or distance of an object by holding the thumb in one's eye-line, the temperature of brewing beer, measurement of an inch from the joint to the nail to the tip, or across the thumb. The phrase joins ‘the whole nine yards’ as one that probably derives from some form of measurement but which is unlikely ever to be definitively pinned down. The earliest citation comes from J. Durham’s Heaven upon Earth, 1685: "Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb."

The term could have originated, for example, with carpenters who used the width of their thumbs rather than rulers for measuring things, cementing its modern use as an imprecise yet reliable and convenient standard. Another possible origin comes from farming fields. Plants need a fairly precise depth to seed properly, whether planted from seed or being replanted, but the depth can be estimated using the thumb.

'Rule of thumb' has been said to come from the belief that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it is was no thicker than his thumb. Judge Sir Francis Buller, who is reported to have made this ruling in 1792 was notoriously harsh in his punishments and had a reputation for arrogance, but there's no evidence that he ever made the ruling that he is infamous for.  

Despite the phrase being in common use since the 17th century and appearing many thousands of times in print, there are no printed records that associate it with domestic violence until the 1970s, when the notion was castigated by feminists.

I like ‘rule of thumb.’ It’s how I do most of my cooking. Pour a little salt in the palm of my hand, eye it, and decide, yes, that’s a teaspoonful! Much simpler than actually measuring.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

another short story accepted

I'm delighted that Oddville Press has accepted my short story, Early Retirement, for their next issue. Not sure when that will be, but I'm guessing December, maybe January.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

make hay while the sun shines

Make the most of your opportunities while you have the chance.

This proverb is first recorded in John Heywood's book of proverbs in 1546:
“Whan the sunne shineth make hay. Whiche is to say.
Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.”

Farmers of any era know the wisdom of gathering the hay before rain ruins it. Tudor farmers would have taken several days to cut, dry and gather their hay and would have had only folk rhymes like 'red sky at night' to guide them. Forecasting the weather two or three days in advance wouldn't have been possible, so all the more reason for them to 'make hay while the sun shines.’

When I have a whole day free in which to write, I can tell myself to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ or ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ and, with luck, write four or five pages.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

from pillar to post

To be forced to go from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner, occasioning much frustration and anger in the process. It’s also sometimes used in modern day English to mean an unsettled life, such as being in the military, whose members are ‘moved from pillar to post’ or ‘hither and yon.’

One suggestion for the source is that it referred to a whipping post and that pillar actually refers to the pillory. A criminal being punished in medieval times would first be tied to the post to be whipped and then put in the pillory for public amusement. One thing in favor of this idea is that the original version of our idiom, which first appeared around 1420, was the other way around: from post to pillar. But there are no known records of ‘post to pillory’ being used, so this idea may just be evidence of someone’s active imagination.

Another suggestion says that it derives from the ancient game of tennis. The original game was played by personages of high status in rather complex indoor courts and it is supposed that the pillars and posts were parts of it, with balls bouncing and rebounding from one to the other. 

There is yet a third possible source, based on similar idioms in other languages, and it is more plausible than either of the first two suggestions. Dutch has a very similar metaphor meaning ‘to be sent from cupboard to wall.’ Because cupboards are usually attached to walls, the expression evokes an image of not getting very far. A German expression refers to being sent from Pontius to Pilatus, who were of course the same person: in English Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Again, we have the idea of two closely equivalent or even identical references as the two halves of the idiom.

Whatever the source, the alliteration is nice. My suggestion for the source would be that pillar and post are the same thing, so moving from one to the other, just like moving from cupboard to wall, means you aren’t getting anywhere.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Limey is a predominantly North American slang nickname for Britons, especially those from England.

The term may have originated in the 1850s as ‘lime-juicer,’ and later shortened to ‘limey.’ It was originally used as a derogatory word for sailors in the Royal Navy because of the Royal Navy's practice, since the beginning of the 19th century, of adding lime juice to the sailors' daily ration of watered-down rum (grog), in order to make stored stagnant water more palatable. This ration of grog helped make the sailors some of the healthiest at the time, due to the ascorbic acid's ability to prevent scurvy.

Eventually the term lost its naval connection and was used to denote British people in general. In the 1880s, it was used to refer to English immigrants in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although the term may have been used earlier in the U.S. Navy as a slang word for a British sailor or a British warship, such usage was not documented until 1918. By 1925, its usage in American English had been extended to mean any Englishman, and the expression was so commonly known that it was used in American newspaper headlines.
My mother was a limey, but she thought it rude of anyone to call her that.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din

This is a line from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1892. The poem is a rhyming narrative from the point of view of an English soldier in India, about an Indian water-bearer who saves the soldier's life but is soon shot and killed. In the final three lines, the soldier regrets the abuse he dealt to Din and admits that Din is the better man of the two for sacrificing his own life to save another. The poem was published as one of the set of martial poems called the Barrack-Room Ballads.

Having gone from acclaimed writer to one regarded as old fashioned, imperialistic and jingoistic, Kipling’s works are today being reassessed and appreciated, with allowances being made for the non-politically correct items as a product of their time, as with some of Twain’s works.

The poem inspired a 1939 adventure film of the same name from RKO Radio Pictures starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine, and Sam Jaffe in the title role.

The movie was remade in 1961 as Sergeants 3, starring the Rat Pack. The locale was moved from British-colonial India to the old West. The Gunga Din character was played in this film by Sammy Davis, Jr. Many elements of the 1939 film were also incorporated into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The line is rarely heard these days, though I heard it from my father when I was a child.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

priming the pump

This is an American phrase meaning to take action in order to make something succeed, especially to spend money.

Water pumps will run out of pressure and stop working if turned off for an extended period of time, such as over the winter. In order to get the pump working again, it needs to ‘primed’: water needs to be flushed back into it and forced through in order to create enough pressure to begin pumping again. 

Pump priming in government assumes that the economy must be primed to function properly again after a recession. The theory is that government spending will stimulate private spending, which in turn should lead to economic expansion.

The phrase originated with President Hoover's creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932, which was designed to make loans to banks and industry. This was taken one step further by 1933, when President Roosevelt felt that pump-priming would be the only way for the economy to recover from the Great Depression. Through various public works organizations, billions of dollars were spent ‘priming the pump’ to encourage economic growth.

My only experience with priming a pump was with a well pump I had to deal with when I lived on a two-acre ‘farm’ near Powell River. The operation itself was simple, but in order to get at the pump I had to crawl on hands and knees into a small enclosure, fighting my way through spider webs and avoiding crowds of small black bugs. If I could have poured money in from outside, I would gladly have done so!