Thursday, 18 September 2008

De Factoid the Seventh: Plonk-ers and Porters...

In this De Factoid one goes a bit upper-class in search of the origins of two drinks close to the landed-gentry’s hearts and livers: Port – the thick, ruby-red gout-inducer; and Champagne – the pale, bubble-filled Frenchy-corker. While to look at in the glass these two may seem as different as chalk and cheese (though in some parts of France the difference between chalk and cheese is debatable) their histories are more intermixed than one might first be inclined to believe...

Port’s country of origin is (quite obviously when one is told) Portugal. The bottle’s contents can only come from here, specifically the region of Oporto (of which the drink ‘port’ is an abbreviation: from O Porto, meaning ‘the port/harbour’). If they don’t, then it isn’t port! Portugal takes its modern name from its Latin map-tag: Portus Cale – with Cale naming an early settlement on the mouth of the Douro River, and Portus – meaning ‘landing-point’, ‘door’, ‘gateway’, ‘entrance’, ‘opening’ etc: think port-hole (the round windows on ships), portcullis (‘sliding-door’: the latticed fence-like defence door at the front of a castle/the back of a penny-piece – cullis from Old French for ‘sliding’), portal (science-fiction/internet gateway) – indicating where those first Italian tourists parked their boats. Latin, Portus, gave us the Old English word port (meaning the boat-mooring area) when those same Roman tourists fancied somewhere with a bit more rain and headed north for the weekend. Portus, as a word, is closely linked to another Old English word, ford (meaning ‘a point of easy crossing’ – see De Factoid the First) and the word fare, meaning ‘travel’. Now used almost exclusively in departing calls of “fare-well”, fare was once also used to describe the transport of food. The word still occasionally appears in mock-Old English bar-signs offering “traditional pub fayre” to the hungry drunkard. The idea of the travelling of goods in fare was also (and still is) prevalent in French conduit: think ‘conduct’, ‘water conduit’, ‘conductor’ – and even more so in portus. Words like import and export; portmanteau (a type of suitcase for carrying clothes); portfolio (originally a case for keeping shipping-documents including passports: a document to allow travel); porter (the poor soul forced to carry them all); the medical name for the vein he might rupture in the attempt (vena portæ); and deportment (the gentlemanly way to act after such an incident – or how to ‘carry oneself’) all come from the idea of the traffic of goods. Port was destined to be portable, even if only in name. But it was precisely the portable nature of the drink that bore its success with the Brits.

The English aristocracy (ironically from Old French aristocratie, through Medieval Latin translations of Aristotle’s – an important Ancient-Greek thinker – opinions on who was deemed worthy to rule) i.e. toffs (a word originating in the ‘tuft’ or tassel on an Oxford University undergraduate’s hat!) have always been big drinkers: predominantly of wine (fermented, i.e. brewed, from grape-juice) and brandy (same idea x2 = stronger result), which was transported (another port word) from our nearest medieval equivalent of an off-licence: France. This was all well and good when on good terms, but the English medieval tendency to have a peck at the French over land-rights (I say ‘medieval’ tendency as today we use words rather than pieces of sharpened metal – excluding, of course, the antics of any and every European cup match) soon meant that drinking French wine was not only unpatriotic (i.e. against the father-land: Latin pater, ‘father’ – think Catholic Lord’s Prayer paternoster: ‘Our father...’), but also fairly impossible. But the rich must have their after-dinner tipple so a new off-licence had to be found. Not bothering with Germany’s godforsaken sugar-water excuses for vino, we tried Spain: but this proved to be too far away. Anyone who leaves a bottle of wine open overnight (i.e. falls asleep glass-in-hand) will notice that it has gone-off. The wine oxidises (gets exposed to air – namely oxygen) turning to ethanoic acid i.e. vinegar. This also happened on the trip over from Spain as air seeped through the ‘breathable’ oak barrels the wine was shipped in. The toffs ended up with several-hundred bottles of stuff that would taste great on chips, but was rubbish to drink. The solution came in a process called ‘fortification’. Just as one might fortify (from Latin, fortis, ‘strenght’) a building from being attacked, so too could wine be fortified from attack on the long, hot journey, with a shot of brandy added to the mix (Madeira wine – another type of fortified wine introduced by the Portuguese to the island that gives it its name – is indeed supposed to taste better after a stint on a radiator). The fortifying method so popular in Oporto meant that the region’s wine could make the long trip, unspoilt, to English ports: and the association of port-drinking with the upper classes was born! The Portuguese aren’t all toff-orientated with their exports, though, with one of England’s favourite spicy dishes taking its name from a corruption of Portuguese ‘garlic vinegar’ – vin de alho – the World Cup song-inspiring, vindaloo...

But just as port gained fame for being particularly hardy en route; champagne – the other bottle of our discussion – became famous for, or because of, the opposite.

Champagne, the drink, comes (in a similar naming trend to Port) from the region Champagne in France. Grapes have been grown there to make wine for two millennia (one millennia = one-thousand years, hence ‘millennium’) and grew natively before cultivation (i.e. purposeful growing). Even in 92 A.D (short for Christian-Latin phrase, anno domini: ‘In the year of our Lord’ i.e. years after Christ’s birth – think ‘annual’) when the Roman Emperor Domitian had most of the vineyards in France destroyed (to encourage the drinking of Italian wine), grapes were still grown in the region (albeit in secret) until a later Emperor (called Probus) lifted the ban two-hundred years later (!). Wine from the region was happily drank in England after that, novel in its unusually light colour (called vin gris – grey wine), but not yet bubbly. This oddity occured thanks to a particularly cold winter...

To go sciency for a moment: alcohol is made in wine as a by-product of brewing when yeast (a team of little living microbes added to the barrel) feed on the sugar in (in this instance) grape juice. An unfortunate side-effect of producing the toxic alcohol (so far as the yeast is concerned) results in their poisoning (cf. particularly heavy nights in college bars), but only if a certain amount is produced. But thanks to a cold winter in Champagne this did not happen, and the yeast in a batch of vin gris instead became inactive (hibernated/fell asleep, if you will) before it brewed itself to death. Bottled, transported and warmed in transit, the yeast started working again producing more alcohol and another by-product (the same that makes bread rise) – carbon dioxide (the stuff added to drinks today to make them fizz). In a barrel this could escape, but in a sealed bottle it could not and instead resulted in a surprise for the first Englishman to pop the cork upon arrival. This is still replicated in modern champagne production by super-chilling bottles in liquid nitrogen! So there we have it: on the one hand a drink whose rugged ability to survive the long boat trip to Blighty won a place in the English Lord’s hearts; on the other the result of a French marketing genius who flogged us a load of soured white-wine. Cheers!

De Factoid the Eighth: coming soon

Monday, 15 September 2008

De Factoid the Sixth: Look bake in anger

This De Factoid began with some difficulty. That is not to say that there was any difficulty in its writing, but that difficulty was the inspiration – specifically as often expressed by the odd American phrase: “it ain’t no cakewalk”.

The phrase originates in the slave-plantations of the American South with the tradition of the ‘chalk-line walk’. Slaves would dance up and down a chalk line in imitation of Western ball-room dancing: the winners receiving a slice of hoe-cake (a corn-based break cooked over flame on a metal griddle – often substituted for the head of the land-tilling instrument), giving the dance its alternative name. It has been claimed that both the slaves performed these dances to ridicule their white oppressors and that slave-owners made their chattel perform these dances for their own amusement (which is somewhat more likely). The phrase itself is an example of the rhetorical (i.e. persuasive writing or speaking) device litotes (from the Greek meaning single, simple, meagre). Far from being ‘simple’ to describe, litotes expresses ‘an affirmative by the negative of the contrary’ i.e. it says what something definitely is by describing it as not being its opposite. The ‘cake walk’ phrase is used in the sense of ‘this is going to be difficult’, because a cakewalk itself may have been considered an easy way to earn some food (or at least a much easier activity than the usual plantation workload). The fact, though, that the winners traditionally received hoe-cake (a typically home-made slave food) suggests the practice may have been absorbed into slave-culture and given the positive twist of defiance; and later being adapted into a popular ragtime dance (from Ragged-Time due to its odd beats) for white Americans and emancipated (from the negative of Latin manus, ‘hand’ + capere, ‘take’) African-Americans. It seems the slaves really took the cake (we also get that phrase from the dance), whilst the slave-drivers got their just deserts...

And no, one has not miss-spelt the above phrase. ‘DES-ert’ with the stress falling on the first syllable (part of the word) describes the sandy, arid wasteland (from Vulgate Latin desertum/ desertus – ‘abandoned’; ‘left wasted’ – hence ‘deserted’); whilst the same spelling with the stress falling on the second syllable – ‘de-SERT’ – though sounding like the word dessert (the practice of serving fruit/cake after dinner: from the French, desservir – ‘remove what has been served’) actually means an action or quality deserving appropriate reward/ punishment (from Latin deservitus from where we get ‘deserve’ and ‘deserving’). It’s an easy mistake to make, but in writing could mean the difference between death and death-by-chocolate.

Another cake-based mix-up may have sparked the French-Revolution, when the teenage Queen, Marie Antoinette, upon being informed that the French-peasantry could not afford to buy bread, replied: ‘Let them eat cake’. While ultimately this may have been a miss-translation (the French: qu'ils mangent de la brioche, translating more accurately as ‘[then] let them eat rolls’); and has been accredited elsewhere to princess Maria Theresa of Spain: whatever she said still somewhat missed the point, and her own head rolled via guillotine on 16th October 1793. The guillotine – a machine first used in the last years of French Royal rule for the humane (!) execution of prisoners by speedy decapitation – was named after its conceptual designer Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Other than those killed by firing squad for breaches of national security, the guillotine was the only legal method of execution in France from its first use in 1792 to the abolition of the death penalty in 1981. During the period from June 1793 to July 1794 (known in France as the Reign of Terror), ‘Madam Guillotine’ or the ‘National Razor’ was responsible for between 15,000 and 40,000 executions. Dr. Guillotin died of natural causes in 1814. Other cake-related terrors can be found closer to home. In 1666, a fire at a bakery on Pudding Lane, off Eastcheap in the City of London (the medieval boundaries of the Capital), resulted in the ‘Great Fire’ in which seven-eighths of the city was destroyed between 2nd and 5th September. Sir Christopher Wren was set the task of designing and re-building the city: including fifty new churches and the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The modern day cake, then, should probably come with a disclaimer, ‘Delicious: but may lead to oppression, dancing, genocide and new churches’...

De Factoid the Seventh: coming soon...

Sunday, 7 September 2008

De Factoid the Fifth: Moo-vers and Shakers

In this De Factoid ones usual subject matter is shaken up slightly by finding its measure in liquid – as opposed to chewable matter. Indeed we are going from Cockneys and male-chickens to the latter’s (somewhat confusing) namesake: cocktails.

The liquid-lunch mainstay of swiller and sophisticrat alike; opinions on the origin of the word ‘cocktail’ are as mixed as the drinks themselves, with several clearly the product of knocking back a few strong ones. Everything from drinks served in French-eggcups (coquetier) to the glasses of American Revolutionaries being furnished with chicken feathers (cock – male chicken – tails) from Royalist coops, have been cited. The claim that the drink name comes from the occasional late-medieval English practice of flavouring a gallon of beer with a herbed chicken-carcass may fall a little foul of its true origins; and ‘Cocket-Ale’: (cocket – from an Anglo-Latin corruption of the signing-off of documents: quo quietus est on the King’s Seal of the Custom House) is an attractive, if unlikely explanation for the modern drink. Another less taxing suggestion is easily visible when watching anyone making a cocktail at a student party – usually involving the combination of lethal looking concoctions in plastic containers / funnels / teacups to be rapidly consumed to prove one’s worth (if not one’s sense). To make up a drink by taking the last dregs (tail) from a barrel via the tap/peg (originally the cock) is a fair claim to making a glass of cock-tail. To take a man ‘down a peg or two’ comes either from the tradition of outdoing your opponent at drinking pegged-measures from large tankards; or reducing someone’s erroneous croquet score by lowering their peg (the game that also gives us ‘pipped at the post’ when one knocks an opponent’s ball off track). As much as the modern Pimms-drinker may favour the latter explanation, I’m pretty sure it involved booze. Booze as a word comes from Middle Dutch busen (Mod. Du. buizen): ‘to drink to excess’; and dregs as a word is likely to come from Old Norse dreggjar describing the alcoholic sediments in the bottom of barrels. If nothing else the origins of the average drinker’s vocabulary suggests that the Northern stretches of Europe (where we also find the birthplace of the word drunk) certainly knew (and know) how to get the best from their barrels.

But while chicken-flavoured Cosmopolitans and feather-tipped Tequilas read distinctly more tall-tale than cocktail, a good ‘cock-and-bull’ story does at least claim to share some bar space with our dubiously named drink. Two neighbouring pubs in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire: ‘The Famous Cock Hotel’ and the (pun-flinging) ‘Inn-famous Bull’ claim the phrase ‘cock-and-bull’ came into being to describe the coachmen’s stories poured (and thoroughly embellished) between them. While a nice story, the phrase is probably more likely to refer to the medieval fancy for the ‘bestiary’ tale – stories akin to Aesop’s Fables where anthropomorphic (i.e. ‘people like’) animals take centre stage – than cross-pub banter. Banter as a word seems to be of unknown origin. First recorded in writing in the play Madam Fickle by Thomas D’Urfey (1676), it may well be something analogous to the low-talk of a bantling – a term (possibly introduced corruptly through German bänkling) formerly with the implication of the born-out-of-wedlock ‘bastard’. That the phrase cock-and-bull became negatively associated with made up stories may be a reaction to the rejection of the fable for more serious works in later centuries (combined with more than a little retrospective association with the more modern phrase ‘bullshit’); and that Burton uses the phrase ‘cock and bull’ (though not in a negative sense) in his The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some men’s whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot” also suggests that the coachmen of the two pubs probably didn’t coin the phrase in the 18th century as claimed.

But these tall-taled taverns aren’t the only ones to claim such linguistic lineage. The phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ is staked by Hook Head and the nearby village of Crook, in Waterford, Ireland. That hook and crook are synonyms (the latter from the French influenced Middle English croc or the older Norse krókr meaning a ‘curve’) and combine in the phrase to become a metaphor meaning ‘by one means or another’ seems lost on the little Irish village. The metaphor itself most probably arose from the shifting of stubborn sheep with a shepherd’s staff – the crook; or (failing that) tripping them with the ‘hook’ at the other end (though 'hook' could quite simply have been included for no more reason that it’s rhyming quality with 'crook'). It is worth noting that a Bishop's staff is also called a 'crook' (continuing the 'Lord is my Shepherd' motif), though does not tend to feature the lower tripping facility. The Cock Hotel also claims to be the originator of the nursery rhyme line “ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross” due to the proximity of the coach-house to Banbury. But while this cock-and-bull tale may well fall limp (one finds that a ‘cock-horse’ is generally recognised as one in which the horse’s tail-hair has been cropped short so as to stick up straight as akin cockerel’s tail feathers, not a horse hired from the Cock Hotel) it does provide us with a very sensible suggestion for the origin of our original word. To ‘cock one’s tail’ with a stiff drink presents us with the ancestral action akin to the modern day publican drinking a vodka-Red Bull as a ‘pick-me-up’!

De Factoid the Sixth: coming soon