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...

4 comments:

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Once again Adam, you have excelled yourself despite admitting a lack if inspiration. Nice reading.

AV

Adam James Nall said...

Thanks you again, AV. Rather enjoyed this one, just took a bit of starting. Though it was the initial difficulty that got me on to 'cakewalk'!

Best,

AJN

Dr.Abhijit Joardar said...

Amazing, a very good pice of work.
Please keep it up.

Dr.Abhijit Joardar
http://viewforyou.blogspot.com

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, Dr. Joardar. I certainly intend to keep going!

Yours, AJN