BRITISH NOTES & ANECDOTES
The English Language. For several centuries after the Norman conquests three languages were used. Latin was spoken and written by churchmen, lawyers and scholars, French by the court and the aristocracy and English (which had come from German, old Norse and Celtic) in different dialects by everybody else. These three languages slowly combined to become one of the richest languages in the world. In 1362 Edward III ordered that English should be spoken in Parliament and law courts. Thanks to William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlow and Francis Bacon — all of whom wrote in English, the language has grown in expressiveness. Today, the English language has a vocabulary of more that 500,000 words (contrasted with French, for example, with less than 100,000) and has incorporated words from over fifty other languages.
In 1857, the first complete English Dictionary was commissioned. It was finished seventy years later as the “Oxford English Dictionary” with 441,825 words and 1,827,306 quotations.
Because of the pictures Scottish clansmen drew on their bodies, the Romans called them “Picts.”
The Plantagenets got their name from Geoffrey of Anjou who wore a sprig of broom (Planta — Genista in Latin) on his helmet.
Henry VII was the first English King to commission a voyage of discovery when, in 1497, he asked an Italian, Giovani Caboto (John Cabot) who was living in Bristol England to follow Christopher Columbus’ lead and find the Spice Islands by sailing West. The tiny vessel “Mathew,” with a crew of 18, sighted a “New-found-land.” It was bleak and rugged. Ashore they found no sign of life apart from some primitive traps. The sea was teaming with cod fish but they had not come to fish and they returned thinking they had touched Asia when in fact they had discovered North America.
In 1601 James Lancaster, captain of the “Red Dragon,” exploring the Atlantic and Indian oceans, discovered that sailors eating oranges and limes, found on the Island of St Helena, suddenly recovered from the horrible ravages of scurvy. It took another 170 years before Captain Cook rediscovered the cure and English sailors became known as “Limeys."
After Sir Robert Walpole became prime minister in 1721 the cabinet no longer met in the “Kings Cabinet” but in Walpole’s house — 10 Downing Street, London — the official residence of all prime ministers of England since then.
The British flag is called the Union Jack because James VI of Scotland used to sign his name in French — Jacques and with the combining of his two flags, the English and the Scottish in 1603 into one flag, it became known as the “Union Jack.”
When a comet appeared in 1682 over England, astronomer Edmund Halley suspected it might have appeared before and for twenty years searched for clues. He found a comet recorded in 1607 matching the description of the one he had observed. Using Newton’s law to plot its path. He predicted it would appear in 1758 — which it did, sixteen years after his death. Halley’s comet also appeared at the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion. It is featured in the Bayeux-tapestry, which tells the story of the invasion.
William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion and immediate control of Britain is remarkable, when one considers that he used 25,000 Normans to suppress 2 million Saxons. It was under the Normans that surnames, which described the person’s real estate possessions, were used. For example “Peter of the beautiful hills” became “Peter Beaumont”
The Spanish Armada of 1588 ran into terrible weather but much of the blame for its defeat belonged to Philip II of Spain himself. Ironically it was under him (when he was briefly married to Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary) that the British Navy started rebuilding itself. Britain’s war-ships were race built, more maneuverable with larger gun decks than the Spanish. All cannons were standardized and designed for repeatable firing from a ship. In contrast, recent examination of Spanish wrecks off Ireland show that there were many different sizes and types of guns all with different caliber shot. A nightmare for armory suppliers, especially in the heat of battle.
As the British Empire mobilized for war in the second half of the eighteen hundreds, there was a clamorous, pugnacious nationalism that swept the country and a new word entered the English language “Jingoism.” It came from the music hall song “We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships we’ve got the men; we’ve got the money too!” Its critics would later use the word against British imperialism.
Britain’s youngest prime minister was William Pitt Jr. (1759-1806). Only 24, he was the son of a previous prime minister and remained in office for 18 years.
At Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 the carriage carrying her coffin was disabled when the horses shied and snapped their traces. For a moment no one knew what to do. Then a group of sailors, led by a noted admiral, unharnessed all the horses. Using a length of cord, the men pulled the carriage themselves uphill and to the beat of drums.
The Royal Navy. At the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1887, she reviewed her Navy — 173 fighting ships including 50 battleships and not one more than eight years old. (For comparison, the USA’s fighting navy in 1998 consisted of 95 submarines and 144 principal surface ships).
Winston Churchill’s witty and sometimes biting tongue is often quoted. One of the stories concerns his stumbling one night, after a few drinks, into the large unattractive Labor Member of Parliament, Bessie Braddock. An angry Bessie straightened her clothes and said “Sir Winston, you are drunk” to which he replied “and you Madam are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober.”
The world map once painted British red now only has a few small dots of British responsibility including Gibraltar, Ascension Island, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Falkland Islands, and the Cayman Islands. Another is Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean, which was found, and settled by mutineers from the “Bounty” who went there with their Tahitian brides.
The word POSH is said to come from wealthy Britons sailing to India through the Suez Canal. They wanted cabins on the cool side of the ship away from the sun. This meant making a “Posh” booking — “Port Out, Starboard Home.”