Cantering (Word Origins)

A horse that is cantering is moving at a speed somewhere between a trot and a gallop. And the word is only ever used in association with horses; dogs and cats never canter, and neither do lions and elephants. When the Anglo-Saxons invaded the southern part of England in the fifth century, taking over cities and towns previously occupied by the retreating Roman Empire, they gave the major town of Durovernum Cantiacorum a new name, Cantwaraburg, which meant ‘the town of the men of Kent’. It has since become known as Canterbury. Kent switched from paganism to Christianity at the end of the sixth century, largely thanks to a Benedictine monk called Augustine (later St Augustine), who had been sent over by Pope Gregory I for that very purpose, and Canterbury’s place as the seat of the Christian church in England was established. (There is a point to all of this, I promise.)

A few centuries later, in 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket was hacked to death at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by four renegade knights from Henry II’s court, who had supposedly taken the king’s throwaway comment ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ quite literally. The cathedral became a shrine to the holy martyr almost immediately, with pilgrims travelling from all over England to visit the scene of the crime. One of the most famous pilgrimages to Canterbury, of course, is documented in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century. The relaxed pace suitable for long-distance riding that would have been adopted by the Wife of Bath, the Knight and the many other real-life pilgrims later became known as a ‘Canterbury gallop’.

The Sport of Kings (horse racing to you and me – see also handicap, steeplechase) became incredibly popular in Britain in the early eighteenth century, by which stage ‘Canterbury gallop’ was an established phrase. It was used outside the sport – carriage drivers, for instance, always travelled at a Canterbury gallop – but within the horse-racing community the expression was gradually abbreviated to ‘Canterbury’ and then ‘canter’, the word we still use today. I doubt this is quite what Pope Gregory I had in mind, however, when he sent Augustine over to Kent.

The thoroughbred horses that are nowadays used in racing are cross-breeds of English mares and Arab horses imported to England around the turn of the eighteenth century. At the same time as horse racing was growing popular in England, it was also becoming something of a national pastime in Ireland, and the first steeplechase – literally a race from one church to another – was arranged in County Cork in 1752. The race was the result of a wager between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake as to which man owned the better horse, and it was run cross-country over the four miles between Buttevant and Doneraile. The modern steeplechase course has fences, ditches and other obstacles scattered along it to make it appear ‘cross-country’, but it doesn’t replicate what supposedly happened at the end of the very first race: the winner rode straight into the church at Doneraile and down the aisle, just as the vicar was holding a funeral service.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Gypsies and The Romanies (Word Origins)

Gypsies used to have a rather romantic reputation as nomads from far, far away, who were just passing through on their way to exciting new lands. They must have made quite an impression when they turned up in the remote villages of England during the sixteenth century. But although they travelled stealthily, they would not have been able to get much further than Wales, which must have rather ruined their mystique. By contrast, the image of the modern-day Gypsy is rather less idealised – no thanks to various instructive reality TV shows – and more likely to be associated with scrap-metal yards, pub brawls and house breaking.

Gypsies were originally so named, back in the sixteenth century, because it was assumed that they had travelled from Egypt. Many had indeed come to Europe via Egypt, although they had originally set off from Southeast Asia. Their ‘open road’ lifestyle was for a long time envied by many. The nineteenth-century travel writer George Borrow, for instance, wrote in his introduction to The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841): ‘Throughout my life the Gypsy race has always had a peculiar interest for me. Indeed I can remember no period when the mere mention of the name of Gypsy did not awaken within me feelings hard to be described.’ A sentiment that I imagine is shared today among members of the British farming community, although I expect the feelings awakened within them are somewhat different and perhaps best not described.

George Borrow also introduced the term Romany, to denote European Gypsies, in his semi-autobiographical novel The Romany Rye of 1857. The book dealt with his time travelling with the Romany people, who had been migrating across Europe since the eleventh century. Due to their itinerant lifestyle, they weren’t always welcomed but regarded with suspicion, often accused of thieving. In 1530, Henry VIII signed the Egyptians Act into law, which gave the Gypsies sixteen days to leave the country, during which they were to restore any stolen goods to their rightful owners. His daughter Queen Mary (the one nicknamed Bloody Mary because of all the Protestants she had burned at the stake) amended the act in 1554, adding even stricter punishments for anyone pursuing a Gypsy lifestyle but allowing any Gypsy ‘that shall honestly exercise himself in some lawful Work or Occupation’ to stay. The following decade, another law allowed those born in England to stay put, too. Thanks to these loopholes, the Gypsies found it slightly easier to evade deportation and began to settle in the country.

In France the Gypsy travellers were called bohémiens, because they were thought – incorrectly – to have come from the Kingdom of Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. The word bohemian subsequently entered the English language as a way of describing anyone artistic and unconventional, as William Makepeace Thackeray depicts his heroine in Vanity Fair (1848): ‘[Becky Sharp] was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and circumstance.’

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

Gung Ho (Word Origins)

Going at something gung ho used to mean approaching a task in an enthusiastic and committed way. It also tended to mean you were American. These days, in most of the English-speaking world, it is more often associated with carelessness and a lack of concern for consequences. Brigadier-General Evans Fordyce Carlson (1896–1947) found fame during the Second World War as the leader of Carlson’s Raiders, a US Marine Corp unit that attacked Makin Island, deep behind the Japanese lines, in 1942. This offensive itself could certainly have been described as gung-ho, but it was not until the following year that Carlson brought the word to prominence.

During an interview in 1943, he explained how he had learned the expression ‘gung ho’ from his New Zealand friend the communist writer Rewi Alley, who had helped found the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in 1938 in support of the War of Resistance against Japan. The slogan of that movement was Gung Ho (gonghe in Chinese), meaning ‘to work together in harmony’ – an ethos Carson was trying to promote throughout the rank and file by holding a series of Gung Ho meetings. ‘I was trying to find a way of building up the same sort of working spirit I had seen in China,’ he said, ‘where all the soldiers dedicated themselves to one idea and worked together to put that idea across. I told the boys time and time again, and that the motto of the Chinese Cooperatives is Gung Ho. It means work together, work in harmony.’

Despite Carlson’s noble intentions, however, the word’s association with bravery, recklessness and spirit was cemented that same year, with the release of a rousing movie about Carlson’s Raiders starring Randolph Scott, and simply entitled Gung Ho!

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Ponzi Scheme (Word Origins)

The word Ponzi came to worldwide attention in 2008 when American conman Bernard Madoff was arrested for using his lucrative investment company as a front for a Ponzi scheme – a fraudulent investment operation funded almost solely by money from its investors rather than any genuine enterprise. For many years Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC had been attracting investors from all over the world by promising, and delivering, higher returns on investments than any other institution could match. It was eventually revealed, however, that Madoff had invested very little and simply paid high rates of return to earlier investors using the money paid by new clients – who, in turn, would later receive high returns from newer clients. It was a house of cards that could never remain standing. Although Madoff’s scam continued undetected for over fifteen years, billions of dollars were ultimately lost and a number of its victims were driven to suicide. Madoff will now spend the next 150 years securely in prison.

The original Ponzi after whom all this is named went down in history as one of the great swindlers of all time. Charles Ponzi (1882–1949) operated the same kind of investment fraud in New York in 1920, quickly attracting $450,000 in business (worth $5 million in 2011). By July of that year, people were re-mortgaging their homes to invest in Ponzi’s incredible investment scheme. But a suspicious and intrepid journalist working at the Boston Post eventually revealed the scam, winning the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in the process, and Charles Ponzi’s fall from grace was as swift and spectacular as his rise to fame. After spending fourteen years in jail, he was deported to Brazil, where he wrote his autobiography but died in poverty in 1949, having suffered a brain haemorrhage.

Although Charles Ponzi ran the highest-profile Ponzi scheme the world had ever known, the wily Italian was not the first person to scam Americans with a Ponzi-style investment fraud. That dubious honour most likely goes to an accountant called William F. Miller, who in 1899 used the same system to steal $1 million. Further research, however, reveals that Charles Dickens describes exactly the same form of investment fraud in his 1857 novel Little Dorrit, in which the Dorrit family are unwittingly lured to financial collapse. As it is unlikely that Dickens simply made it up himself, it is quite possible that greedy investors have been falling for the Ponzi scam for at least 200 years and, I am sure, will continue to succumb in the future.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

Heckling (Wonderful Word History)

A heckler is a person who can be found loudly interrupting a performance or speech with what he or she assumes to be hilarious or relevant commentary. The original hecklers were to be found in the textile industry, in which ‘heckling’ involved straightening out and removing the impurities from flax fibres, prior to spinning and weaving into linen, using a special combing device. And it was the hecklers of the politically militant Scottish city of Dundee who in the early nineteenth century developed the delicate art of heckling as we know it today. In the factory, the senior heckler, possibly the only literate one present, would read out the day’s news while the others toiled at their looms, shouting out their particular opinions and getting embroiled in furious debate with fellow workers.

By the nineteenth century, heckling had become a largely tolerated part of popular theatre performances: some vaudeville shows even had heckling written into the script. More recently, The Muppet Show famously featured two grumpy old hecklers, Conrad Waldorf and Jerry Statler, while any stand-up comedian worth his or her salt has had to deal with the odd heckler over the years. Billy Connolly is a master, once telling a heckler, ‘You should get an agent, pal, instead of sitting there in the dark handling yourself.’ The brilliant Bob Monkhouse knew how to deal with them too, once firing back at one particularly irritating member of the audience: ‘Half a million sperm and yours had to win.’

But the best responses to unwanted interruptions are usually off-the-cuff political ones that cannot be rehearsed. Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament, once challenged Winston Churchill with the words: ‘Winston, if I were your wife I would poison your coffee.’ To which Churchill famously retorted: ‘Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it.’ Or take the celebrated riposte of Labour politician Dennis Healey, during a debate in Parliament in June 1978, in which he likened criticism by Conservative minister Geoffrey Howe – the mildest of hecklers – to ‘being savaged by a dead sheep’.

In the sporting arena there have been some great one-liners too. Cricketer Ian Botham once came up with a quick response when Australian batsman Rodney Marsh tried to put him off his stride with a well-aimed heckle. ‘How’s your wife and my kids?’ Marsh taunted. ‘The wife’s fine,’ Botham replied coolly, ‘but the kids are retarded.’

More History in Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here


The word Blotto is thought to have been used in England since shortly before the First World War to describe a drunk, somebody who has been on the sauce for a while. But I am unable to find any evidence confirming its use before 1917, when it appeared in a story by an Englishman living in Paris, who sadly didn’t reveal how he’d first come across this strange but oddly appropriate word. (See also tipple for some equally descriptive terms.)

While many people assume that ‘blotto’ must derive from ‘blot’, as in the verb meaning ‘to absorb liquid’, a more compelling explanation lies in the French company Blotto Frères, one of the largest manufacturers of delivery tricycles during the early twentieth century. Blotto’s three-wheelers competed in the popular Triporteur races, held annually from 1901 over a course between Paris and Versailles and which became so popular that they led to the inaugural Tour de France in 1903.

During the First World War, Blotto Frères tricycles became a regular feature on the frontline, with thousands of them delivering daily supplies to the troops. But their unusual backwards design – two wheels at the front to support the delivery basket and one at the rear – made them notoriously unstable and difficult to control, and they must have presented a hilarious spectacle for onlookers as they wobbled around and tipped over in the mud.

This would explain how the word ‘blotto’ became associated with a reeling drunk, but it was a Laurel and Hardy movie released in 1930 and simply called Blotto that lifted the word from relative obscurity. The film features Stan and Ollie getting riotously drunk at a Prohibition-era speakeasy before realising they are only drinking cold tea, the whiskey having been replaced by Stan’s wife. Now why does that never happen when I have a cup of tea?

Just as a nod to the scientific community, ‘blotto’ is also an acronym for ‘Bovine Lacto Transfer Technique Optimiser’, a blocking reagent, whatever that is. But I’m sure you all knew that already.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here

Pommy Bastard

Pommy, or Pom, is well-known Australian slang for an Englishman. The word is often preceded by the words ‘useless’ or ‘whingeing’, and suffixed by bastards, particularly when it comes to sporting prowess – or lack of. Former Australian rugby captain David Campese made headlines during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, when he supposedly declared that the ‘Poms would win nothing’, words that came back to bite him when England beat Australia in the final.

The expression supposedly arises from the acronym POME, which stands for ‘Prisoner Of Mother England’, or alternatively from POHM, ‘Prisoner Of His/Her Majesty’. Either way, it was a name given to the English convicts who were transported to Australia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and who were not natives of that country. So basically, if you are not an aborigine living in Australia then you are the Pommy mate, not me. None of my ancestors were hauled off in chains and sent to the penal colony – yours were.

D. H. Lawrence, one of the great novelists of his generation, had an alternative theory, however. He suggested in his 1923 novel Kangeroo that the expression evolved from the pomegranate and the red, florid appearance of the fruit, which he claimed matched that of the traditional complexion of the British after three months on the high seas. But I respectfully suggest that the great man made that up.

Extract from Money for Old Rope Parts 1 & 2

Albert Jack books available for download here