I Heart . . . Symbolism

Why does the heart shape look absolutely nothing like a human heart? And on a related note, why is the heart, anatomically correct or otherwise, associated with love? The answer involves herbal contraceptives, pinecones, and Aristotle’s faulty understanding of human anatomy.

If you had to pick one symbol to represent love, what would it be? It would probably look like this:

Red heart shape

And you would probably say that it’s a heart. But the human heart looks like this:

Image by Stenemo, November 7, 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

And you would say that this giant muscle—which beats an average of 100,000 times per day and pumps about 70 gallons of blood through your body each hour, generating enough pressure during a contraction to squirt blood 10 feet if the aorta were cut open—represents . . . love.

The heart is a fairly single-minded muscle. Its main job is to pump blood throughout your body, and the organ itself isn’t necessarily the origin of love in the body.

In the words of Bill Bryson,

It has been calculated (and goodness knows how, it must be said) that during the course of a lifetime the heart does an amount of work sufficient to lift a one-ton object 150 miles into the air. It is a truly remarkable implement. It just doesn’t care about your love life.

(Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, 112.)

Let’s take a closer look.

The Heart of Love

Throughout many different cultures and religions, spanning thousands of years of human history, the heart has been regarded as the seat of human emotion, life, and will. In the ancient Near East, the heart was both the seat of emotion and the location of the mind, functions that were also associated with the bowels. The Aztecs extracted the hearts of human sacrifices to offer to the gods and regarded them as the seat of the individual, the sun being a great heart-soul. In Hinduism, the heart represents the atman, the divine center or true soul of a person. Classical philosophers in the tradition of Aristotle also believed thought and reason occurred in the heart rather than the brain, which we now know is not the case. Really, emotion is created in the brain, too, and experienced thorough physiological reactions, which might involve changes in blood flow, heart rate, and hormone secretion.

The ancient Greeks and Romans linked the heart to strong emotions, and Greek poetry connected the passions of love with the heart. Venus, the goddess of love, directed Cupid to set human hearts on fire with love, as the Greeks believed.

In Medieval Europe, the idea of wholehearted, devoted, romantic love became idealized in the feudal courts of France. A young man would play instruments and sing to a lady he hoped to woo, pledging his whole heart to her forever. The yearning, romantic sentiments found in courtly love spread to Spain, Italy, Portugal, and all over Europe, and “love staked out its place not only as a literary concept but also as an important social value and an intrinsic part of being human” (Yalom, 2019).

How Do We “Feel” Love?

From a scientific standpoint, the heart and the blood it pumps both play a role in our experience of emotions, including love. When we blush with embarrassment or redden with anger, it’s because our blood pressure increases as a reaction to our thoughts about a humiliating or enraging situation. The many blood vessels in the face show these variations in blood flow (Martinez, 2018). And when you feel nervous around someone of the opposite sex and experience the fight-or-flight response, more blood is directed to the arms and legs, preparing the body for action. This can be a bit annoying when the only action you’re looking for is asking someone out on a date. These bodily responses to emotion, however, are not necessarily universal—physiological responses to and drivers of emotion depend largely on cultural context (Butler, Lee, and Gross, 2018).

Linda Feldman Barrett has described the brain’s process of creating emotion as different brain regions spontaneously acting together to produce a feeling based on various inputs. The feeling is shaped by a person’s previous experiences and cultural understandings of emotion concepts (Bryce 2017).

Though the physiological responses and outward manifestation of emotions may be culturally distinct, cultural universals may be found in the area of the body where certain emotions are felt. In a study of both West European and East Asian subjects, love was described as a warm feeling in the upper and middle regions of the body, seemingly radiating out of the center of the chest. The researchers concluded that the somatosensory experience of different emotions, including love, can be mapped to certain areas of the body. (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietanan, 2014).

It makes sense, then, to use the heart as a metaphor for love—we embody the emotions we feel in a very real, physiological way. We feel emotions because our physiological response creates those feelings. We can feel love in our heart—that warm, sometimes fluttery feeling in our chest that radiates outward–as an embodied experience of affection for another person.

The Heart Shape

Silphium depicted on a coin from sixth-century Cyrene.
T. V. Buttrey, Expedition magazine, vol. 34, Nos. 1–2, 1992, p. 62; Via K. Baty, from Wikipedia.

The heart shape as we know it was first used to depict plants rather than human organs. Until the late Middle Ages, the heart shape commonly represented peepal leaves in the Indus River Valley; silphium in ancient Greece, Rome, and Northern Africa; and water lilies, fig leaves, and ivy in Europe. Silphium in particular was linked to love and sexuality due to its use as a contraceptive, and its heart-shaped fruit was featured on coins in Cyrene as early as the sixth century BCE. Additionally, ivy was noted for its longevity and was seen as an emblem of eternal love.

The first known—although contested—depiction of a heart shape as a representation of love was in an illustration found in the French text Roman de la poire, [AS3] dating to the 1250s. A capital S is decorated with a lover offering his heart to his mistress. It looks like an upside-down pinecone, or perhaps a pear, with the narrow end facing upward. This is consistent with descriptions of the heart in anatomical literature of the time (Aristotle also mistakenly taught that the heart had three chambers instead of four, leading to incorrect anatomical descriptions that were not corrected until the sixteenth century). In the scene in the manuscript that this illustration accompanies, a lady gives a pear to her lover, which is an allusion to Eve offering a piece of fruit (believed by many at this time to be an apple) to Adam in the Garden of Eden.

A man offering a woman a pinecone-shaped heart, a scene from Roman de la poire.
Miniature (capital S) from a manuscript of the Roman de la poire.
Atelier du Maître de Bari, c. 1250, public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

A similar scene is illustrated in The Romance of Alexander, a 1344 French manuscript by Lambert le Tor. The lady lifts a heart-shaped heart that her beau has given her as he touches his chest, from whence the heart came. This manuscript led to “an explosion of heart imagery,” especially in France.

A woman offering a man a heart, a scene from The Romance of Alexander.
Illustration from The Romance of Alexander, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
Jehan de Grise and his workshop, “The Heart Offering,” 1338–1344.

An early depiction in Italy was Giotto’s 1305 painting of Charity, one of the seven virtues personified in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Charity hands to Jesus a pinecone-shaped heart with the tip facing upwards—symbolically offering her love. This theme was reflected in several other works of art in Northern Italy in the fourteenth century.

Charity offers her heart to Jesus.
Giotto di Bondone, No. 45 The Seven Virtues: Charity, 1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the heart or pinecone shape had been turned upside down with the point facing the bottom, and around the same time, the wide part of the symbol took on a more scalloped look. Thus, the modern heart shape was born. It became popular in Europe around the sixteenth century and was used in religious imagery, such as the Luther Rose and the Sacred Heart, inspiring fervent devotion to Jesus and a sign of monastic love.

As we can see, the heart wasn’t limited to romantic love. As the seat of all emotion, the heart particularly represented faithfulness and bravery. A heart on a coat of arms was a symbol of courage—the very word itself is derived from cor, meaning “heart” in Latin (Jauhar, 2018, p. 20). Metaphors in many different languages attest to the different strong emotions attributed to the heart—to “speak from the heart” is to be sincere, to “take heart” is to be brave, repentance and reconciliation require a “change of heart,” and the Grinch’s heart was lacking in compassion, for it was “two sizes too small.”

The famous I Heart New York Logo by Milton Glaser, 1977.

Another drastic change in the use of the heart icon, also known as the cardioid, was in 1977, when the “I ❤ NY” logo was created to attract tourists to a struggling New York City. The heart was not seen only as a symbol of romantic love—it encapsulated a fondness for an iconic American city, spurring spin-offs and cliched T-shirts for everything imaginable in addition to positively changing the perception of New York. Heart was now a verb synonymous with love, depending on how you read the ❤ symbol out loud.

In 1999, when the first emoticons for mobile communication were released, the heart symbol visually communicated love in a quick and simple way. Chat rooms, text messages, and social media reactions over the next two decades until the present have only increased the use and visibility of the heart emoji. On the latest iPhone, there are 24 unique heart emojis, plus more that include hearts as part of a larger image—and there’s even an anatomically correct one! (Click here for an n-gram analysis showing how different heart emojis are used, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

The heart shape is now an undying symbol of love, whether that love is undying or not. And whether or not the heart itself creates emotion, it is an important part of the way we feel emotion. What does love feel like to you?

Sources

Butler, Emily A., Tiane L. Lee, and James L. Gross. “Does Expressing Your Emotions Raise or Lower Your Blood Pressure? The Answer Depends on Cultural Context.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol.40, no. 3 (2009), 510–517. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4260334/.

Bryce, Emma.  How Emotions Are ‘Made’: Why Your Definition of Sadness is Unlike Anyone Else’s. March 23, 2017. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lisa-feldman-barrett-emotions.

Bryson, Bill. The Body: A Guide for Occupants. (Doubleday: New York City, 2019).

Jauhar, Sandeep. Heart: A History. (New York City: Farrar, Strass & Giroux, 2018).

Lewis, Tanya. “Human Heart: Anatomy, Function & Facts. March 22, 2016. Livescience. https://www.livescience.com/34655-human-heart.html.

Martinez, Aleix M. “The Hidden Emotions within Our Blood Flow.” October 17, 2018. Science Breaker. https://thesciencebreaker.org/storage/breaks/the-hidden-emotions-within-our-blood-flow.pdf.

Nummenmaa, Lauri, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Bodily Maps of Emotions.” PNAS, vol. 11, no. 2 (2014), 646–651. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.

Price, Lilly. The Heart Icon Looks Nothing Like a Human Heart. Here’s Why. February 13, 2019. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/02/13/valentines-day-why-heart-icon-looks-nothing-like-human-organ/2811839002/

Wikipedia. “Heart.” Accessed February 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart.

Wikipedia. “Heart Symbol.” Accessed February 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_symbol.

Yalom, Marion. “How Did the Human Heart Become Associated with Love? And How Did It Turn into the Shape We Know Today?” February 12, 2019. TED. https://ideas.ted.com/how-did-the-human-heart-become-associated-with-love-and-how-did-it-turn-into-the-shape-we-know-today/.

Green Thumb

Why is a good gardener known as a green thumb? The answer involves a vegetable-loving king, a wartime radio show, and a dishonest corn miller.

In American English, a person with skill for gardening is sometimes called a “green thumb.” The expressions “having green fingers” and “being green-fingered” are the equivalent in British English. And the opposite—someone who lacks skill at growing plants—is known as a “brown thumb.” But just how did these expressions come to be?

Thumbs and Fingers

One theory is that algae grows on the underside of earthenware pots, and it can stain a gardener’s fingers green if he or she handles them often enough. A gardener who puts in the time and effort to work with enough gardening pots could literally have a green thumb.

Another, albeit dubious, theory comes from a story about King Edward I, who loved green peas and kept half a dozen servants shelling peas when they were in season. He rewarded the servant who shelled the most as evidenced by having the greenest thumb.

“Green fingers” was the phrase recorded first, however, and it was used as early as 1906 in the novel The Misses Make-Believe by Mary Stuart Boyd. Boyd wrote of “what old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.”

“Green thumb” was first recorded in a 1937 Ironwood Daily Globe newspaper article noting that it was slang for “a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things.”

Both phrases caught on in the 1930s and ’40s when they were used on a popular BBC radio program called “In Your Garden,” hosted by C. H. Middleton.

The Green Thumb and the Golden Thumb

The thumb in particular being green may have been an analogy to a Middle English proverb: “An honest miller has a golden thumb.” This phrase originated around 1386 in The Canterbury Tales, in which Geoffrey Chaucer writes that the miller “hadde a thombe of gold.” Chaucer tells us that the miller also stole corn and charged three times what it was worth, yet he was regarded as having a gold thumb. There are various interpretations of this saying. One interpretation is that millers were widely regarded as being dishonest, so even the most trustworthy still took a secret cut. Nobody really has a golden thumb, so a truly honest miller doesn’t exist. Along those lines, millers sometimes deceived customers by using a finger or thumb to press down on the scale when weighing grain, thus driving up the price. Another interpretation is more along the lines of the miller having a Midas touch—grain seemed to turn to gold in his hands because of how lucrative his business was. So perhaps a golden thumb could refer to someone with a skill for making money, often in a dishonest way.

The golden thumb and the green thumb could be siblings in the family of English idioms—or they could be unrelated. The green color of the thumb could have some literal meaning—or it could simply be an association with the color of plants. There is great temptation to make connections between phrases and ideas without real evidence from historical usage, but what we do know is that gardeners work with their hands, digging and pruning and using their thumbs and fingers to work with all shades of green plants.

A Modern Twist

We also know that gardening requires skill, patience, and effort to bring about the rewards of flowers and fruit.

One modern interpretation of “green thumb” was given by London Brockbank in a worldwide broadcast in which she discussed her experience working in her family’s sizeable garden in her youth. In an interview with a religious leader, she said,

“Everybody likes and enjoys picking the fruit . . . but I’d say probably weeding is the most challenging because you’re down on your hands and knees, and after a while you start to ache. And your hands are dirty. We would stain the tips of our fingers and our thumbs green from pulling.”

The interviewer responded, “That’s why they said you had a green thumb.”

Brockbank replied, “Yes, you’d think it was because the plants grow well; it’s because the weeds are getting pulled.”

“Green thumb” has often been taken to mean that a natural, inborn skill for gardening. But it seems that a successful harvest can come from the diligent efforts of any dedicated gardener who is willing to work through the weeds.

Sources

Brockbank, London. In Gong, Gerrit R. “Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus.” January 10, 2021. 2021 S&I Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/broadcasts/miscellaneous-events/2020/01/12gong?lang=eng.

“Can You Tell Me How the Expression ‘Green Thumb’ Originated?” The Old Farmers’ Almanac. https://www.almanac.com/fact/can-you-tell-me-how-the-expression#:~:text=Answer%3A%20According%20to%20James%20Underwood,or%20she%20handles%20enough%20pots.&text=The%20serf%20who%20had%20the%20greenest%20thumb%20won%20a%20prize.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. General Prologue, lines 564–565.

Daniels, B. “The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.” Classics of English Literature: Essays by Barbara Daniels, M.A., PhD. http://www.classicsenglishliterature.com/the-prologue-to-the-canterbury-tales-6.html.

“Green thumb.” Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed January 30, 2021.

“Green thumb.” Wiktionary. Accessed January 30, 2021, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/green_thumb.

O’Conner, Patricia T., and Stewart Kellerman. “Green Thumbs and Green Fingers.”

September 25, 2017. Grammarphobia. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/09/green-thumb-green-fingers.html.

Rossen, Jake. “Why Are Gardeners Said to Have a ‘Green Thumb’?” May 13, 2020. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/624352/why-do-gardeners-have-a-green-thumb.

Say Yes to the (White) Dress

Why do brides wear white wedding dresses in Western tradition? The answer involves a parade of British royalty, including Princess Philippa, Queen Victoria, and Princess Diana.

The earliest record of a bride wearing a white wedding dress was Princess Philippa of England when she married the Scandinavian King Eric in 1406. She wore a white silk tunic lined with squirrel and ermine fur.

In 1556, Mary, Queen of Scots, also wore a white wedding gown when she was married to Francis Dauphin of France, despite the fact that the French customarily wore white in mourning.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, some wealthier brides had a new dress made for their wedding, sometimes white, but often gold or blue or heavily brocaded with silver thread. Those who were of more humble circumstances simply wore their best dress they already had in any color. At this time, red was a popular color in eastern Europe, black was common in Scandinavia, and those in America and western Europe often wore blue, yellow, brown, or gray. Wearing a white dress symbolized wealth and status, more than anything: white was a rare and expensive color before the mastery of bleaching techniques, and only the rich could afford an elaborate, impractical dress that would be costly to keep clean. Generally, women repurposed their wedding attire for formal occasions after the wedding. Before the industrial revolution and the mass production of textiles, it would have seemed absurd to wear any dress only once, even for the upper crust of society.

The Victorian Wedding Dress

In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in a now-iconic white lace dress. It both reflected and set the fashions of the age—the champagne-colored dress, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, a tight bodice hugging the Queen’s natural waist, and a full skirt held out with petticoats was the height of style in the Victorian Era. It featured handmade Honiton lace from a small village called Beer, an attempt by Victoria to support the struggling lace industry in the country. Rather than wearing a jeweled tiara, the queen chose a crown of orange blossoms and myrtle, which would have been more reflective of a commoner’s wedding attire rather than that of an upper-class socialite. This elegant take on a simple style endeared Victoria to her subjects and made her seem more down-to-earth than other royals before her.

February 10, 1840: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James’s Palace, London. Original Artwork: Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

With no elaborate jewelry, bright colors, or gold embroidery, Victoria’s wedding dress was a decided departure from queens and princesses who had gone before. Her wedding was frugal, comparatively speaking, and conveyed her good sense and prudence as a ruler as well as her love for Albert, uncluttered by heirloom jewels or fur trimmings.

Illustrations of the royal couple were widely circulated, and every newspaper column and women’s magazine reported on Victoria’s dress for months on end. Both British subjects and American onlookers were enraptured with the Queen, romanticizing her relationship with Albert as one of love and domestic bliss. As images of Queen Victoria’s wedding gown spread across Europe and North America, the upper classes began to copy her style. Many brides opted for white wedding dresses inspired by Victoria, often with embroidered silk, lace, or floral detailing.

Queen Victoria presented an image of simplicity and good taste with her bridal wear, but ironically, the white wedding dress became a symbol of conspicuous consumption. It caught on in society precisely because it was quite expensive for the average person. A white dress that would dirty easily through any kind of work or even the tasks of daily living would be impractical for all but the richest members of society.

The Wedding Register by Edmund Leighton, 1852, shows a bride in a Victorian-era wedding dress.

A Reversal of Values

In 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine in the United States, claimed that “custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue [for brides], whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” This was a dubious claim to anyone who looked a little closer—white had very recently become the color of choice for wedding dresses, and it was clearly worn as a show of wealth rather than a symbol of purity.

The Virgin in Prayer by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, c. 1640–1650.

In addition, at the time, the color blue rather than white was associated with purity and with the Virgin Mary. Mary was often depicted wearing a blue robe (which, as it happens, was because blue was the color worn by an empress in the Byzantine Empire). Up until white wedding dresses came into fashion, many women specifically chose to wear blue dresses because of their association with purity.

Godey’s Lady’s Book used some inaccurate history and creative hyperbole to promote the white wedding dress, and it’s clear that color symbolism is not always straightforward. However, the symbolism of the white dress did in fact shift to an association with purity and innocence. Though these values seem outdated to many today, they make sense in light of traditional cultural expectations of a young woman’s conduct before marriage.

Industry and War

With the industrial revolution and subsequent innovations in manufacturing, fashionable clothing in general became more available to the average person. Bleaching techniques allowed for the production of cheaper fabric in a true white color, rather than the cream or eggshell hues that were produced in the nineteenth century. Synthetic fibers, developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were also used to create cheaper and more durable clothing. Better laundering techniques allowed for washing and preserving white clothing for longer than ever before. All these advances allowed more women to buy a white wedding dress specifically for their wedding.

A wedding party in 1917 in Chicago, Illinois.
Image from Richard Arthur Norton family archives, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was not until the end of World War II that a white wedding dress was expected for most brides. Wartime rationing was over, and there was increased prosperity throughout the United States—what a delight it was to buy a nice dress to celebrate a special occasion! Hollywood movies also featured brides walking down the aisle in white, contributing to the color’s popularity.

The white wedding dress was thus recognized as tradition for all social classes in the mid-twentieth century, and white is the color of choice in many countries around the world, from Australia to Singapore to Italy. In fact, Chinese brides often pose for a wedding photoshoot in a Western-style white dress, then wear a traditional red dress on their actual wedding day.

Modern Trends

Actors, princesses, and other celebrities continue to influence wedding dress fashion in Europe and North America. Princess Diana’s elaborate, puffy-sleeved wedding gown reflected the trends in 1981, and Duchess Kate Middleton’s lace sleeves became wildly popular after her wedding in 2011. Major designers immediately scrambled to emulate the royal wedding dresses in their own designs.

Around the 1960s, some brides began to wear more colorful frocks, largely inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s green, yellow, and rainbow wedding dresses (she was married eight separate times). Today, a small subset of brides wear colored or black dresses or even floral prints. Though colored dresses continue to become more common, none of these trends has yet gained enough momentum to displace the white wedding dress, and the white dress remains engraved in the popular idea of a wedding in the Western world.

Extra Credit: Watch 100 Years of Fashion: Wedding Dresses for fascinating look at wedding dresses in the past century.

Sources

Brennan, Summer. “A Natural History of the Wedding Dress.” September 27, 2017. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/a-natural-history-of-the-wedding-dress/.

Komar, Marlen. “Why So Many Brides Wear White on Their Wedding Day.” February 8, 2019.  CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/history-white-wedding-dress-royal-wedding/index.html.

Sanusi, Tayi. “The Reason Brides Wear White on Their Wedding Day Might Surprise You.” October 29, 2019. Elite Daily. https://www.elitedaily.com/p/the-reason-brides-wear-white-on-their-wedding-day-might-surprise-you-19274189.

“Wedding Dress.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedding_dress.

“White Wedding.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_wedding.

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Why is sliced bread our reference for things that are new and incredible? The answer involves wrapped bread, banned bread, and Wonder Bread.

“It’s the best thing since sliced bread!” you might proclaim about fast wi-fi, a meal-delivery service, or a new TV show. This phrase is used to describe a remarkable, revolutionary innovation. The Kansas City Star noted that “the phrase is the ultimate depiction of innovative achievement and American know-how.” When it comes to sliced bread itself, it’s an innovation that we now take for granted but once seemed a marvel of modern mechanization.

Rohwedder’s Bread Slicing Machine

The earliest bread-slicing machines appeared in America in the 1860s and used parallel blades to slice bread. However, they sat on shelves, mostly unused and unnoticed for decades. In the meantime, other machinery was developed that could produce loaves of bread of uniform shape and size.

An early bread-slicing machine
An early electric bread-slicing machine in use in St. Louis, 1930.
Image from Popular Science 116 (2): 64. Wikimedia Commons.

A jeweler from Iowa named Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the first electric bread-slicing machine that worked in tandem with modern production methods. He built a prototype that was, sadly, destroyed in a fire in 1912. Rohwedder finished the machine in 1917, but many companies refused to buy it because they were concerned that consumers wouldn’t be interested in pre-sliced bread—weren’t people just fine cutting it themselves? Additionally, they worried that the bread would crumble and grow stale too quickly if it were sliced. This problem was solved by wrapping the bread in wax paper immediately after it was sliced.

The bread-slicing machine was finally put into service in 1928 by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri. The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune ran a full-page ad on July 6, 1928, to spread the word about the innovative new product:

An ad in the Chillicothe Tribune announcing "Sliced Kleen Maid Bread."

The ad noted that this gave Chillicothe Baking Company “the distinction of being the first bakers in the world to sell sliced bread to the public.”

And notice that the greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread! Bread had been mass-produced, wrapped in wax paper, and sold to grocery stores since about the 1820s—after then, families no longer had to make several loaves of homemade bread every week. The combination of sliced and wrapped bread would prove to be an even more successful innovation for the bread industry.

The Wonder of Sliced Bread

Pre-sliced bread quickly gained momentum, and within two years of its introduction, 90% of the bread sold in stores was sliced. It was convenient and consistent, and customers loved it. Other inventions such as the toaster reinforced and adapted to the popularity of uniformly sliced bread.

In addition, bread consumption increased because it was so much easier to eat more bread—the knife no longer stood as a barrier between an American and a slice of bread with jam. In fact, the consumption of butter, jam, and other spreads increased as well as people ate more slices of bread, more frequently. Sliced bread eased the burden on mothers who formerly had to slice whole loaf of bread in the morning to make toast for breakfast and sandwiches to pack for lunch for a growing family.

Other bread companies caught the wave of sliced bread and experimented with similar campaigns and further innovations. Some sold extra thick or extra thin slices of bread (in fact, loaves of bread are still sold according to slice thickness in the United Kingdom). In 1933, one bakery offered thick and thin slices in the same loaf and marketed it as “the first improvement since sliced bread.” Rohwedder also sold his patent for the slicing machine in 1930, and other bakeries and inventors improved upon the model.

Wonder Bread followed Chillicothe’s lead with marketing campaigns advertising “a truly wonderful bread,” constantly talking up its uniform, snowy white loaves that were now pre-sliced thanks to the company’s own slicing machines. Whereas Chillicothe was a smaller-scale bakery, Wonder Bread produced the first commercially manufactured sliced bread in America and used delivery trucks to ship bread around the nation. By the 1930s, Wonder Bread had built its brand upon its uniform, pre-sliced loaves, which became an icon of the enormous manufacturing capacity of United States.

wonder bread
Wonder Bread became a symbol of uniformity and consistency.
Image by Siqbal, May 1, 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

Banned Bread

Now for a horror story. In 1943, during the height of World War II, the U.S. government issued a ban on sliced bread due to wartime shortages and a need to focus on manufacturing weaponry. Sliced bread required more wrapping materials, and there had been a 10 percent rise in the price of flour, so the ban was supposed to reduce waste and save money. Banned bread! What an outrage for carbohydrate-loving consumers and mothers who were already harried for time! The ban was lifted two months later due to widespread outcry. It seems that sliced bread was too much a fact of American life at that point to be taken away. Besides, the ban also had but a small effect on savings, and many bakeries were hard-pressed to comply.

Mechanization vs. Back to Nature

One of the most significant effects of the industrial revolution was the mechanization of everyday life. The ease and convenience of pre-sliced bread is a seemingly small time-saver that that yields a great return. Many rushed mornings have been spared from further chaos by a loaf of bread ready for the toaster or the lunchbox.

More recently, dissatisfaction with highly processed foods and modern manufacturing methods has caused some people to return to making more food at home. Whether due to health reasons, countercultural currents, or environmental concerns, more Americans are turning to nonuniform, homemade, slice-by-yourself bread—just like great-grandma used to make.

So, what is the best thing since sliced bread? Perhaps it’s a loaf of homemade whole wheat bread, as a foil to mass consumerism—or perhaps it’s a new smartphone, a better mousetrap, or gluten-free cinnamon raisin bread.

Sources

Blitz, Matthew. “The Origin of Bread and the Phrase ‘The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.’” Mary 5, 2014. Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/origin-phrase-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-2/.

Boettcher, Kaitlyn. “A Brief History of Sliced Bread.” July 7, 2013. MentalFloss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/49168/brief-history-sliced-bread.

Chillicothe Constitution Tribune. July 6, 1928, p. 8.

Lohman, Sarah. “A Brief History of Bread.” December 18, 2012; updated October 15, 2019. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bread.

Molella, Art. “How the Phrase ‘The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread’ Originated.” February 8, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/how-the-phrase-the-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-originated/252674/.

“Sliced bread.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sliced_bread.

“The Toast of the Whole Town (Advertisement).” Evansville Press, December 22, 1933, p. 15.

Wenske, Paul. “History of Sliced Bread Little Known on 75th Anniversary.” July 29, 2003. Archived from the original on August 12, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20030812080649/http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascitystar/6405440.htm.

Duck, Duck, Goose

Where does the children’s game duck, duck, goose come from? The answer involves Swedish immigrants, imaginative children around the globe, and a rainbow of aquatic birds.

Duck, duck, goose is a popular children’s game in the United States that you’ve likely played many times. But here’s a refresher on how it’s done:

To play duck, duck, goose, players sit on the ground in a circle. One player, who we will call the “runner,” walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each participant’s head while saying the word “duck.” At some point, the runner says “goose” as he or she taps a target player, and then the “goose” must chase the runner around the circle until the runner reaches the “goose’s” former seat and takes his or her place.

Photo by Alex Guillame from Unsplash.

Why “duck” and “goose”? A goose is much more likely to chase you down if you bonk it on the head.

But just try telling that to a Minnesotan. In Minnesota, “duck, duck, gray duck” is the game of choice. Besides calling the target a gray duck instead of a goose, the person who is “it” also adds colors to each duck in the circle. “Red duck, purple duck, blue duck, grrrrr . . . een duck!” he or she might say, until finally naming the gray duck.

Origins

This game was introduced by Swedish immigrants who put down roots in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, about 1.3 million Swedes relocated to America, primarily settling in the Midwest along with other Scandinavian immigrants. The Swedish were driven by population growth, poverty, and religious repression and attracted to America by greater economic opportunity and political freedom. Along with them, they brought various traditions that have influenced American culture.

Minnesota is the only state that plays the “gray duck” way in the United States, but both versions came from Sweden. The Swedish name for the game that immigrants brought to Minnesota was anka-anka-grå-anka, “duck-duck-gray duck.” Swedish immigrants who arrived in other states brought with them a variant called anka-anka-gås, or “duck-duck-goose.”

It’s unclear exactly why duck, duck, goose gained so much traction in 49 of the 50 states in America. Children’s games are often passed down orally, which makes it hard to pin down the exact historical origins, and they are frequently changed in imaginative ways by different groups of children as they pass them along.

A game of duck duck goose
Photo by Ragesoss, May 14, 2007, CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

Global Variations

Interestingly, children’s games are strikingly similar around the world, and duck, duck, goose is no exception.

For example, a book detailing children’s games in England, Scotland, and Ireland in the late 1800s described a game called “kiss in the ring” that involved one player walking around the other players sitting in a ring and tapping each one on the head with a handkerchief, saying “Not you, not you, not you” until reaching the desired target—“But you!”—and the chase would commence.

A game in India called rumaal chor has one player, the “thief,” run around a seated circle of participants who extend their arms behind them. The thief drops a handkerchief along the way and whoever grabs it must jump up and catch the thief before he or she sits down. 

In Chile, children play corre, corre la guaraca by sitting in a circle with their eyes closed as one child runs around the outside with a handkerchief. Participants are bopped on the head if they attempt to look around. The runner must place the handkerchief on one child’s back to mark the child as the guaraca (which is a nonsense word) without him or her noticing, then run a full circle and sit down before the guaraca notices and tags the runner.

In some versions of the game, the participants imagine that whoever is “it” is contagious with some kind of disease, and other participants want to avoid their touch so they don’t get “sick.” Players in Italy avoid the runner like the plague, those in Madagascar are afraid of leprosy, and participants in Spain flee from fleas.

The global popularity of similar children’s games goes to show that there is not necessarily one “true” source of a particular game. Any game may emerge in similar forms in different places as children create new ways to play together.

Sources

Adams, Cecil. “How Did Minnesota Diverge Linguistically from ‘Duck Duck Goose’ to ‘Duck Duck Gray Duck’?” December 6, 2017. Connect Savannah. https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/how-did-minnesota-diverge-linguistically-from-duck-duck-goose-to-duck-duck-gray-duck/Content?oid=6476780

Blanck, Dag. “Swedish Immigration to North America. Fall 2009. Swenson Swedish Immigration Center. Augustana College. https://www.augustana.edu/swenson/academic/history#:~:text=After%20the%20Civil%20War%2C%20the,Kansas%2C%20Wisconsin%2C%20and%20Nebraska.

“Children’s Games across the World Have Striking Similarities.” November 28, 2018. English Language Centres. https://www.ecenglish.com/en/social/blog/brighton/2018/11/28/childrens-games-change-across-world#:~:text=In%20England%20we%20would%20play,game%3B%20Duck%2C%20Duck%20Goose.&text=In%20the%20U.K%20children%20play,saying%20’duck’%20each%20time.

Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland: With Tunes, Singing Rhymes and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom. (London: Nutt, 1894–1989), pp. 308–309. The Internet Archive.

Macalus, Austin. Why Are Minnesotans the Only Ones to Play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck? April 26, 2019. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/why-do-minnesotans-play-duck-duck-gray-duck-instead-of-duck-duck-goose/502474351/?fbclid=IwAR0yLQ8mScKdrg4C9xh-wu9QTRfDLPkFCRp_4GILp4SbxtaJJmX6dcOjcBw&refresh=true.

Strickler, Jeff. “The Game is Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Or Is It?” March 26, 2014. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/the-game-is-duck-duck-gray-duck-or-is-it/252303671/?refresh=true.

I’ll Take a Gander—And a Silly Goose

Where does the phrase “to take a gander” come from? As one of the many delightful goose-related idioms in the English language (see “goose egg” and “silly goose”), the history of “to take a gander” involves male waterfowl and nosy neighbors.

As an idiom, “to take a gander” means to look at or investigate something. It can mean anything from a quick peek to a thorough examination.

A male goose is called a gander, while a female goose is a goose. Baby geese are called goslings. Geese have long necks, and a gander twists and stretches its neck to look around and keep an eye out for trouble. Geese are quite nosy and will poke their long necks around anywhere that seems interesting.

Jessica Nolting, republished by Know Your Meme.

In England in the 1880s, gander began to be used first as a verb meaning “to look around” and later as a noun meaning “a look.” The phrase “to take a gander” came into fashion in the early 1900s.

Interested in more goose sayings?

A goose egg is either a big bump that forms as a result of hitting one’s head on something, or a zero score in a sports game. Both resemble a large egg.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Basically, this means that people or things that are alike should be given the same treatment. What one person is allowed to do, another person should be allowed to do in the same situation. So if you make a nice raspberry sauce for your roast goose dinner, it will also be delicious on top of gander since they’re the same animal.

And finally, a silly goose is someone who acts in childish or foolish in a comical way. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary described a goose as “a large waterfowl proverbially noted, I know not why, for foolishness.” According to one source, geese have long been perceived or characterized as foolish due to (1) their clumsy-looking waddle when they walk on land, and (2) the gander’s dramatic hissing and waggling at a perceived threat in competition for a mate, which may have led to (3) the use of a goose to represent a vain or foolish man in Egyptian hieroglyphics (though there is not a clear connection to English here), and (4) the portrayal of geese as unwise or gullible characters in fables and fairy tales.

Some have posited that the word silly first meant something like “feeble,” “weak,” or “innocent” as applied to animals. An early mention of a silly (alternatively spelled seely) goose was in a collection of poems called The Paradise of Dainty Devices published in 1576. The word goose alone has also been used from the early fifteenth century to mean “simpleton, silly or foolish person.” Spend a few minutes watching a gaggle of geese, and you’ll understand why they have been associated with so many negative characteristics—they panic easily, honk loudly, and bumble around in a somewhat ridiculous way.

And this is just the beginning of the goosery—stay tuned for a rousing game of duck, duck, goose next week.

Sources

“gander,” Oxford English Dictionary, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/gander.

“goose,” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/goose.

Samuel Johnson, “goose,” A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, published by johnsonsdictionaryonline.com, https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/goose/.

“Take a gander,” Grammarist, https://grammarist.com/idiom/take-a-gander/.

“take a gander at,” Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/take-a-gander-at.

“Why Do We Say ‘Silly Goose’?” April 10, 2020. Reference.com. https://www.reference.com/world-view/say-silly-goose-95ae39b67c23049b.

O Christmas Tree

Why do we cut down evergreen trees and decorate them with glittering ornaments and lights during the Christmas season? The answer involves the sun god, the Garden of Eden, and Charlie Brown.

Ancient Symbolism of Evergreen Trees

Perhaps you’re familiar with the symbolism attached to Christmas trees. Evergreen trees—typically spruce, pine, or fir—stay green throughout the year, representing everlasting life. To some, the triangular shape of the tree represents the Trinity. The star on top represents the star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. The lights on the tree—candles, before electric lights were invented—also echo the light of the star of Bethlehem and symbolize Jesus Christ as the light of the world. Ornaments on the tree can mean many things, but they are often red, which brings to mind the blood of Christ.

What you might not know is that bringing evergreen trees into a dark winter abode once served as a reminder that the sun god, who was weak and sick in the winter, would bring new life once summer returned and he was strong again. In addition, evergreen boughs were once hung over doors to ward off evil spirits and illness. The idea of lighting the tree had its origin in pagan Yuletide rituals that celebrated the return of the light of the sun as the winter solstice passed and the days began to grow longer. Yule trees symbolizing the Tree of Life were decorated with ribbons, religious symbols, and objects that represented gifts people wanted to receive from the gods. The color green symbolizes fertility and new life, and red is associated with holly berries and mistletoe, plants once thought to be magical for their ability to keep their leaves and fruit through the winter.

Evergreen trees have been a part of winter festivals for thousands of years. From Yuletide and other winter solstice celebrations in Europe, to the early Roman festival of Saturnalia, to ancient Egyptian and Chinese worship of the sun god, bringing evergreen plants into homes and places of worship represented life and fertility in the darkness of winter. The Vikings and Saxons worshiped evergreen trees as a sacred symbol of deity, and some of that reverence was retained even after widespread conversion to Christianity.

The Paradise Tree

The Christian concept of the Christmas tree emerged in medieval Germany. At a time when many people were losing interest in typical church services held in Latin, craft guilds began to perform what were known as “mystery plays,” reenacting stories from the Bible in the vernacular language. One mystery play typically performed on December 24, the religious feast day commemorating Adam and Eve, included a fir tree as a prop to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise tree, as it was called, was decorated with apples to represent the fruit that Adam and Eve ate (the round, red ornaments we often use today are reminiscent of the apples on the Paradise tree). Wafers were hung on the tree to represent the Eucharist. In later years, these were replaced with cookies and other confections.

When mystery plays were banned in the sixteenth century, people began to set up Paradise trees in their homes. Often accompanying the tree was a “Christmas pyramid,” a contraption of wooden shelves that held religious figurines along with glass balls, evergreen boughs, and a candle. The Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid eventually merged into the Christmas tree during the Renaissance. It is commonly believed that that Martin Luther was the first to place candles on the tree in awe of the glittering stars in the Christmas night sky, though there is no evidence to suggest this story is true.

Over the next few centuries, it was common among German Protestants to set up Christmas trees in their homes and decorate them with apples, gingerbread, nuts, paper ornaments, and candles. They were generally small and sometimes small presents and toys The Christmas tree was rejected by German Catholics as being either a Lutheran tradition or an icon of paganism. However, Christmas trees became popular among German nobility in the early eighteenth century and then began to spread throughout the royal courts of Europe, at which point they became more of an expression of German culture rather than Protestant identity.

Christmas Trees in Great Britain

The Christmas tree was introduced to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Churches and homes in Great Britain had been decorated with evergreen trees during the Christmas season since at least the early 1600s, but never had they been decorated with lights and surrounded with presents in the German fashion.

When King George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the union formed with the Kingdom of Hanover initiated a cultural exchange of Christmas traditions. Charlotte is known to have decorated an evergreen tree at Christmastime in the 1790s.

However, it was Queen Victoria who truly catapulted the Christmas tree into the spotlight. In an 1832 journal entry, the future Queen Victoria expressed delight at seeing a festive evergreen tree decorated with lights and ornaments and with presents placed around it. Britain’s ties to Germany and its Christmas traditions were further strengthened when Victoria married her German cousin Albert in 1840, making him the prince consort of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, 1848.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Then, an image of the Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle showcased the royal family surrounding a glowing evergreen tree lit with candles, the young princes and princesses admiring the tree in wonder. This image created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. Because the middle class took their cues from the royal family’s new Christmas tradition, Christmas trees gained popularity in Great Britain through the 1830s and 1840s. Christmas trees were found first in the homes of the wealthier middle class and in places of public entertainment, then later spread to the homes of the common people.

The American version of a similar engraving published in the Illustrated London News, 1848, and republished in a slightly modified version in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, December 1850.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas Trees in North America

When the Windsor Castle image was reprinted in the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850, Christmas trees came into fashion across the pond. By 1870, Christmas trees were commonplace in America, and Christmas was declared a national holiday.

However, Christmas trees had been introduced to North America nearly a century earlier by German soldiers in Quebec, who were stationed there as allies of Great Britain in the American Revolution. In 1781, General and Baroness von Riedesel threw a Christmas party for the officers that featured a fir tree ornamented with candles and fruit. Other areas claim to be the home of the first Christmas tree in the United States, including a 1777 Christmas tree in Connecticut, which was set up by an imprisoned German soldier, and community trees established in areas where German families lived. After the revolution, German immigrants introduced the Christmas tree in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, decorated variously with candy canes, paper ornaments, kuchen (the German word for “cake”), and a star on top. The celebration of Christmas—including Christmas trees—was most pronounced in Pennsylvania, with its large population of German immigrants.

First published image of a Christmas tree, frontispiece to Hermann Bokum’s 1836 The Stranger’s Gift.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Up until the 1840s, however, many Americans still rejected the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol. Puritans attempted to stamp out any “heathen” traditions—Christmas carols, Christmas trees, or anything else remotely joyful— that had creeped in to their typically austere observance of Christ’s birth. The image in Godey’s Lady’s Book provided the momentum for the Christmas tree—and the holiday in general—to be adopted in other areas of the country.

The Modern Christmas Tree

Over the next century, Christmas evolved from a small-scale religious and family celebration to an entire commercialized season with a variety of traditions. By the 1950s, Christmas with all the trimmings was available to the common family in the United States and Great Britain. With greater commercialization came new types of Christmas trees—brightly colored aluminum trees, in particular, caught the eye of many a shopper in the early 1960s.

Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
Charles Schultz, A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In protest, the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas took a stand against these space-age decorations. While preparing for a neighborhood Christmas play, Lucy instructs Charlie Brown to get a “big, shiny aluminum tree . . . maybe painted pink” to decorate. Charlie Brown instead passes through a field of synthetic trees to pick out a real—but small and drooping—Christmas tree. The television special subverts the creeping consumerism that had come to dominate the Christmas season as Linus recites the simple annunciation to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (see Luke 2:10–11). Aluminum trees quickly fell out of fashion after A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired.

Though many aspects of the Christmas celebration have their origins in paganism, the symbol of the Christmas tree took on new significance for Christians as they ascribed their own ritual meanings to it. Christmas today is celebrated by people of other religions or no religion, and the Christmas tree signifies different things to different people—eternal life, the hope of light in the darkness of winter, the warmth of a family gathering, or a reminder of Jesus as the light of the world.

Sources

Biography.com Editors. “Prince Albert Biography.” Updated October 21, 2019. Biography.com. https://www.biography.com/royalty/prince-albert.

“Christmas.” Accessed December 7, 2020. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas.

“Christmas Tree.” Accessed December 7, 2020. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree.

History.com Editors. “History of Christmas Trees.” Updated December 2, 2020. Original October 27, 2009. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees.

Masaro, Daniela. “Traditions and Symbols of Yule.” December 22, 2011. Sacred Earth Journeys. https://www.sacredearthjourneys.ca/blog/traditions-and-symbols-of-yule/.

“Mystery and Morality Plays.” Accessed December 10, 2020. British Literature Wiki. https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/mystery-and-morality-plays/.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Christmas Tree.” Updated October 15, 2020. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree.

Travers, Penny. “The Christmas Tree: From Pagan Origins and Christian Symbolism to Secular Status.” December 18, 2016. ABC Radio Canberra. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-19/the-history-of-the-christmas-tree/8106078#:~:text=%22That%20became%20a%20symbol%20of,bringing%20it%20into%20the%20house.%22.

Van Vlear, Victoria. “All About Aluminum Christmas Trees,” November 24, 2018, Atomic Ranch, https://www.atomic-ranch.com/interior-design/all-about-aluminum-christmas-trees/.

The Days of the Week

Where do the names of the days of the week come from? And why are there seven days in a week? The answer involves Hellenistic astrology, Roman gods and goddesses, and a takeover by Norse mythology.

The concept of the seven-day week was first recorded in the Babylonian calendar of ancient Mesopotamia, which is based on the 21st-century BCE Sumerian calendar. Each of the four phases of the moon (waxing, full, waning, new) lasts about seven days, and the seven-day period corresponds to the time it takes the moon to transition. Four weeks—a “moon,” or a “month”—is about the length of a complete moon cycle. A complete moon cycle lasts precisely 29.53 days, so one or two days were inserted at each set of four weeks until the new crescent moon signaled the beginning of a new month. Additionally, an extra month was sometimes inserted by royal decree to reconcile the lunar year with the solar year.  

The Jewish seven-day week was a distinct tradition that emerged from the biblical account of the seven-day creation period. The Book of Genesis describes God creating the world in seven distinct days or time periods, resting on the seventh day. This became the basis for the seven-day week in Judea, with the seventh day reserved for a Sabbath, or day of rest.

The seven-day week gradually gained popularity with the Romans starting in the first century BCE. By the fourth century CE, this system had become dominant across the Roman Empire and had spread to India and China as well. The Romans assigned each day a name of one of the seven visible planets in the sky, all those that were known to humans at the time (including the sun and moon, which were considered planets). The planets had each been named after a Roman god or goddess.

A heptagram representing the days of the week. Each day is represented by the astrological symbol of the celestial object associated with its Latin name.
Image by Ant Allen, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In Hellenistic astrology, the planets were commonly listed in the order of fastest-orbiting to slowest-orbiting from the perspective of earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. This is known as the Chaldean order. Astrologers believed that a different planet ruled over each hour of the day, and the planetary hours followed the Chaldean order. The days of the week were assigned every other name in this order to correspond with the planetary hour that begins each day at sunrise. Through this somewhat complicated astrological system, the days of the week were given the following names:

Monday (dies Lunae) was the moon’s day. Diana was the goddess of the moon.

Tuesday (dies Martis) belonged to Mars, the god of war.

Wednesday (dies Mercurii) was Mercury’s, the god of commerce, wealth, translating and interpreting, travel, and thievery. Mercury is known as the messenger god.

Thursday (dies Jovis) was for Jove, an earlier name for Jupiter. As the king of the Roman pantheon, Jove was the god of the sky and of thunder and lightning.

Friday (dies Veneris) was named for Venus, the goddess of beauty, fertility, and love.

Saturday (dies Saturni) was Saturn’s day. Saturn was the god of agriculture, liberation, and time.

Sunday (dies Solis) was for the sun. Apollo was the god of the sun.

Cameos in raised relief of the Olympic gods. The seven gods depicted are the gods of the planets in correct order to their relationship to the seven days of the week. From left to right: Diana (the moon) for Monday, Mars for Tuesday, Mercury for Wednesday, Jupiter for Thursday, Venus for Friday, Saturn for Saturday, and Apollo (the sun) for Sunday.
Walters Art Museum. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you speak a Romance language, the Latin names might look familiar to you. With the exception of Saturday and Sunday, which in many languages were changed to “Sabbath” and “the Lord’s Day,” the Roman names of the days of the week were preserved in Latin-based languages.

The Romans could have just named these days “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 2,” and so on—in fact, Portuguese does just this for weekdays. Many non-Romance languages, like Russian and Hebrew, number each day of the week starting on either Sunday or Monday. But many societies under the umbrella of the Roman Empire chose to honor the celestial bodies that represented their deities.

The Romans occupied the island of Britain from 43 to 410 CE, and the seven-day calendar week with its planetary associations spread to the Old-English-speaking inhabitants. The English days of the week correspond in meaning to the Latin days of the week, but they are etymologically distinct. The days of the week in English bear the names of Anglo-Saxon deities, gods and goddesses that originated in Germanic and Norse mythology.

The pantheon of Nordic gods and goddesses gathered around the god Baldr, who has been struck with an arrow.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Baldr’s Death,1817. Wikimedia Commons.

(As a quick primer on the Old English names given in parentheses, the æ character is called ash and is pronounced like the a in ash. The g at the end of each word is pronounced like a y.)

Monday (Monandæg) is still the moon’s day, from Old Norse máni, meaning “moon.”

Tuesday (Tiwesdæg) is Tiw’s day, named for the Norse god of war and combat. Notice that Tuesday is named after the god of war in both languages—in Latin, this god is Mars, and in English, this god is Tiw.

Wednesday (Wodnesdæg) is named for Woden, the chief Anglo-Saxon god in charge of wisdom, healing, death, royalty, and the runic alphabet, among other things. Unlike the other namesakes of the days of the week, Woden does not have an obvious connection with his Roman counterpart, Mercury. However, upon a closer examination, both are shapeshifting gods who are associated with writing and with the dead. The possessive form of Woden in Old English was Wodnes, which accounts for the strange spelling of the word. In Norse mythology, this god is named Odin, whom you might know from The Avengers.

Thursday (Ðunresdæg) is Thor’s day! Thor, whom you definitely know from The Avengers, is the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning. Like the Roman god Jove, he rules over the skies. The Anglo-Saxon version of the name was Ðunor (or Thunor in modern spelling).

Friday (Frigedæg) is named after Friga, the goddess of love, who corresponds to the Roman Venus. She is associated with the home, marriage, and children. She was seen as the mother of the earth and is the wife of Woden.

Saturday (Sæternesdæg) adopted the name of the Roman god Saturn. No substitution occurred, possibly because there was no corresponding Anglo-Saxon god.

Sunday (Sunnandæg) similarly honored the sun, from Old Norse sól.

The Roman seven-day week and names for the days of the week were thus given a distinct Anglo-Saxon character in Old English, an example of cultural diffusion and adaptation that continues to influence our language and worldview today.

Since many aspects of the calendar are tied to the lunar and solar cycles, it makes sense why the Romans named the days of the week after the celestial bodies in the solar system. The planets revolve and rotate in order and harmony, just like the days of the week provide order for our lives.

Sources

Bultrighini, Ilaria. “The Seven-Day Week in the Roman Empire and the Near East.” Accessed December 2, 2020. University College London Hebrew & Jewish Studies. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/hebrew-jewish/research/research-projects/calendars-late-antiquity-and-middle-ages-standardization-and-fixation-1.

Coolman, Robert. “Keeping Time: Origins of the Days of the Week.” May 7, 2014. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/45432-days-of-the-week.html.

Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com.

Johnson, Ben. “The Anglo-Saxon English Days of the Week.” Accessed December 2, 2020. Historic UK. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Days-Of-The-Week/.

Koyfman, Steph. “The Secret Language of Weekdays.” January 25, 2019. Babbel. https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/weekday-origins.

“Names of the Days of the Week.” Accessed December 2, 2020. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_the_days_of_the_week.

“Planetary Hours and Days.” 2018. Renaissance Astrology. https://www.renaissanceastrology.com/planetaryhoursarticle.html.

The First Thanksgiving?

Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? The answer may not be what you think—it’s both more complicated than the “pilgrims and Indians” narrative many of us learned in school and less sinister than many “myth-busting” articles have recently claimed. However, it does involve lobsters, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the holiday shopping season.

Feasting and Merrymaking in the Colonies

Ritual rhythms of fasting and feasting existed long before Americans began to celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Many Native American tribes held feasts to commemorate the fall harvest and give thanks to the Creator. Christians of different denominations practiced fasting in supplication for relief during times of difficulty and feasting to give thanks to God during times of plenty.

After a harsh winter that killed many of the Mayflower’s original passengers, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they called themselves) began the work of establishing the village of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay. About fifty Pilgrims and ninety Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe celebrated for three days following a successful harvest in the fall of 1621. Since seventeenth-century sources do not identify this as a true thanksgiving observance in the religious sense, some historians hold that this was rather more of a harvest feast.

It may be that the first “true” Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1623—true because it was a feast following a period of religious fasting and because it was sanctioned by civil authority. Nevertheless, the 1621 Thanksgiving was a cross-cultural event with food, recreation, and expressions of gratitude.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. A 1925 recreation of Brownscombe’s earlier 1914 painting of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, significant in that it omits the Plains Indian headdresses that were criticized as non-historically accurate in her 1914 version.

There are only two primary sources documenting the 1621 feast, written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Winslow writes that the settlers had gone fowling so that they could “in a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.” He describes three days of feasting and entertaining “many of the Indians.” These included King Massasoit along with ninety men of the Wampanoag tribe, who had hunted five deer to present as a gift to the Plymouth settlers. Winslow rejoices, “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

This feast of plenty likely consisted of the venison brought by the Wampanoag, the wild fowl hunted by the settlers (possibly turkeys or ducks), seafood such as mussels and lobster, “Indian corn,” and vegetables native to the area like onions, beans, spinach, and turnips. Cranberries? Yes, but not in the form of sugary sauce. Pumpkin? Perhaps, but definitely not pumpkin pie.

A modern Thanksgiving feast includes turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, stuffing, and pie—not even close to what was served in the 1600s.

Was this the first Thanksgiving-type celebration in the New World? Nope. Historians have recorded harvest feasts predating this celebration. The earliest in 1565 was a gathering of Spanish explorers and members of the Timucua tribe in St. Augustine, Florida. Harvest feasts among British settlers in Virginia were common as early as 1607. Winslow’s account of the 1621 feast simply surfaced out of obscurity around 1820 in a collection called Chronicles of Our Pilgrim Fathers, whereas records of similar events were not well known. In the 1830s, those who read this account saw similarities with Thanksgiving celebrations in New England and then deemed it the “first Thanksgiving.”

Another harvest feast took place in 1637 following a night attack on a Pequot Indian village. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, officially declared a day of Thanksgiving in honor of colonial soldiers who had carried out the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children. In recent decades, many articles have claimed that this is the true origin of Thanksgiving. This perspective, while raising awareness about the harrowing injustices that European settlers committed in their dealings with Native Americans, nevertheless overlooks several Thanksgiving observances that came before, and it is most likely inaccurate to claim it as the basis for our modern Thanksgiving celebration.

Following these early observances, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated throughout the area of New England. The highly religious meanings attached to such feasts were overshadowed by the sentiment of gathering the family around the dinner table, a meaning that took on greater significance during Thanksgiving feasts in the 1700s and 1800s.

Thanksgiving as a National Observance

A painting of Sarah Josepha Hale.
Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
James Reid Lambdin, 1831. Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington proclaimed a one-time “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” on Thursday, November 26, 1789. It didn’t have much to do with the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and there was no mention of Native Americans. Rather, the holiday was to be a public day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” The holiday was later commemorated on different days and months, and various states scheduled their own Thanksgiving celebrations. Until after the Civil War, Thanksgiving was still celebrated mainly in New England.

Enter Sarah Josepha Hale, a highly influential writer and magazine editor of the nineteenth century. Besides authoring the beloved nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale served as the editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1837 to 1877. This publication was the most widely circulated magazine of the time and influenced fashion, cooking, and lifestyle trends for women throughout the United States.

September 1863 letter from editor Sarah Josepha Hale to President Abraham Lincoln discussing the need for a national Thanksgiving holiday.
Wikimedia Commons.

Hale took an interest in turning Thanksgiving into a nationally recognized holiday. She advocated for 17 years to promote Thanksgiving, publishing editorials in Godey’s and writing presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln. She felt that a day of thanksgiving could help heal a divided nation from the wounds of the Civil War. Hale also published recipes and promoted traditions that helped to popularize the holiday throughout the country as a day of national unity and family gathering. Her concept of Thanksgiving did not reflect the food or festivities at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and the idea of Thanksgiving was still not commonly connected with the early colonists.

Thanksgiving Day

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Thanksgiving would be celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November. As Hale had envisioned, it was seen as a day of unification and gratitude that the country desperately needed following the Civil War.

However, the spirit of gratitude didn’t stop business leaders from requesting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the date to the second-to-last Thursday in November, thereby extending the holiday shopping season and boosting the economy. This plan, known as “Franksgiving,” was met with fierce opposition. Sixteen states decided to go on celebrating on the last Thursday in November, and the rest adopted the new date.

Finally, in 1941, Congress set the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of Thanksgiving, which still holds today.

The Meaning of Thanksgiving

The country is now unified in the date that we celebrate Thanksgiving, but are we unified in the meaning we attribute to the holiday?

Public interest in the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims began to grow around the turn of the twentieth century, shifting attention to the 1621 harvest celebration as the origin of Thanksgiving. American schools began to use Thanksgiving as a way to teach students about citizenship, drawing on the good-natured interaction between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag as an example. Some have criticized that by so doing, we have presented a cherry-picked image of relations between European settlers and Native Americans, omitting a long history of brutality. The pain felt by Native Americans both then and now cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. In protest, many Native Americans and others observe a Day of Mourning at Plymouth in lieu of Thanksgiving, honoring those who were killed in the Pequot massacre and educating others about the history of colonial relations with Native Americans.

Some see Thanksgiving as a day of family gathering, of delicious food, and of interrogation about their love life or plans for the future. Some see it as a day of prayer and gratitude. Some see it as a day for watching football. Some see it as a day that perpetuates inaccurate ideas about the nature of interactions between Native Americans and European settlers, which involved more death, destruction, and bloodshed than many of us would care to know about. Thanksgiving can be any and all of these things to different people.

But perhaps we can see it as a day to heal divisions in an imperfect country we call home, to express thanks to those we love, and to give to others.

Sources

Bangs, Jeremy. “The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong.” September 2005. History News Network. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/15002.

“Congress Establishes Thanksgiving.” National Archives. Reviewed November 3, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving.

History.com Editors. “Thanksgiving 2020.” Updated November 13, 2020. History. https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving.

Primary Sources for “The First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth. https://pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.

Salam, Maya. “Everything You Learned about Thanksgiving is Wrong.” November 21, 2017. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/us/thanksgiving-myths-fact-check.html.

Sherman, Sean. “The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday.” Published November 19, 2018, and updated November 11, 2019. Time. https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/.

Strauss, Valerie. “Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving Every Year. It Isn’t What You Think.” November 24, 2016. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/26/why-we-celebrate-thanksgiving-every-year-it-isnt-what-you-think/.

“Thanksgiving History.” Accessed November 16, 2020. Plimouth Plantation. https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/thanksgiving/thanksgiving-history.

“The True Story of the First Thanksgiving.” American Experience at PBS. November 24, 2015. https://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-true-story-first-thanksgiving/.

Groovy

Where did the word groovy come from? The answer takes us back to the early days of electronic sound production, to the Jazz Age, and to the outta sight world of the ’60s.

First, take a look at the word itself: groovy refers to something that’s in the groove. What groove?

The grooves on a record.

The phonograph, invented in 1887 by Thomas Edison, changed the way the world listened to music. Audio could now be recorded and played back in another place and another time. The phonograph recorded the vibrations of sound waves by etching corresponding grooves on a wax cylinder. To play the recorded sound, a stylus traced over the grooves, causing the same vibrations in the air. Later on, flat vinyl discs were used instead of wax cylinders to record the grooves, and the term gramophone was coined for the device.

A microgram of vinyl record grooves.
Electron micrograph of vinyl record grooves.The image on the left is a small piece of the vinyl record.
Image by Tbraunstein, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Jazz Age of the 1930s brought a swinging, syncopated sound to America—a sound that, when performed well, was described as being groovy. Jazz musicians were in the groove if they were perfectly in sync with the music, playing with swing and soul. The analogy was that the musician followed the music precisely just as a phonograph stylus follows the grooves on a record. It was a synergy of contradiction, of being in sync but with a colorful, dissonant, improvised swing.

jazz

Groovy was generalized slightly to take on the meaning of “first-rate, excellent” by 1937. By the 1960s, semantic drift led to the popular use of groovy as slang for “really cool,” “wonderful,” “fun,” or “good-looking.” The term hit peak popularity during the ’60s and ’70s. Though the term largely fell out of use by the ’80s, groovy is still used as a reference to the iconic days of tie-dye and disco.

Or if you’re Shaggy from Scooby Doo, it’s a term used to describe the alien girl of your dreams.


Sources

Demain, Bill. “Jive Talkin’: The Origins of Cool Dudes, Groovy Chicks and Hip Cats.” January 19, 2012. MentalFloss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/29777/jive-talkin%E2%80%99-origins-cool-dudes-groovy-chicks-and-hip-cats.

groovy (adj.) Etymology Online Dictionary. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://www.etymonline.com/word/groovy.

Phonograph, Wikipedia. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonograph.