The History of Gingerbread

Where does gingerbread come from, and why is it called that? The answer involves the crusades, witchcraft, and taxation without representation.

What Is Gingerbread?

Gingerbread refers to an entire class of desserts often spiced with ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, or pepper and sweetened with molasses or honey. The texture can range anywhere from a hard candy to a soft, moist cake to a thin, crunchy biscuit—but despite the name, gingerbread has never really been a bread.

Ginger and Bread

Ginger, the spice for which gingerbread is named, was first cultivated over 5,000 years ago in Southeast Asia as a medicinal agent and a spice for cooking. Around the first century CE, traders brought ginger to India and the Mediterranean via the Silk Road. Like most spices, it was expensive and highly sought after.

Early gingerbread recipes are found in many different cultures—there is probably no one single origin. But the first recorded recipe for gingerbread comes from Greece in about 2400 BCE. The Greeks and perhaps the Romans and Egyptians used honey-sweetened ginger cakes for ceremonial purposes (e.g., offering gingerbread to the dragons that guarded the temple of Pallas Athena) or served them at weddings. They were viewed as a status symbol due to the high price of ginger.

It’s not clear exactly where and when gingerbread made its way into Europe, a matter made more complicated by the changing meaning of the word. The word “gingerbread” comes from the Old French gingembras, based on the Latin term for ginger, zingebre. (This, in turn, developed from the older Sanskrit word meaning for “horn-shaped” or “antler-shaped” in reference to ginger’s multi-branched rhizome.) The word gingembras was adopted into English in the form gyngebreed, and though it did not have an etymological link to bread, it sounded enough like it that it eventually morphed into gingerbread. In medieval England, the term “gingerbread” referred more broadly to gingered food or any kind of preserved ginger, which was used as medicine and a spice to preserve meat. Over the centuries, “gingerbread” narrowed to specifically refer to ginger-flavored cakes and cookies.

Gingerbread in Europe

In 992, an Armenian monk called Gregory of Nicopolis fled to France and brought with him some ginger and a Byzantine recipe for honey-sweetened ginger cakes. These cakes left quite an impression, as recorded in a tenth-century manuscript: “His guests, on tasting the cake, believed they were experiencing all the delights of Heaven.” But when his ginger supply ran out, so did the heavenly ginger cakes. Gingerbread may have been introduced more widely to Europe in the eleventh century by Crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean, and trade routes opened a more steady supply of ginger.

One early type of gingerbread in Europe was a paste made of ground almonds, breadcrumbs, ginger, and rosewater and pressed into wooden molds depicting mythological scenes, stories from the Bible, saints, monarchs, or the news of the day. These edible storyboards were decorated with icing or gold paint. From the fifteenth century to the American colonial era, schoolchildren even made gingerbread “hornbooks” inscribed with the alphabet to help them learn how to read. (They got to eat each letter as they recited it—a delicious motivation to learn.)

Traditional gingerbread mold from Poland.
Image by Piotr Kuczyński, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The art of gingerbread making was practiced first in monasteries, which had exclusive access to ginger for a time. Monks and nuns in Sweden and other countries baked gingerbread to use as the Eucharist, to feed the poor, and to display religious scenes for instruction. They also used ginger to cure stomach ailments and to preserve food. Later, ginger made its way into royal kitchens and the homes of the fabulously wealthy—and it caught on. Gingerbread guilds were established to train and support master gingerbread bakers, who employed a high degree of skill and artistic ability in producing their gingerbread creations. Nuremburg and Ulm in Germany, Torun in Poland, and several other cities in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and France were world-renowned for their artisan gingerbread carefully crafted within gingerbread guilds.

Lebküchner from a manuscript c. 1520, in the Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg.

As spices like ginger made their way into popular use, gingerbread quickly became a common treat at medieval fairs in France, England, and Germany, and there were even designated gingerbread fairs. Gingerbread was sometimes elaborately decorated with icing or even gold leaf and tied with a ribbon. People bought gingerbread to give as tokens to lovers, which was known as “fairing.” Eating gingerbread in a certain shape was thought to bring about a specific outcome. For example, a hare-shaped gingerbread was thought to bring fertility, and a pig-shaped gingerbread brought good fortune. Adoring fans bought gingerbread in the shape of flowers, birds, and hearts for their chosen knights as a good luck charm. Young women ate “gingerbread husbands” in hopes that a real husband would soon materialize.

As Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “And I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread.”

German painting of a gingerbread fair.
By Konstantin Stoitzner, 19th century, oil on canvas, 58 x 79 cm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gingerbread around the World

Gingerbread Men in England

As cheap gingerbread became widely available to the masses, the English court maintained a tradition of elaborate—and politically motivated—gingerbread baking.

Gingerbread men came around during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who often hosted dinner parties featuring marzipan shaped like birds, fruit, and castles. It was a short jump to making gingerbread biscuits in the shape of important people invited to the dinner. Queen Elizabeth played her political cards by giving or withholding gingerbread likenesses to indicate favor for both her inner circle and visiting dignitaries and suitors.

Notwithstanding Queen Elizabeth’s fondness for sweets, gingerbread men fell out of favor during the rule of King James I in the 1600s because they were thought to possess dangerous magical powers. The magic of a good luck charm, it seemed, could also be used for evil. It was thought that witches could made gingerbread effigies in the shape of their enemies and eat them to cause their death.

Gingy the Gingerbread Man with legs bitten off. Text says: Not my gumdrop buttons!

King James, along with other Protestant European rulers, enacted harsh anti-witchcraft laws that reflected a deeply superstitious view of gingerbread figures and their potential association with the occult and with saint’s feasts celebrated in Catholicism.

Gingerbread Houses in Germany

Germany really took off with the gingerbread tradition and enjoyed all kinds of gingerbread treats—most notably Lebkuchen, which are soft honey-ginger cakes originally baked by monks, and Pfeffernüsse, which aresmall cookies spiced with pepper that are popular during Christmas. A harder form of Lebkuchen is often shaped into hearts with romantic sayings written in icing on the top, and sold at street markets and fairs.

Gingerbread houses most likely originated in Germany during the 16th century. They either inspired or were inspired by the witch’s house in the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” which was “built of bread, and roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” In later versions, the house was described as gingerbread. Whichever direction the trend went, this story led to a surge in the popularity of gingerbread houses in Europe.

Waves of immigrants brought gingerbread houses to North America, and by the 1800s, gingerbread houses were popular among the German population in Pennsylvania as Christmas decorations.

Gingerbread house
Image by Trey Ratcliff, December 6, 2006, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Uncle Sam’s Gingerbread

Molasses—like just about everything else—was political in America. Molasses, a key ingredient in some gingerbread recipes, played a key role leading up to the revolution. The colonists used molasses not only for baking but also for making rum. When molasses imported from France became cheaper than molasses from the British-controlled Barbados and Jamaica, England sought a molasses monopoly in the colonies by passing the Molasses Act of 1733, imposing a tax on molasses from foreign nations. The colonists protested, ignored, and defied the Molasses Act and smuggled in foreign molasses anyway, leading England to retaliate in the form of more duties on sugar and molasses. This led to popular resentment of British rule and the subsequent revolution.

Meanwhile, early colonists shaped gingerbread into miniature kings before the revolution and bald eagles afterward. Another fun fact is that gingerbread cookies were once used in early political campaigns in Virginia as incentives for voters.

George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, passed down a famous gingerbread recipe she once served to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her home in Fredericksburg. Her recipe is sometimes known as Gingerbread Lafayette and is laced with orange zest and brandy.

Gingerbread for Christmas

Varieties of gingerbread are made in many different countries—pierniki toruńskie in Poland, pepparkakor in Sweden, biber in Switzerland, Parliament cakes in Scotland, marranitos in Mexico, yiyinbre in Panama, and lekach as a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish treat during Rosh Hoshanah, to name a few. And in many of these areas, gingerbread is especially associated with winter holidays.

No one knows for sure why we eat gingerbread at Christmas, but we can take a guess. One thread running through many of these gingerbread traditions is that of giving—whether giving to a friend, lover, or dinner guest, gingerbread captures the spirit of giving at Christmas.

Other associations with Christmas include the exotic spices as representative of the gifts of the Magi, and simply the fact that warm spices go really well with a hot drink in cold weather. Enough associations, and we have a match!

Modern takes on gingerbread include gingerbread lattes, gingerbread cheesecake, and gingerbread Oreos—but the classic, centuries-old tradition of gingerbread will never get old.


Avey, T. “The History of Gingerbread.” PBS, December 20, 2013.

Ball, Aimee Lee. “The (Not Always) Sweet Holiday History of Gingerbread.” Martha Stewart, October 8, 2020.

Byrne, Anne. “Gingerbread: A True American Cake – No. 128.” Anne Byrne: Between the Layers.

Chavers, Penny. “Gingerbread Houses and the Men Who Live in Them.” Curious Historian, January 6, 2020.

Corrigan, Maya. “The Surprisingly Dark History of Gingerbread.” Crime Reads, December 7, 2020.

Cottingham, Karen. “A Comprehensive History of Gingerbread.” The Herb Society of America–South Texas Unit.

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Gingerbread.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 24, 2008.

Rolek, Barbara. “The History of Gingerbread.” The Spruce Eats, November 10, 2019.

Where Do Vampires Come From?

Where do vampires come from?

The answer takes us on a journey to India, Romania, and Rhode Island, with a pit stop in Forks, Washington.

Vampires in Mythology

Vampires are just one evil mythological creature in a long history of creepy, blood-sucking beings around the world.

Some historians postulate that the concept of vampires stems from a common legend in central Europe/Asia that was dispersed through migrations of Indo-European tribes to different areas of the world. Many cultures have some version of a blood-sucking, humanoid creature:

  • Ancient Indian scripture contains references to blood-sucking creatures called vetalas and other blood-drinking dark spirits, along with instructions on how to handle them.
  • The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hebrews had legends of shapeshifting, blood-drinking demons that roamed the night in search of prey.
  • Greek and Roman mythology include many vampire-like creatures, such as the Vrykolakas and the Lamia, but they were more likely to eat human flesh rather than drink blood.  
  • West African folklore from the Ashanti tradition tells of the obayifo, a hybrid vampire-witch that inhabits the body of a human being. They use witchcraft to call up spirits and direct them to snatch little children for the obayifo to feed on.
  • Slavic mythology perhaps has the most well-recognized and well-developed vampire figures. In Russia, the wurdulac is a vampire that must consume the blood of its family members and turn them all into vampires. The Polish vjesci was destined to become a vampire from birth and never really died but rather emerged from the grave to eat their family and friends. Romanian strigoi were spirits that rose from the grave and could transform into an animal, turn invisible, and gain vitality from drinking their victims’ blood.
  • In Roma folklore, the mullo is an undead vampire that is created when a person does not receive the proper funeral rites. They rise from the dead and get revenge on those who had wronged them by strangling them and sucking their blood.
  • Ireland and Scotland, true to form, have legends about blood-sucking faeries.
  • In Trinidad and other Caribbean islands, the soucouyant is a shapeshifting vampire that appears as an old woman by day. She strips off her skin at night and turns into a blue fireball and flies across the sky. She enters her victim’s residence through the window or another hole like a crack or keyhole, then sucks the victim’s blood while they sleep.
  • Japan has a legend of a serpentine demon called Nure-onna that drinks human blood. With the head of a woman and the body of a snake, she lures her victims to her by pretending she has a small child for them to hold.
  • In the Philippines, the vampire aswang belongs to a larger group of shapeshifting mythical creatures. It disguises itself as a beautiful woman to lure a man to marry her, then slowly drains out his blood.

As you can see, there are as many variations on vampires as there are stories about them. The single unifying characteristic is that they drink human blood—typically by piercing the victim’s skin with their fangs or by using a long, pointed tongue. The victim then turns into a vampire.

Many have shapeshifting abilities, the most recognizable today being transforming into bats (a tradition that originated in South and Central America). In other traditions they could be found in the guise of an ordinary or very attractive person, a snake, or another animal.

Many of these folklore traditions also contain instructions for preventing the creation of a vampire, warding off attacks from vampires, or destroying vampires. Common tactics include ensuring proper funeral and burial rites have taken place, and killing a vampire often involved brutal methods such as stabbing a stake through the vampire’s heart or burning its body.

Vampire Lore

How to Ward Off a Vampire

Several things are said to ward off vampires, often based on the idea that vampires are corrupt or evil, and religious symbols or forms of folk magic can drive out evil.

  1. Salt—long thought to have purifying properties
  2. Silver—said to ward off evil
  3. Holy water—also purifies the evil out of them
  4. Crosses and other holy symbols—good vs. evil again
  5. Garlic hung in the windows or around one’s neck—because folklore holds vampirism to be caused by a blood infection, garlic’s antibiotic properties antagonize vampires
  6. Running water—based on European legend, running water is blessed and cleaner than stagnant water and was seen as a barrier that prevented unholy beings from crossing

Another interesting deterrent comes from the suggestion that vampires count things compulsively—if you drop a bag of rice on the ground, the vampire is compelled to count every last grain, giving you time to escape.

It also works with snowflakes.

Crossing a Threshold

It is said that vampires cannot enter a person’s home without permission. The vampire might try to trick the homeowner into thinking they are someone else. The idea is that the threshold of the home acted as an energetic or spiritual barrier that withstood the power of the vampire and other external, supernatural forces. Spirits, gods, or ancestors protected the threshold of the house against the intrusion of a vampire. The owner of this metaphysical barrier had to decide that the vampire was not a threat in order to allow him or her to cross the threshold and withdraw the protection that it provided.


In some traditions, vampires operated in normal waking hours; in others, they operated from noon until midnight. In the vast majority of vampire legends, there is no mention of the idea that vampires could not withstand the sun. But Nosferatu introduced the idea that sunlight was toxic to vampires, given that the sun represented the powers of light and goodness in contrast to vampires as creatures of evil and darkness. Now, thanks to Hollywood, vampires in modern fiction are often described as nocturnal, and the sun weakens their powers or even burns them.

How to Kill a Vampire

To kill a vampire, various traditions prescribe driving a wooden stake through its heart, cutting it into pieces and burning it, or otherwise ensuring that the vampire has suffered a gruesome death.

The Vampire Craze

Works of film and literature about vampires have integrated existing vampire lore, then created their own to shape and influence the popular concept of the vampire.

In the mid-1700s, Serbia experienced a “vampire panic,” sparked by reports of dead bodies that refused to decompose or appeared to have fresh bloodstains around the mouth and fueled by anxieties about infectious disease and the living’s proximity to the burial grounds reserved for the dead. The vampire craze spread throughout Eastern Europe.

Literature about vampires began to surface around this time, written in German. When English writers began to write about vampire lore, vampire literature began to take a hold on the public. Robert Southey’s epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer by Robert Southe tells of the title character’s deceased wife, Oneiza, who rises from the dead as a vampire. This was the first appearance of a vampire in English literature.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu deserves a place of recognition. Published in 1872, the book tells the tale of the vampire Carmilla who preys upon a young woman visiting an isolated castle. This book, among many others, dealt with themes related to sexuality that often characterize the depiction of monsters in the horror genre (exposing an underlying societal fear of “deviant” sexuality, whether in the form of procreation by vampiric means or preying upon victims).

Another vampire panic emerged during this era, this time in New England. The most well-documented incident occurred in Rhode Island in 1892, when nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown died of tuberculosis—and rose from the dead. So the community thought. Family members believed she had become a vampire and given the disease to her younger brother, so her grave was exhumed to investigate. Due to freezing conditions and storage in an above-ground crypt, her body had not decomposed as expected. Superstition that her heart and liver be burned, and then the ashes mixed with water for her younger brother to drink in order to cure the disease. The Mercy Brown incident shows the powerful hold that monster lore holds over grievous situations of sickness and death.


Perhaps nothing popularized the vampire in the modern world as much as Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula, published in 1897. It is far from being the first English-language vampire novel, but it is one of the most well-known. It has heavily influenced modern vampire lore and the way vampires were portrayed in later works.

Stoker set the story in Transylvania and drew primarily on Romanian vampire mythology. It was long thought that Count Dracula was modeled after Vlad Dracul, known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was a brutal but just ruler in the Walachia region from the years 1456–1462. He’s most famous for fighting off the Ottoman Empire and for impaling his enemies on a wooden stake. Legend has it that he also dined while his victims were dying and dipped his bread in their blood. Count Dracula has many similarities to Vlad the Impaler—both are from Transylvania, both eat the blood of their enemies, both fought against the Turks, and both reference to death by wooden stake. However, scholars now claim that Stoker would not have known about Vlad Dracul and rather came up with the name from a more generic study of cruel and cunning military generals who were given the name Dracula, which, he noted, meant “devil.”

Stoker’s Dracula set some of the “rules” that later vampire stories would follow—such as that vampires fear crucifixes, garlic, and running water, and that vampires can turn into bats. Some of these rules already existed in vampire legends, but there were many that were not included in Dracula. And some were made up.

Dracula as a monster was terrifying because so many things about him were unknown. The fear of other cultures also plays into the horror of Dracula. In the rapidly changing world of the late Industrial Revolution, readers held an underlying anxiety about the unknown future, and Dracula was a personification of this fear. Later works, like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, would portray vampires in a more sympathetic and multi-dimensional way.

Nosferatu + More

F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu also played a role in shaping the general atmosphere surrounding the concept of the vampire, portraying a dark imaginary world characterized by fear and despair. The movie was an unofficial adaptation of Dracula and thus targeted in a copyright lawsuit by the estate of Bram Stoker. (An official, legal adaptation was released the year prior, but it has been lost to history.) Most copies of Nosferatu were destroyed following the lawsuit, but a few have persisted.

Nosferatu's shadow
Iconic shot of Nosferatu’s shadow.
Still frame 1922, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nosferatu took a few artistic liberties with the story—for example, changing the vampire’s name to Count Orlok and showing a vampire killed by sunlight (the first work to do so). It has been analyzed by many as a pre-World War II warning of the threat of aristocratic and authoritarian control, foreshadowing the death and terror that resulted from the Nazi regime.

There have been many other film and theatrical adaptations of Dracula, most notably the 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s iconic speech and mannerisms brought the Count to life for audiences, and his performance created the template for future portrayals of vampires. His slicked-back hair, his formal attire and raised collar cape, his intense and aristocratic bearing, and his Hungarian accent (passing as Transylvanian) are ingrained in the collective modern image of the vampire.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.
Photograph 1921, Universal Studios, via Wikimedia Commons.

Other Popular Culture

The 1976 novel Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice and the film based on it revived the vampire genre. It showed the vampire as a complex villain capable of emotion and romantic longings, often suave and charismatic rather than aloof and creepy—similar to vampires in later series like The Vampire Diaries. Twilight, a vampire romance set in Forks, Washington, set off a vampire/werewolf craze in young adult fiction.

The 1990s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer took a slightly different take on the vampire. Some of their faces transform into monstrous forms, and when they are killed, they turn to dust. Buffy also took on the monster as a metaphor for real fears that were evident in the characters’ teenage lives.

The Vampire as a Metaphor

One thing that all of these stories show to us is the nature of human fears. Sometimes, it’s easier to imagine a monster in order to understand and confront the anxieties of real life. Whether we are afraid of proximity to death, authoritarian rule, sexual deviancy, or high school heartbreak, driving a stake through the shadowy figure of the vampire is one way to deal with it.

As Bram Stoker observed in Dracula, “No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”

So where do vampires come from? They are created from our own fears.


Davis, Lauren. “No, Bram Stoker Did Not Model Dracula on Vlad the Impaler.” Gizmodo, October 21, 2104.

Elkridge, Hannah. “Vampire.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Hallam, Lindsey. “Nosferatu at 100: how the seminal vampire film shaped the horror genre.” The Conversation, March 18, 2022. Editors. “Vampire History.” History, February 21, 2021.

Klein, Annika Baranti. “Dracula in Pop Culture.” Book Riot, May 26, 2022.

L, Miranda. “Vampires in South America.” Great Gothic Giggle, March 28, 2019.

Mumford, Tracy. “The Long, Bloody History of Vampires in Literature.” MPRNews, January 12, 2016.

Nanos, Janelle. “Where Do Vampires Come From?” National Geographic, February 23, 2010.

Wikipedia. “Vampire Folklore by Region.” Retrieved October 10, 2022, from

Wilson, Karina. “Decomposing Bodies in the 1720s Gave Birth to the First Vampire Panic.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 23, 2020.

Where Did the Continents Get Their Names?

Where did each of the seven continents get their names? The answer involves the sunrise and sunset, a big bear and a little bear, and three mythological queens.


Africa is the oldest inhabited territory on the planet. Many peoples of Africa, including the Ethiopians, Nubians, Moors, and Numidians, anciently referred to the landmass as Alkebulan—a name that meant “mother of mankind.” Other peoples variously called it Corphye, Ortigia, Libya, or Ethiopia.

The name Africa came about from ancient Romans and Greeks who sought to describe the lands across the Mediterranean Sea—and who generalized from their experience of only a small part of the continent.

There are several possible origins for the name Africa:

  • Afri was the name of a tribe native to Libya that become the Latin word used to describe all the inhabitants of northern Africa west of the Nile. It originates from the Berber word ifri, meaning “cave” and designating the Afri as cave dwellers. The Latin suffix -ica (or possibly -terra) was then added to denote “a land.”
  • The Greek word aphrike means the land “without cold.”
  • The Roman word aprica means “sunny.”
  • The Phoenicians may have called it the “land of corn and fruit,” or friqi and pharika.
  • The Arabic word afar (“dust”) or afir (“dried up by the sun”) may have been the root that led to the words afara (“to be dusty”) and afrīqā.

Additional theories attempt to trace the name of Africa, but the most sound of those known today is the Latin Afri-ica.


Like the other continents, there are several theories as to the origin of the name Europe.

The first and most common is that it comes from Europa of Greek mythology. Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. She had three sons with him, including King Minos of Crete. In Greek thought, lands and rivers were often associated with female figures or watched over by a goddess, making Europa the patron of the European continent. Europa as a geographic term is first found in a Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, referencing the western shore of the Aegean Sea.

Europa and the Bull – Red-Figure Stamnos, Tarquinia Museum, ca. 480 BCE.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Europa comes from the words eurus, meaning “wide, broad,” and ops, meaning “eye, face, countenance.” Together, the word indicates a broad countenance. Words meaning broad had been used as an epithet for the Earth as a divine figure in Proto-Indo-European religion.

Another theory seeks a Semitic root for Europe. The Akkadian term erebu, meaning “west” and therefore an association with sunset, may have been the origin for Europe. Europe was the land of the setting sun, in contrast to asu, the “east” or “country of sunrise.”


As mentioned previously, the land of Asia may have been named Asu for the word for “east” or “sunrise.”

However, there are other proposed etymologies. The concept of Asia came from Greek civilization, which divided the world then known to them into Europe, Asia, and Libya. It was thought that these three names all derived from Greek queens: Europa (Princess of Phoenicia who had a relationship with Zeus), Asia (a nymph or titan who was married to Prometheus, the god of fire), and Libya (Queen Libya or Lamia of Egypt, who bore two sons with Poseidon).

The ancient Greek word asia was first used to refer to the eastern bank of the Aegean Sea as well as the region of Anatolia. The Romans used this term to refer to Lydia. It is thought that asia came from the Aegean word asis, meaning “muddy” as a descriptor of the shores of the Aegean Sea. A Hittite group of 22 ancient states in Asia Minor formed a confederation called Assuwa, which may have been informed by the existing word asia.

In eastern Asia, Chinese, Korean, and Mongol civilizations, among others, had their own names for their territory. Asia was later extended to include all of the continent of Asia we know today.

North and South America

The indigenous peoples of the Americas each had a name for the place they called home. The Mohawk people called it “Anowara:kowa,” meaning the Great Turtle. The Wendat likewise may have referred to the land with a word meaning Turtle Island—both owing to a rich mythological tradition that viewed the earth as a turtle that rose from the sea. The Mexica nation knew the land of North America as Anahuac, which means “close to us.” This signifies the deep connection between the land and the people’s hearts and kinship ties. Further, in some areas of South America, Abya Yala was the term used for the land, and it means “Land of Full Maturity,” “Land of Life,” or “Fruitful Land.”

During the Age of Exploration, Spanish explorers initially referred to this area as the Indies, believing incorrectly that it was part of eastern Asia.

The name that was eventually given to these indigenous lands by European conquerors was the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was an Italian merchant and navigator who set sail for the lands across the Atlantic from 1497 to 1504, landing in what is now Brazil. He embarked on two voyages under the flags of Portugal and Spain and purportedly produced two brochures with fantastical descriptions of the lands he explored. Though these accounts have been called into question, they were important for raising awareness about the “New World,” as he called it.

At the time, Vespucci explored what is now South America. Most of North America was still unknown to Europeans. In 1507, the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller honored Vespucci’s accomplishments by naming these lands America, using a Latinized form of Amerigo. Waldseemüller produced a long-awaited world map that updated geographic knowledge following from the Age of Exploration. Later cartographers followed suit, and the landmass was officially named America by 1532. Vespucci likely didn’t even know about Waldseemüller’s map before his death in 1507. However, many supporters of Christopher Columbus at the time felt that the continents of the New World should have been named after him and that Vespucci or his supporters had stolen the spotlight.

The Italian name Amerigo means “home ruler.” The Spanish name Colón, or Columbus, means “dove.” Neither one adequately expresses what the New World was to the European settlers—it was not their home, and it surely was not a place of peace.

In the English-speaking world, America was used to refer to the entire landmass from Canada to Chile, which was considered a single continent. This served the United States’ geopolitical interests as it sought to dominate the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t until the 1950s that geographers in the United States insisted on separating North America and South America.

Today, some indigenous peoples in America—who peopled these lands long before European explorers, conquistadors, and colonizers stepped foot—object to the term Americas. In 1977, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (Consejo Mundial de Pueblos Indígenas) proposed using the indigenous term Abya Yala instead of America when referring to the continent as an objection to colonialism.


There is no one Aboriginal term for the landmass of Australia. Rather, hundreds of linguistically diverse tribes named various places where they lived and interacted.

When the landmass was settled by the Dutch, they began to call it New Holland. English settlers tried to give it the name New South Wales.

The name Australia is derived from the Latin term australis, meaning “southern” in reference to the auster, the south wind. A theory in early pre-modern geography held that a vast continent known as Terra Australis was yet to be discovered in the far south of the globe. The idea was that there must be landmasses in the southern half of the globe to balance out the landmasses in the northern half.

The hypothetical continent of Terra Australis had yet to be confirmed, so botanists and explorers began applying the term to a continent that had been discovered in the southern hemisphere. The English explorer Matthew Flinders most famously used the name Australia in 1804, and it became the continent’s official name in 1817.

The geographic region of Oceania, named for several landmasses in the Pacific Ocean, is sometimes regarded as a continent rather than Australia. It includes Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.


Maori oral histories tell of a crew of explorers led by Hui Te Rangiora who navigated the Antarctic waters in the seventh century, describing the unfamiliar appearance of icebergs as jagged rocks that grew out of the sea and snow as powdered arrowroot. In January 1820, a team of explorers further proved the existence of Terra Australis: a Russian expedition caught sight of an ice shelf, and later that year, American explorers set foot on the continent.

Map of the hypothetical Antarctic region, 1657.
Jan Janssonius (1588–1664), Geheugen van Nederland, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Greek cartographer Marinus of Tyre called this hypothetical landmass Antarctica as early as the second century BCE. The word Antarctica comes from the Greek anti- and arktos. In the Northern Hemisphere, the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (ursa being the Latin word for “bear”) point to the North Star. The northernmost part of the world, the Arctic Circle, was named for the great and little bears.

Antarctica thus means “opposite the bear”—it is opposite (anti) the Arctic. On a related note, the Arctic is home to polar bears, while Antarctica has penguins but no bears.

The continent first received its official name as early as 1840 in a conference of Italian scientists, and the term was adapted for used in English, French, and other languages.


Joyce Chepkemoi, “How Did Australia Get Its Name?” World Atlas, October 3, 2017.

Antonia Čirjak, “What Was the Original Name of Africa?” World Atlas, June 16, 2020.

Sabrina Imbler, “The Maori Vision of Antarctica’s Future,” New York Times, July 2, 2021.

Rotich Kiptoo Victor, “What Are the Origins of the Names Arctic and Antarctica?” World Atlas, April 24, 2018.

Wikipedia, “History of Antarctica,” “Europa: Consort of Zeus,” “Africa,” “Asia,” “List of Continent Name Etymologies,” “Naming of the Americas.” Accessed September 2022.

Rubber Duckie, You’re the One

What exactly is the function of a rubber duck? The answer involves debtor’s prison, hunting practice, and the Billboard 100.

From birth to age two, children often experience fear surrounding bath time, and the bright, playful stimulus of bath toys like rubber ducks can soothe them and help them overcome their resistance. Rubber ducks encourage water play that helps with coordination, stimulate the senses with bright colors and quacking noises, and just make taking a bath more fun. But have you ever wondered why the rubber duck has such a hold on the bath toy scene?


The earliest rubber duck was created in the late 1800s, but before the duck came the rubber. Charles Goodyear was born in 1800 in Connecticut and worked as a hardware merchant. When he encountered rejection in his attempt to sell hardware to the Roxbury India Rubber Company in New York, it sparked an idea that would change the rubber industry forever. Bad weather had destroyed much of Roxbury’s rubber stocks, leaving them in a financial crunch. Goodyear, who was also in dire financial straits, found himself with a lot of time on his hands in debtor’s prison and began to experiment with gum elastic. He rolled out raw rubber over and over with a pin to get the right consistency, and once out of prison, he continued to perfect his solution by adding minerals to prevent stickiness and make it malleable.

In 1839, Goodyear accidentally dropped a rubber and sulphur solution into a stove and observed that it didn’t melt. He had succeeded. The process of rendering rubber into a malleable, weather-proof, heat-resistant material was called vulcanization, and Goodyear’s innovation has inspired generations of manufacturers. When brothers Frank and Charles Seiberling opened a tire company in 1898, they named it in honor of Charles Goodyear.


Near the end of the 1800s, inventors began to make small rubber objects, as evidenced by patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office. The first ones were chew toys made of hard, solid rubber that didn’t float.

The first patent for a “Rubber Decoy Duck” was filed in 1886 by George H. Nye. It wasn’t a toy but was intended for use in hunting. Previously, decoy ducks were made of wood and were easily breakable. Nye’s new rubber-and-wood combination was more durable.

Rubber duck patent diagram
Diagram from Peter Ganine’s rubber duck patent.

Later came rubber toys that made squeaking noises, and it was only a matter of time before the rubber duck was patented in 1928. Early rubber ducks had propellers or sprayed water like a sprinkler. But the rubber duck that caught on most rapidly was a simple rubber toy with no extra functions; it was purely for play. Following World War II, Russian-American sculptor Peter Ganine’s plain rubber duck design was immensely popular. In the 1960s, when patents on the rubber duck expired, the now-cheaper model became a bathroom staple for households across the country.

In 1970, the song “Rubber Duckie” debuted on Sesame Street when the orange muppet Ernie sang the tune to his favorite bath toy. This song made an icon out of the rubber duck and peaked at no. 16 on Billboard’s Top 100. Because of Ernie’s tubside tune, the rubber duck is now seen as the quintessential bath toy.

You’re the One

Though modern rubber ducks are actually made out of vinyl rather than rubber, the rubber duck has become an icon worldwide. Collectors seek out the most unique rubber ducks, rubber duck derbies pit the bath toys against each other in a race, and classic rubber duckies are found during bath time in many a household. The rubber duck was even inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2013.

Rubber ducks racing in a river
Rubber duck race in Freiburg, Germany.
Image by Andreas Schwarzkopf, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2001, a maintenance worker gave an insider’s view of Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth has her own royal rubber duck, complete with an inflatable crown. This story caused a sensation and led to an 80% increase in sales of rubber ducks in Great Britain.

And just look at the largest rubber duck in the world. At a whopping 50-feet tall, it was created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in New Zealand, debuted at a festival in Sydney, Australia, and has embarked on an international tour.

Big rubber duck in Sydney harbor
Rubber Duck by Florentijn Horman
Image by Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Rubber duckie, you do make bath time lots of fun!


Jones, Lydia. “The History of the Rubber Duck.” B1 Creative, October 4, 2021.

Meyer, Lotte Larsen. “Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1 (2006): 14–23. 

Rossen, Jake. “Wise Quacks: The History of the Rubber Duck.” Mental Floss, January 13, 2019.

The Strong National Museum of Play. “Rubber Duck.”

Round Robin

Why is a tournament where each team plays the other in turn called a round robin? The answer involves ribbons, religious refugees, and ringleaders.

What Does Red Robin Mean?

Round robin very generally means something that operates in a rotational manner. It is specifically used for tournaments (in sports or games) where each team or player plays every other, a circulating letter where each subsequent person adds information to the document, or any other situation that involves the participation of each person in a group in turn.

Other Meanings of Red Robin

But before round robin referred to a rotational arrangement, it was a term of disparagement, dating back to the sixteenth century. In 1546, Miles Coverdale wrote,

Certayne fonde [foolish] talkers… applye to this mooste holye sacramente, names of despitte and reproche, as to call it Jake in the boxe, and round roben, and suche other not onely fond but also blasphemouse names.

Round robin also had a variety of other meanings, including supporters of the English Parliament during the country’s civil war, some type of recreational game, and a playful alliterative term for anything round in shape. None of these necessarily had any relation to the robin as a bird.

Origins of Red Robin

Merriam-Webster lists the first known usage of round robin given its current meaning in 1698.  It was first used in the British Royal Navy in reference to a petition of grievances or letter of protest on which the participants signed their names in a circle, like the spokes on a wheel, so that the recipient would not know who signed first. It was regarded as primarily a nautical term, but by the 1730s, even landlubbers—primarily government officials—sent around petitions round-robin style to protect the ringleader from discovery.

Fake Etymology, Real History

Some sources claim that the term comes from the French ruban rond (“round ribbon”), which was likewise a petition where names were written on a circle of ribbon. This is plausible; however, there is no documentary evidence to support this. It’s also been asserted that ringleader stems from the leader of a round robin petition where people signed their names in a ring, but again, there is little concrete evidence for this etymology.

However, history does indicate a French origin story. The round robin petition may have had its beginnings in France in 1621 with a petition signed by 56 Huguenot refugees. The Huguenots were Protestants who suffered severe persecution from the Catholic majority in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These 56 signatories and their families had fled from France to Leiden in Holland. They were now petitioning to settle in the British colony of Virginia. The Walloon Jesse de Forest presented the round-robin petition to the British Ambassador Sir Dudley Carlton, but his request was only granted with such strict parameters that he decided against it. Later, 32 families sailed from Holland to the area known as New Netherland—helping form the beginnings of what would become New York.

The meaning of round robin as applied to a tournament first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s. Though no secrecy or petitions of grievance are involved, the term round robin has expanded to capture the idea of any kind of rotational procedure.


Butterfield, Jeremy. “Round Robins and Folk Etymology.” Jeremy Butterfield Editorial.

Grammarist. “Round Robin.”

Merriam-Webster online dictionary. “Round robin.”

The Phrase Finder. “The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Round Robin.”

I Threw a Wish in a Well

Why do we throw coins into fountains and wells in hopes of a wish being granted? The answer involves the law of contagion, a supermarket for the poor, and the undying hope of humanity.

Many cultures regard water as a gift from the gods. In a desert where water means survival, in an agricultural society where water is necessary to grow crops, and in any place where humans make a home—water is necessary for life. Drinkable water is relatively rare, so wells were built to protect sources of clean water. Various beliefs cropped up regarding the sacred and divine powers of the well, especially in European cultures. Some wells collected coins, food, or clothing as an offering of gratitude to the gods for drinkable water. Some became shrines to deities. Some became places of rest and repose for weary travelers.

Some wells were thought to have healing powers, and the sick person would toss in a piece of their clothing in hopes to be cured of their disease. A concept called the law of contagion explains this superstition—it was believed that the clothing not only carried the disease but represented the person’s disease. It acted as a token of a non-material bond with the person it belonged to and became a vehicle for the healing powers of the well’s resident deity or natural forces. The curative powers of water would transfer from the button or scrap of fabric in the well to the sick person. This same psychological law is in effect (in a negative way) when someone feels disgusted at the idea of wearing an item of clothing that once belonged to someone they dislike, or (in a positive way) when you don’t want to wash your hands after shaking the hand of someone famous.

Some wells became places of prayer and offerings of money. A well in Northumberland, England, was anciently a site of prayer and offerings in the form of coins to the Coventina, the Celtic goddess of wells and springs. An archaeological dig turned up about 16,000 coins from various eras of the Roman empire, most of them of lower value. The exchange value of the coins didn’t seem to weight the odds of the wish or prayer being granted more heavily in the person’s favor. Excavations of other wells have turned up similar results—vast numbers of coins of lower denominations, the result of people tossing in a coin as an offering as they say a prayer to a deity or plead with a supernatural power. Though wells have largely lost their connection to a particular deity, this practice persists in the form of making a wish as one tosses a coin into a well, fountain, or other source of water.

Site of Coventina's Well
Standing stone marking the site of Coventina’s Well.
Image by Mike Quinn CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And we just can’t resist it! Throwing a coin into a wishing well or a fountain is an exercise in hope. Exchanging money for a wish directs our sense of control when our desires are unlikely or uncertain to be fulfilled. Similarly to the law of contagion at work in the diseased person’s clothing, the coin you throw in a well is an extension of yourself and your wish. Anthropologist Peter Wogan explains that when you release the coin, you release control to the water, the life force of the universe, to grant your wish. And when you look into the water, you see the coins of so many others whose wishes—superstitious or ironic or playful or secretly hopeful—led them to the well, just like you. This creates, from a private, unspoken dream, a sense of collective belonging with the hundreds of others.

One of the most famous fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It was built as the endpoint of an aqueduct called Virgo in honor of the goddess who guided those who were tired and thirsty to water. Originally, legend had it that drinking a glass of water from the fountain would lead to good fortune, good health, and a quick return to Rome. Now, drinking the water isn’t recommendable, but throwing a coin over with your right hand over your left shoulder into the fountain is said to guarantee that you will return to Rome someday. This idea was further popularized by the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain, which also promised that throwing two coins in meant falling in love with a Roman, and tossing in three coins meant that you would marry that person. Cue an insane number of tourists who wished for a Roman love interest.

Trevi fountain
Image by Bodow, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What happens to all those coins? Often, the money goes to charity or toward the upkeep of the fountain or well. For example, tens of thousands of dollars in change are gathered in fountains and wells in Walt Disney World in Florida, and the proceeds are used to support foster children in the state. (You may not think your nickel is worth much, but aggregated with every other park visitor’s change, it adds up—and makes a difference for good!)

In New York City, Parks and Recreation staff clean the city’s 50+ decorative fountains every few weeks, and any change collected goes toward upkeep of the fountains themselves. However, there is usually not much to collect—usually, people take the coins before the Parks staff get to cleaning.

In Rome, so many tourists throw coins into the Trevi Fountain that it must be cleaned every night. The BBC reported that the fountains collect $4,000 in loose change from tourists every day—and authorities are tough on anyone caught skimming off coins from the fountain. The money goes to a charity organization called Caritas for such projects as running a supermarket for the needy and distributing goods to the poor.

Whether you’re wishing for eternal youth, a vacation to Italy, or a call from someone special (maybe?)—the wishing well is a spring of hope for you and a source of charitable donations for others.


Lewis, Danny. “What Happens to Coins Tossed in Fountains?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 6, 2016.

Tabila, Lauren, James Green, Jonathan Kwok, Kara Thurn, and Meagan McLaughlin. “Wishing Wells: The Practice of Buying Good Fortune.” University of California–Irvine.

Upton, Emily. “Why We Throw Coins into Fountains.” Today I Found Out, March 10, 2014.

Wogan, Peter. “Why Do We Throw Coins in Fountains?” Greater Good Magazine, January 26, 2017.

Who Was St. Patrick?

Who was St. Patrick? The answer involves pirates, snakes, and revelatory dreams.

St. Patrick mosaic
Saint Patrick Catholic Church
(Junction City, Ohio)
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Patrick is one of the most widely known Christian saints and the patron saint of Ireland. But not much is definitively known about his life. He was not the one who introduced Christianity to Ireland, as is sometimes claimed. Nor does he have much to do with luck or leprechauns. And in fact, he wasn’t even Irish!

Patrick was born in Roman Britain near the end of the fourth century. His family was either of indigenous Celtic descent or from Rome. He signed his name Patricius in Latin, but according to some accounts his birth name was Maewyn Succat. Although Patrick’s family wasn’t particularly religious, his father became a Christian deacon in order to benefit from tax incentives.

When Patrick was sixteen, he was abducted by Irish pirates who attacked and raided his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland and imprisoned him for six years in County Mayo near Killala, where he worked as a shepherd. Alone and separated from his family and his country, Patrick turned inward and found solace in his religion. He began to dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity. He continued to receive revelation through dreams and, after six years as a prisoner, heard God’s voice telling him it was time to leave Ireland. He walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and escaped to Britain.

Later, he had another revelation in a dream, where he saw a figure called Victorious who offered him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish.” In the dream, Patrick was deeply moved by a company of Irish people imploring him to return, and he felt called to go back to Ireland as a missionary. He began training to become a priest and spent 15 years in religious study before he was ordained. Despite the lengthy time he took in filling his educational gaps, he still felt inadequate for the task that lay ahead of him. But once he had embarked for Ireland, he was filled with confidence and determination for his cause—to minister to Christians already there and to convert the Irish. (He did not introduce Christianity to Ireland, as is commonly believed, but he played the largest role in converting the Irish people to Christianity.) Patrick had great success and baptized and confirmed many people into the Christian faith.

He dealt carefully with local authorities and non-Christians, but he was cast into prison at least once and was in constant peril of martyrdom. Those he converted, too, were at times in danger. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick denounces the British mistreatment toward Irish Christians and bids those who have died farewell. In his autobiography, Confessio, he humbly poured forth thanks to his Maker for his success in helping the Irish become “people of God.” One scholar stated that “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his ‘rustic’ Latin.”

Patrick was able to reach so many people in large part due to his familiarity with Irish language and culture. Instead of attempting to wipe out traditional Irish beliefs, Patrick instead incorporated elements of Irish ritual into Christianity. The Irish celebrated their gods with fire, so Easter celebrations included a bonfire. The Irish used the symbol of the sun in their native worship practices, so Patrick superimposed an image of the sun onto the cross, creating what is known as the Celtic cross. This helped the Irish converts understand the underlying similarities between the light of the sun and the light of Christ and incorporate Christianity more naturally into their lives. According to legend, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity—and though this story is not based in fact, it illustrates St. Patrick’s creativity, passion, and understanding of the Irish people.

Celtic cross
Modern Celtic cross of a war monument in Limburg-Dietkirchen, Germany.
Image by Volker Thies via Wikimedia Commons.

In this country with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, Patrick’s life and mission was expanded and exaggerated over the centuries. Other legends hold that Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea to their utter destruction, and that is why there are no snakes on the Emerald Isle. One story reports that Patrick prayed for food for a starving group of sailors traveling over land, and a herd of pigs miraculously appeared to sustain them.

In the later years of his life, Patrick retired to Saul, the site of his first church, and died on March 17, 460 AD. He was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church simply because there was no canonization process during the first millennium. Rather, he was almost by default proclaimed a saint due to his widespread popularity. He is widely known as the patron saint of Ireland, and Irish Catholics seek his protection and intercession.

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held on March 17 as a religious celebration. It was traditionally a solemn affair in Ireland, a day of holy obligation and silent prayer rather than rollicking and revelry. Until the late twentieth century, St. Patrick’s Day was actually more widely celebrated in the Irish diaspora than in Ireland itself—most prominently in North America and Australia, where there are large numbers of people with Irish heritage. Starting in the 1700s, Irish immigrants in America began to incorporate celebration of the culture and heritage of the Irish in general on St. Patrick’s Day. Parades and parties, music and dancing now characterized a celebration of Irish pride, and outside Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has focused mainly on more secular aspects of Irish culture. Many people take this as a day to wear as much green as humanly possible, hunt for four-leaf clovers, and drink green beer. Ireland only began to incorporate these types of festivities beginning in the 1970s.

St. Patrick has become nearly synonymous with Ireland. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and honor Irish heritage, let’s also incorporate his humility and deep respect for Irish culture without resorting to stereotypes.

Sources Editors. “Saint Patrick.”, April 20, 2021.

Cohen, Jennie. “St. Patrick’s Day Legends and Myths Debunked.” History. Com, March 8, 2022. Editors. “Who Was St. Patrick?”, March 10, 2021.

O’Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. “Saint Patrick.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from

“St. Patrick.” Catholic Online. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from

Who Was Saint Valentine?

We celebrate Valentine’s Day in honor of Saint Valentine every year on February 14th—but who is the legend behind the holiday?

The answer is uncertain, really, but it involves miraculous healing, secret marriage ceremonies, and beekeeping.

The Many Saint Valentines

Various accounts of Saint Valentine seem to overlap and intersect with one another. There are about 500 recorded stories about a saint named Valentine. There were likely two Christian martyrs who made a name for Saint Valentine, and the legendary stories associated with them were merged into one. Historians agree that there may be little actual historical basis for some of these accounts, while others may be exaggerated versions of real events.

And what’s more, there were actually about twelve saints with the name Valentine. Valentinus, the Latin word for worthy, strong, or powerful, was a common name between the second and eighth centuries.

The Roman Priest Who Secretly Performed Marriages

In one account, Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, reasoning that men with no wives or children would be a better asset for the Roman military. Valentine saw the injustice of this decree and began to perform marriages for young Christian couples in secret. These clandestine ceremonies meant that the married men could not be pressed into military service, thereby depleting Claudius’s potential forces. Was Valentine trying to show the emperor that not even the military can conquer love—or is this the story of how Valentine aided in draft-dodging to weaken an empire that was hostile to his people?

Christians were a small and persecuted minority in Europe during this time. Valentine also aided many of his fellow believers in escaping the harsh sentences they faced in Roman prisons, where they were tortured and beaten.

These were serious crimes against the Roman Empire, and when Claudius found out, he ordered that Valentine be put to death. Claudius offered one way out: Valentine could renounce his faith. The priest refused, choosing rather to suffer his own torture and imprisonment, and he was beheaded on February 14. (The year is uncertain, but it was somewhere around 269–280). Valentine’s compassion, integrity, and heroic actions in the face of persecution sealed his fate as a Christian martyr.

Before he was killed, though, he fell in love with a young woman, possibly the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. He sent her a note signed, “From your Valentine”—meaning that the first valentine greeting was from the saint himself.

Stained glass image of Saint Valentine blessing a young couple
Saint Valentine blessing a young couple.

The Bishop of Terni Who Converted His Captor and Healed the Blind

Another account from the same period places Valentine as the Bishop of Terni. Valentine was placed under arrest in the house of Judge Asterius for the crime of attempting to convert people to Christianity. The judge and the bishop engaged in debate over religion to pass the time. As Valentine continued to pledge his faith to his captor, Asterius decided to put him to the test. He presented Valentine with his daughter, who was blind, and, with a guarded hope and desperation, asked him to heal her. Valentine placed his hands on her eyes and restored her sight. Judge Asterius, in awe, broke all the idols in his house and fasted for three days, and then he and his entire 44-person household were baptized as Christians. He also ordered the release of all Christian prisoners nearby.

Valentine was later imprisoned again, and this time, he was sentenced to death by beheading on February 14. Before he died, he sent a letter to Asterius’s daughter whom he had healed, signed “Your Valentine.” (Or perhaps she was the one who sent him the letter.) Sound familiar?

Both Valentines are said to have been buried at Ponte Milvio along the Via Flaminia, and since the year 496, a feast has been held in honor of Saint Valentine on February 14. However, the Roman Catholic Church removed Saint Valentine from its calendar in 1969 due to the lack of reliable information on his life.


Today, Valentine is still honored as the patron saint of love, engaged couples, and happy marriages . . . as well as epilepsy, beekeeping, fainting, and the plague.  

Saint Valentine healing a man with epiliepsy
Saint Valentine blessing a man with epilepsy. Colored etching.
Wellcome Library, London. CC BY 4.0.

It’s not clear how all these associations came about. But let’s talk about beekeeping for a moment. One of Saint Valentine’s duties in the afterlife is to maintain the sweetness of honey, that bee colonies flourish, and that . Bees have long been associated with goddesses of love, like Aphrodite, Venus, or Gwen. Myths from ancient Greece and Rome portray bees as having romantic effects on humans. Honey has been used as an aphrodisiac and medicinal agent for thousands of years, and its sweet taste represents love and healing. Beekeepers, then, can represent the guardians of love in family and marital relationships.

All this is to say that Valentine watches over the protectors of love. But also the plague.

So Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, was the first to associate the feast day of Saint Valentine with romantic love.

In his poem “Parlement of Foules,” Chaucer wrote,

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.

Those lovebirds were looking for a match on Valentine’s Day. Chaucer was perhaps referring to the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa on May 3, which is when birds are more likely to mate. But people took the 14th of February and ran with it.

Medieval folks had gone crazy for stories of courtly love and especially stories of forbidden or secret relationships. Now, young lovers called upon Saint Valentine for a blessing on their relationship, finding romance and excitement from the tales of secret marriages performed under his hand. In France, February 14th became a day of feasting, singing, and dancing in honor of romantic love. The French and the English penned love letters to their “valentines,” and Shakespeare’s Ophelia pines,

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

The legendary name of Valentine is now shorthand for romantic love and all the excitement and disappointment, butterflies and heartbreak that come with it. But perhaps we can remember a different type of Valentine—the type who is willing to sacrifice his own life out of a deep commitment to his faith and love for others, the type who courageously performs acts of compassion during times of oppression.


Barry, Anna Maria. “A History of Valentine’s Day Celebrations—From Fertility Festivals to the First Cards.” History Extra, February 10, 2021.

Gershon, Livia. “Who Was the Real Saint Valentine? The Many Myths Behind the Inspiration for Valentine’s Day.”

Harris, Karen. “Saint Valentine: The Patron Saint Of Bees, Fainting, And The Actual Plague.” History Extra. Editors. “History of Valentine’s Day.”, January 24, 2022.

“Saint Valentine—Patron Saint of Beekeepers and Lovers.” Glory Bee, February 14, 2017.

“St. Valentine.” Catholic Online. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Saint Valentine.” Retrieved February 11, 2022, from

The Story of “Once Upon a Time”

Why do we say “once upon a time” when beginning a story? The answer involves great time, great distance, and great imagination.

“Once upon a time” is a formulaic beginning that primes the listener for a story and frames the narrative to come. It is vague and imprecise on purpose—it’s a signal that the story is fictional and invites readers or listeners to open their imagination. But if you really think about it, this common phrase used to begin a story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “Once” means something happened, but how can that something be “upon” a time?” Well, until fairly recently, “upon” was often attached to any time-related phrase where we might use “at” or “on” today.

History of “Once Upon a Time”

It is believed that many different variants of this archaic-sounding phrase have been a part of English storytelling since before Chaucer’s day. By this time, lines like “once on a time” or “once upon a day” had already become conventional, as evidenced by their inclusion in enduring literary works.

The first recorded use of such a phrase, in this case “Onys uppon a day,” was in 1380 in the story Sir Ferumbras. This was a Middle English romantic poem that was part of a collection of literature on the history of Charlemagne’s France.

Geoffrey Chaucer also used the similar phrase “once on its use in The Canterbury Tales, published in 1385.

Yet another variation is found in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the book of Job: “Now upon a time . . . the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”

Finally, the fully formed phrase “once upon a time” has been around in oral and written form since about 1600. It’s also likely that storytelling conventions in French, German, and Scandinavian fairy tales were born out in English translations. They often have similar first lines in their respective language, such as “there was once” or “once” or “there was a time.”

Time and Space: The Power of Story

“Once upon a time” conveys distance and time far removed from here and now. The power of story is that it allows us to imagine and process things outside the constraints of our everyday lives. Maria Konnikova explains that stories allow us to reflect on the world in a nonthreatening way through psychological distancing. The distancing is actually what helps us connect to the story, discern patterns, and weave together pieces of ourselves that would otherwise remain without tangible expression. At a distance, we have the freedom to engage in fantasy and reflection to comprehend more about reality than we could when we are in the thick of real life. We can learn to empathize, play, imagine, and abstract. We then translate the truth of a story into the language of our reality to overcome real problems.

Think about Star Wars—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a great place to explore the idea of having both light and dark within oneself, the larger battle of good vs. evil, and the mystery of a higher power or force greater than humanity.

Back When Tigers Smoked: Beginning a Story in Other Languages

Other languages, too, have phrases that signal the beginning of a story and create space in terms of time and distance that can be filled in through imagination. Let’s take a look at how stories begin around the world.

Many opening phrases simply mean “a long time ago” or “it’s an old story.” Romance and Germanic languages typically use some variation of “there was once” or “once it happened”—creating a distance in time.

In some languages, such as Russian, the phrase used to begin a story translates to “in some kingdom” or “in some land.” Czech uses an interesting phrase that means “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers.” Some other Eastern European languages have similar phrases that convey great distance, like Lithuanian: “Beyond nine seas, beyond nine lagoons.”

Some simply signal that we are indeed about to hear a story. In Hausa, a West African language, a narrative begins, “A story, a story. Let it go, let it come.” 

Some openers draw on the value of oral traditions, like the Iraqw opening line spoken in Tanzania and Kenya: “I remember something that our father told me and that is this.” Likewise, in Chile, one classic formula is “Listen to tell it, and tell it to teach it.”

And some openings are designed to draw listeners in by engaging a fantastical, mythical, far-off world. A traditional Turkish opening phrase translates to “Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, [when] fleas were barbers, [when] camels were town criers, [and when] I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle, there was/lived, in an exotic land, far, far away, a/an . . .”

In Korean, one way to introduce a story is to say, “Back when tigers used to smoke [tobacco] . . .” This one is worth digging into. The tiger is a defining symbol of Korea and features in the Korean origin myth as an animal that had the potential to become human. A tigress and a she-bear who lived together in a cave both wanted to become human. The two animals were promised by a heavenly prince that if they stayed in their cave for 100 days and ate only mugwort and garlic, they would emerge as humans. The tiger lost patience and ran out into the forest, while the bear persisted and became a woman who gave birth to the king Tangun.

As a prominent figure in Korean folklore, the tiger is a symbol of strength, power, and protection but is also often the one who is outwitted or who becomes the butt of a joke. The dual symbol of the tiger is both revered and lovingly ridiculed.

Joseon period Korean folk painting depicting a tiger smoking a pipe.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

(As an aside, smoking has been widely practiced in Korea since the introduction of tobacco in the early 1600s. Everyone, old and young, male and female, rich and poor, smoked tobacco, until the late 1800s when it fell out of fashion for women. Growing tobacco boosted the economy, tobacco was seen as medicinal, and smoking became a social activity. Smoking has decreased in South Korea in recent decades but is still more prevalent than in other parts of the world.)

But why, in the phrase used to begin a story, are tigers the ones smoking? No one knows exactly why. It may simply be an indication of a highly fantastical story, given that tigers don’t and can’t smoke (at least not of their own volition). It’s a signal that a story is about to take place, drawing on the rich representation of the tiger in stories that people are already familiar with.

How does your story begin?


Colberg, Jessica. “Tangun: A Korean Creation Myth.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from

Kester, Marie. “The Powerful History Behind Once Upon a Time.” History of Yesterday, February 1, 2021.

Konnikova, Maria. “The Power of Once Upon a Time: The Story to Tame Wild Things.” Scientific American, May 8, 2012.

Madrid, Anthony. “Once Upon a Time and Other Formulaic Folktale Flourishes.” The Paris Review, May 23, 2018.

“Once Upon a Time.” Wikipedia. Retrieved January 11, 2022, from

Quinion, Michael. “Once Upon a Time.” World Wide Words, December 29, 2007. TOTA. “Origins of Korean Culture.” Retrieved January 22, 2022, from

Brownie Points

What are brownie points? The answer involves military slang, wartime food rationing, and the Girl Scouts.

“You might earn some brownie points if you shovel snow for your next-door neighbor!”

“Turning in your report early will get you some brownie points for sure.”

No, this doesn’t mean that someone will bake you a gooey chocolate confection if you rack up enough points. Nor does it mean that a Scottish household fairy will magically milk your cows and sweep your barn during the night.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a brownie point as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.” This definition emphasizes the negative connotation of pandering to someone to win their favor, but “brownie points” can also simply mean imaginary credit for doing a good deed or praise for a performing a service for someone.

Brown Nosing

The OED indicates that the term “brownie point” may be most closely tied to the term “brown nose,” which similarly means to ingratiate oneself with someone by being excessively attentive or eager to help. “Brown nosing” originated as military slang and is documented as early as 1938. The general notion was similar to many other obscenities—the brown noser was kissing someone’s backside. You can guess where the brown came from.

Brownie Badges

J.E. Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang states that “brownie points” originated from a rewards system used by the Brownies tier of the Girl Guides (UK)/Girl Scouts (USA) program. While “brown nose” is a more likely precursor to “brownie points,” the term surely owes some of its popularity to the founder of international scouting.

Stained glass window of Robert Baden-Powell
A stained glass window in Sussex dedicated to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the international scouting movement.
Image by Cnbrb, CCO 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1914, Lord Robert Baden-Powell organized the youngest age group of girls in the Girl Guides program and called them the Rosebuds. The group was run first by his sister, Agnes, and later by his wife, Olave. After hearing that the 8-to-11-year-olds in the Rosebuds group disliked the name, Lord Baden-Powell renamed them Brownies after an 1870 story called “The Brownies” by Juliana Horatia Ewing.

Brownies were popular in children’s literature at the time the Brownie Girl Guides were founded. In “The Brownies,” two children named Tommy and Betty learn that it’s better to be helpful and hardworking like brownies rather than lazy like boggarts. Ewing’s tale draws upon brownies in English and Scottish folklore, where they are described as a kind of fairy that dwelt in homes and awoke at night to clean, do chores, and sometimes pull light-hearted pranks on lazy servants. They were rewarded with a bit of cream and bread. Boggarts, on the other hand, were malevolent household spirits that stir up mischief, make things disappear, and cause milk to sour. A brownie could turn into a boggart if it the household occupants offended it.

Brownies reading a book. Illustration from The Palmer Cox Brownie Primer, a children’s reader from 1906.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

True to their namesake, Girl Guides/Scouts in the Brownies section (now encompassing ages 7–11) are encouraged to be kind and helpful in their communities. Brownies receive badges as a reward for achieving various interest-related and scouting-related tasks or for doing good deeds. The term “Brownie points” with a capital B has been associated with Girl Scout achievement badges. However, there has never necessarily been a “point system” to earn badges in Brownies or to advance up the ranks in the Girl Scout organization, and the term is not used within the organization.

The Brownie Exchange

As another theory, During World War II, citizens were given ration points in various colors that could be exchanged for food, based on availability. Red and brown points were used to buy meat and fats, while blue points purchased canned and bottled foods. It’s easy to see how “brown points” could have morphed into “brownie points.”

Other theories as to the origin of “brownie points” abound:

  • In the 1930s, brown vouchers called “brownies” were awarded to delivery boys who carried the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Country Gentleman, which they could exchange for items from a catalog.
  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave “brownie points” as a system of merits and demerits. This was copied by other railways, but it was mainly used as a term for negative actions by employees.
  • A camera club started in 1900 taught children how to use the Brownie box camera—but with no system of points in sight, this seems like an unlikely origin.

With the most likely origin stemming from a reference to excrement, it’s no wonder that we’ve come up with many other explanations for “brownie points”—but a variation on “brown-nosing” does seem to make the most sense.

Initial Usage

Given all of this background, it’s surprising that the term “brownie points” didn’t come into existence earlier in the twentieth century.

A 1944 book of American Speech recorded “brownie points” as a schoolyard taunt for goody-two shoes students who answered all the teacher’s questions.

The first specific documented use was in 1951 in the Los Angeles Times. In an article called “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband,” Miles Marvin wrote of brownie points as a means of earning favor with his wife. He goes to great lengths to explain the unfamiliar new term:

I first heard about them [brownie points] when the chap standing next to me in the elevator pulled a letter from his pocket, looked at it in dismay and muttered “More lost brownie points.”

Figuring him for an eccentric, I forgot about them until that evening when one of the boys looked soulfully into the foam brimming his glass and said solemnly:

“I should have been home two hours ago . . . I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.”

Brownie points! What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?

“You don’t know about brownie points? It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman – favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

Miles didn’t exactly know where it came from, either, but his article captured an unfortunate transactional dynamic between wives and husbands. A respectable husband in Miles’s day was supposed to remember birthdays and anniversaries, remember to complete tasks his wife had asked him to do, and get home on time—and it seems like his friend could never get ahead.

Since then, brownie points have typically been used in a more positive light, as an imaginary reward for good deeds rather than a dauntingly high bar to achieve or a pejorative term. Probably because they remind us of chocolate.


Miles, Marvin. “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband.” Los Angeles Times. March 15, 1951, p. 41.

O’Conner, Patricia, and Kellerman, Stewart. “Brownie Points and Brown-Nosing.” Grammarphobia, March 12, 2018.

Oxford English Dictionary. “brownie point.”

Rossen, Jake. “Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?” Mental Floss, August 19, 2019.

Schumm, Laura. “Food Rationing in Wartime America.”, August 31, 2018.

Simpson, Jacqueline, and Roud, Stephen. “brownie.” A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2000.

The Phrase Finder. “Brownie points.”

Upton, Emily. “The Origin of the Term ‘Brownie Points.’” Today I Found Out, May 6, 2014.