Spreading More Christmas Cheer: Christmas Carols Part 2

Where do MORE of our favorite Christmas songs come from? The answer involves Thanksgiving sleigh rides, a department store giveaway, and a pilgrimage to Israel.

(This is part 2. Read part 1 here.)

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Many Christmas songs are written by those who imagine what Bethlehem might have been like on the night Christ was born. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was inspired by a Christmas Eve service actually held in Bethlehem.

Phillips Brooks was highly esteemed in matters of both faith and intellect, as an Episcopalian preacher who had earned a doctorate of divinity from Oxford, taught at Yale, and publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War. He was known to be quite reserved and found an outlet to express his feelings through writing verse. Hymns were a major part of his spiritual upbringing, as his parents had each child in the family learn a new hymn each Sunday and recite it for the family. Wrote one biographer, “These hymns Phillips carried in his mind as so much mental and spiritual furniture, or as germs of thought; they often reappeared in his sermons, as he became aware of some deeper meaning in the old familiar lines.” He also said that “the language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears” was a means through which “he had felt the touch of Christ.”

Statue honoring Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston.
Sculptor Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1865, Brooks embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and saw the fields where the shepherds saw the star. He participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity and was profoundly moved by the experience.

In 1868, with the memory of Christmas in Bethlehem still “singing in [his soul],” Brooks channeled his feelings about the experience into a song for the Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, where he was the rector. He asked organist Lewis Redner to set the words to music. Redner struggled to come up with just the right tune. On the night before the Christmas service at their church, Redner wrote, “I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony.” The children’s choir performed the song, and Brooks and Redner thought that would be the end of it.

But the owner of a bookstore a few streets down began to print the carol on leaflets for sale. In 1874, a Reverend Huntington of All Saints’ Church in Massachusetts asked for permission to reprint the song in a Sunday school hymn book and named the tune “St. Louis.” The song gradually gained recognition and made its way into official hymn books of many different denominations.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the words were set to the tune “Forest Green” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and published in the 1906 English Hymnal. To this day, those in England and Ireland sing this version, while North Americans prefer Redner’s melody.

Jingle Bells

The town of Medford, Massachusetts, had an annual sleigh race around Thanksgiving. In 1850, James Lord Pierpont wrote a song to commemorate the Thanksgiving tradition and published it in 1857 as “One Horse Open Sleigh.” Reportedly, he penned the song in a tavern that was home to the one piano in town and may have lifted some lines from a minstrel song by Stephen Foster.

It actually has two additional verses that you may not know, telling the story of a young couple on a sleigh ride who tip their sleigh into a snowdrift (and they’re still “laughing all the way!”).

The song was not widely popular at first and remained a local phenomenon, but the phonograph record changed that. The song was first recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1898. Drawing upon the cold weather imagery, musicians and choirs began to incorporate it into their rotations of Christmas songs, and it eventually became closely tied to the Christmas season rather than Thanksgiving. Finally, the radio propelled “Jingle Bells” to be consistently one of the most popular Christmas songs in the country.

 “Jingle Bells” was also the first song broadcast from space. On December 6, 1965, an astronaut aboard Gemini 6 performed “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica as a prank on Mission Control.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

In 1939, the Great Depression was beginning to fade, but World War II was lurking on the horizon. The Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store was looking to cut costs for its annual holiday giveaway, which featured children’s coloring books, while still spreading Christmas cheer in an uncertain environment. The marketing department was tasked to come up with something, and employee Robert L. May wrote an original Christmas storybook with his four-year-old daughter in mind.

According to History.com, “As he peered out at the thick fog that had drifted off Lake Michigan, May came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer ostracized because of his luminescent nose, who used his physical abnormality to guide Santa’s sleigh and save Christmas.”

The cover of Robert May’s original story.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, was a professional songwriter and later wrote hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Nearly ten years after May wrote his storybook, Marks adapted the story into a Christmas song. Gene Autry, better known as the “Singing Cowboy,” picked up the song in 1949, and his recording sold over 2 million units in a year. This made it the second most successful Christmas record ever, just after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Since May had written the story while on the job at Montgomery Ward, the department store owned the copyright to all things Rudolph. When May’s wife died of a terminal illness in 1947, he was left as a single parent with crippling medical debt. The president of Montgomery Ward signed over 100% of the “Rudolph” copyright to May, and with the royalties, he was able to pay off his debt and live comfortably for the rest of his life.

Once in Royal David’s City

Cecil Francis Humphreys Alexander was a prolific hymnwriter from a young age. By the time she was 22, several of her texts had been published in the hymnbook of the Church of Ireland. She was born in Dublin in 1818, and her influence spread all over Ireland as she accompanied her husband, who was the bishop of the Church of Ireland and later an archbishop, on his travels. Alexander took every opportunity to engage in the ministry of the church and work with children. She also gave much of her life to charity work and social causes.

Her poem “Once in Royal David’s City” first appeared in the collection Hymns for Little Children in 1848. The goal of this book was to explain the Apostles’ Creed in cheerful, simple terms for the benefit of children. “Once in Royal David’s City” elaborates on the line of the Apostles’ Creed “born of the Virgin Mary.” Two other well-known hymns were also published in this book: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (to explain “creator of heaven and earth”) and “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (to illuminate “was crucified, died, and was buried”). The proceeds from the hymnal were used to build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

Stained glass window in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry, in honor of Cecil F. Alexander.
Image Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Henry John Gauntlett, an organist at several churches in London, composed the music for the most well-known version of the song in 1849. The song caught on quickly and became part of the Christmas liturgical sections of hymnbooks in most Christian denominations.

Later verses of the song have sparked controversy over their portrayal of the baby Jesus as “weak” and “helpless.” Critics have suggested that Alexander was writing in a Victorian-era context in which a patronizing tone was taken toward children, and children were to be seen and not heard. Her lyrics may well have reflected Victorian child-rearing principles rather than providing a scripturally based account of the Nativity scene—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christmas song that does get everything right, and the Son of God in the flesh surely did experience what it was like to have human feelings and experiences.

On Christmas Eve, English speakers around the world tune in to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast from King’s College in Cambridge. This tradition began in 1918, was first broadcast in 1928, and is now heard by millions around the world. In 1919, the second year of the festival, the organist composed an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” as a processional hymn. The first verse is an a cappella solo by a boy chorister, with the organ and choir joining in for the rest of the song. It is a high honor to be chosen for the solo—to be the voice that rings in the spirit of Christmas in the hearts of people all around the world.

Sources

Benson, Louis F. “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/Notes_On_Carols/o_little_town_of_bethlehem.htm.

Coghlan, Alexandra. “Christmas Carols: The History Behind 9 Festive Favorites.” History Extra, December 22, 2021. https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/christmas-carols-history-festive-songs-origins-silent-night/.

Hall, Robert. “THE ONE HORSE OPEN SLEIGH: The Story of ‘Jingle Bells.’” New England Song Series No. 3. American Music Preservation. http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/jinglebellssong.htm.

Hammel, Jennifer Miller. “The Lesser-Known History of ‘Jingle Bells.’” KUSC, December 17, 2020, https://www.kusc.org/culture/arts-alive-blog/the-history-of-jingle-bells/.

Hawn and Hanna. “History of Hymns: ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ Serves as Processional Hymn.” United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries, May 30, 2013. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-once-in-royal-davids-city-serves-as-processional-hymn.

History.com editors. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the #1 song on the U.S. pop charts.” History, January 6, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/rudolph-the-red-nosed-reindeer-is-the-1-song-on-the-u-s-pop-charts.

Puchko, Kristy. “The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.” Mental Floss, December 24, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60596/origins-10-popular-christmas-carols.

Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.

Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.”Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. “Once in Royal David’s City.” http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/once_in_royal_davids_city.htm.

The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer: Christmas Carols Part 1

Where did some of our favorite Christmas songs come from? Each one has a unique story, some of which involve a broken organ, a statue of Johannes Gutenberg, and a chain email hoax.

(This is part 1. Read part 2 here.)

Silent Night

“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was written by the Catholic priest Joseph Mohr while he was stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. He was inspired to write the lyrics in 1816 when he went on a walk and looked out at a peaceful, snow-laden town, still and silent on a winter night. Two years later, Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber, an organist and schoolmaster, to compose music to accompany the words for the Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. The song was performed by a guitar and a choir.

Chapel2.jpg
St. Nicholas Church, now called the Silent Night Chapel, in Obendorf, Austria.
Image by Gakuro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some accounts of the story say that the organ in the church was broken, and it could not be fixed until the spring when the snow had melted. Mohr was still determined to provide sacred music for Christmas Eve, and Gruber pulled through by composing a simple, peaceful melody on the guitar. Some versions blame a flood for the organ’s downfall, and others have a mouse chewing a hole in the leather of the organ bellows. But the truth is that guitar accompaniment was actually fairly common in Germany and Austria at this time, regardless of whether and why the organ was out of commission.

The song began to spread when an organ builder and repairman working at the church (maybe he was fixing the organ?) took a copy of the song to his home village. Two families of traveling folk singers picked it up and began to perform the song around northern Europe. The Strasser family performed “Stille Nacht” for the King of Prussia in 1834. The Rainer family of singers debuted the carol in America for the first time in 1839 outside Trinity Church in New York City. 

The Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who was assigned to Trinity Church, had taken up the hobby of translating hymns into English. He translated “Stille Nacht” into “Silent Night,” and his words are now sung by millions of people in English-speaking nations. The song has been translated into over 300 languages, and it is one of the most popular Christmas songs worldwide.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Christian twelve days of Christmas take place between Christmas on December 25, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and Epiphany on January 6, commemorating the adoration of the Magi. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” song was likely French in origin. The earliest version of an English poem about the twelve days of Christmas is found in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780. It was written in the style of a “memory and forfeits” game, in which players tested how well they remembered the lyrics as each new verse was added and had to forfeit something to their opponents if they made a mistake.

In the song, the twelve days of Christmas promise the following gifts:

Day 1: a partridge in a pear tree
Day 2: two turtle doves
Day 3: three French hens
Day 4: four calling birds
Day 5: five gold rings
Day 6: six geese a-laying
Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
Day 8: eight maids a-milking
Day 9: nine ladies dancing
Day 10: ten lords a-leaping
Day 11: eleven pipers piping
Day 12: twelve drummers drumming

There have been many variations to the lyrics over the years. Some carolers sang of “bears a-baiting,” “hares a-running, or “ships a-sailing,” and no one can ever seem to remember the order of the last four gifts. Sometimes “my mother gave” me the gifts, and other times “my true love sent” them to me.

Additionally, some variations came from mishearing the lyrics. The fourth day of Christmas came with “four colly birds” originally, using a regional English expression meaning “coal-black.” Those not familiar with the regional dialect substituted other words that made more sense to them—canary, colored, and curley birds are found in different versions of the song. Frederic Austin, the English composer who set the words to music in 1909, used “calling birds” in his version, which became the most popular variation.

Finally, some historians hypothesize that the five golden rings originally referred to the markings of a gold-necked pheasant. This would also make the golden rings gift consistent with the gifts for the rest of days 1–7, which are all birds.

Chrysolophus pictus -Melbourne Zoo, Australia-8a.jpg
A gold-necked pheasant.
Image by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And speaking of gifts, each year, PNC financial services calculates the Christmas Price Index (CPI) by totaling the price of one set of all the gifts given in the song. In 2021, the CPI is $41,205.58. (If you include all the repetitions, the total cost of the gifts from the singer’s true love is $179,454.19.) The CPI is up a whopping 5.7% from the previous year and 5.9% from the year before that due to the impact of the COVID pandemic on the cost of purchasing each item—who knew that the price of birds increased so much year-over-year? The nine ladies dancing, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming were out of the running for the 2020 CPI, since the pandemic led to cancellation of most live performances, so it’s good to see they’re back this year!

In the 1990s, an email chain began to circulate that claimed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” encoded messages about important articles of Christian faith (i.e., the partridge in a pear tree was Jesus, the two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments, and so on). The story went that, beginning in the 1500s, Catholics in England were prohibited from practicing their religion in public or private when the English crown established itself as the supreme head of the church in England. Catholics in hiding thus sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to teach children a catechism of their faith during a time of persecution.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked, given that there is no evidence to support it, and that it first surfaced seemingly out of nowhere in the 1990s. Further, nearly all the religious tenets supposedly “hidden” in the song were basic beliefs shared by Anglicans and Catholics alike, as well as many other Christian denominations at the time. There is no reason they would need to be secretly encoded in a Christmas song. It’s also not clear how believers would have remembered what each gift stood for, since there is not a clear relationship between the gift and the idea that it supposedly represented (how do eight maids a-milking help people remember the eight beatitudes?).

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a largely secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with one’s “true love” and with gifts, dancing, and music—which is not a bad thing, considering that the made-up stories about it hark back to a time when one group of Christians decided to torture and kill another group of Christians.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The hymn we now know as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 as a tribute to Johannes Gutenberg. It was performed as the second movement of Festgesang or Gutenberg Cantata during the unveiling of a statue of Gutenberg at the Leipzig Gutenberg Festival, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press.

A men’s chorus sang:

“Gutenberg, du wackrer Mann, du stehst glorreich auf dem Plan!” 

“Gutenberg, you valiant man, you stand glorious on the square!”

Mendelssohn wanted to publish the music with English lyrics but couldn’t find quite the right text. He wrote, “If the right [words] are hit at, I am sure that the piece will be liked very much by singers and hearers, but it will never do to sacred words.”

In the 1850s, a choirboy named William Cummings who had sung in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah hit on just the right text: “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) by one of the founding ministers of Methodism, Charles Wesley. Wesley was a prolific hymnwriter and wrote over 6,500 of them.

The original tune for “Hymn for Christmas-Day” was slower and more solemn. Wesley intended it to be sung to the same tune as “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.” The first line as written by Wesley was a little different, too:

“Hark! How all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”

“Welkin” was an obscure word (even then) meaning the sky or heaven. In 1758, George Whitefield, a fellow founder of Methodism, changed Wesley’s text to the more familiar first line:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing / Glory to the new-born King!

Deck the Hall

“Deck the Hall” comes from a sixteenth-century Welsh New Year’s Eve song with the same tune but completely different lyrics. A literal translation of “Nos Galan,” as it was called in Welsh, goes something like this:

The best pleasure on New Year’s Eve,
—Fa, la, &c.
Is house and fire and a pleasant family,
—Fa, la, &c.
A pure heart and brown ale,
—Fa, la, &c.
A gentle song and the voice of the harp,
—Fa, la, &c.

The “fa la la la la” is found in the original Welsh, and it was likely passed down from much earlier medieval ballads.

The song gained greater popularity when it was published in John Thomas’s Welsh Melodies in 1862, with the traditional text provided by the Welsh poet Talhaiarn side by side with English lyrics by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant. Oliphant’s lyrics were not a translation of the lyrics but a new poem entirely. His version may not have been the “ancient Christmas carol” it promises to be, since it came from a New Year’s Eve song, but it did draw on the ancient Christmas and Yuletide traditions of the British Isles:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel, –> Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Christmas carol.


See the flowing bowl before us, –> See the blazing yule before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I sing of beauty’s treasure. –> While I tell of Christmas treasure.

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Laughing, quaffing all together, –> Sing we joyous all together.
Heedless of the wind and weather.

These verses have a decidedly Scottish flavor—“lads and lasses” and copious references to alcohol cement its origins in the British Isles. Notice that earlier version of the song was very merry indeed, and certain lines were later changed to remove references to drinking.  

The druids of the pre-Roman British Isles saw holly as a sacred tree that retained the light of the sun the whole year round, since it was an evergreen that remained green through the winter. They decorated their homes with the leaves and berries of the holly tree as a symbol of life—a practice that has perpetuated throughout time. The very word “holly” may even be a variation of the word “holy.” Later on, Christians in Europe saw the red holly berries as representing the blood of Christ and the leaves representing His crown of thorns. Writings from 1598 state that “every man’s house, the parish churches, the corners of streets, and marketplaces in London were decorated with English holly (Ilex aquifolium) during the Christmas season.” Peoples all over the world, including Romans, Greeks, Native Americans, and Chinese have used holly for centuries as an aspect of winter and new year celebrations.

And the “blazing yule” before us is the log burnt in the home during the twelve days of Christmas. This tradition comes from a Scandinavian winter solstice ritual in which the log is an “emblem of divine light,” a symbol of the return of the sun following the darkest day of the year. The Yule log was lit from the remains of last year’s log, which was carefully preserved for this purpose. It provided light and warmth as family gathered around the fire and told, yes, ghost stories, and predicted their future for the coming year. The Yuletide fire cleansed the remnants of the old year and was hoped to bring forth a fruitful spring.

Some other things you may have wondered:

To “troll” means to sing the song in a round.

“Quaffing” means drinking (alcohol).

From Austrian church services to Welsh New Year’s Eve festivities, the origins of our favorite Christmas carols are fascinating. What song would you like to know the history behind?

Sources

BBC. “Christmas Carols.” August 4, 2009. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christmas/carols_1.shtml.

Lamoreauz, Aimee. “The History of Yule Logs Explained.” Grunge, November 26, 2020. https://www.grunge.com/285533/the-history-of-yule-logs-explained/.

Pai, Tanya. “The 12 Days of Christmas: The Story Behind the Holiday’s Most Annoying Carol.” Vox, December 1, 2020 . https://www.vox.com/21796404/12-days-of-christmas-explained.

Perry, Leonard. “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” The Green Mountain Gardener, University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science. https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/holly.htm.

PNC. The PNC Christmas Price Index. 2021. https://www.pncchristmaspriceindex.com/#about.

Puchko, Kristy. “The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.” Mental Floss, December 24, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60596/origins-10-popular-christmas-carols.

Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.

Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.” Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.

Wikipedia. “The Twelve Days of Christmas (Song).” Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song).

WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source. “The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night.’” December 19, 2020. https://www.wrti.org/arts-desk/2020-12-19/the-story-behind-the-beloved-christmas-carol-silent-night.

Where Does Pie Come From?

Where does pie come from, and why do we eat it on Thanksgiving? The answer involves a certain bird known for collecting miscellaneous objects, Queen Elizabeth I, and elaborate dinnertime entertainment.

Ancient Pie

Tracing the origins of pie takes us back to the ancient Egyptians, who ate a crusty cake (similar to a modern galette) made from oats and barley with a honey filling. These early pies may have also included fruit or nuts. Drawings on the tomb walls of Ramses II and III depict spiral-shaped pastries that resemble galettes. A tablet from before 2,000 BCE included a recipe for a chicken pot pie as well.

Spiral-shaped pies on the tomb walls of Ramses II.

In the fifth century BCE, the Greeks invented pie pastry that was used as the crust, as mentioned in the plays of Aristophenes. People began to work as pastry chefs as well, a separate occupation from bakers. Greek pies had mainly meat fillings.

Roman pies were likely adopted from the Greeks. Romans made pastry crust out of flour, oil, and water, but it was more of a carrying and storage container. As the pie cooked, the crust held in the juices of the pie filling, which typically included meat or vegetables but could also be sweet. A recipe for placenta (it may seem like an interesting name, but it literally means “flat cake”) in the second-century BCE cookbook De Agri Cultura by Cato the Elder may be one of the earliest recipes for a closed pie as well as an early recipe for cheesecake. It was made by encasing a sweet, thick filling of goat cheese, honey, and layers of pastry dough in crust.

From Egypt to Greece and then to Rome, the early pie had already been adapted in various ways. From there, Roman roads spread pies through Europe. As a greatly flexible format for baking any number of ingredients found in different environments, pies found expression in all parts of Europe.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

By 1300 CE, pie had entered the English language—but through a rather interesting route. The word piehus (pie + house, meaning a pie bakery) is attested from the late 1100s, meaning that pie was likely used earlier but not written down in any surviving texts. Pies were also known as bake-metes (bake + meat).

The word pie or pye came to Middle English via Middle French from the Medieval Latin word pia, meaning “meat or fish enclosed in pastry.” It’s likely that this word is connected to pica, meaning “magpie”—the reason being that magpies have a habit of collecting miscellaneous objects, and a pie is a collection of various ingredients baked together in a pastry crust “nest.”

Pies became very common in England by the mid-1300s, and in 1378, King Richard II found it necessary to issue a law controlling pie prices in London. Pie is even mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as a specialty of the disreputable cook who traveled with the pilgrims to Canterbury:

 And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry
And make a good thick soup, and bake a pie

A pie in this era had many ingredients, including meat and vegetables seasoned with pepper, currants, or dates, whereas a pastry had only one filling. Similar to Roman pies, the crust of a pie was not necessarily for eating, since it was hard and several inches thick, but rather for preserving the filling on long journeys and sea voyages. The crust was called a “coffyn” (coffin), which at that time typically referred to a container or chest where valuables were kept. When the filling of a pie was fowl, the bird came with legs still attached, dangling over the sides as handles to make the pie easier to eat. Other fillings included tortoise, beef, mutton, offal, and fish with spices like cinnamon, pepper, and orange peel.

Besides being a convenient and durable food at sea, pies soon became the centerpiece of exquisite banquets. Cooks baked increasingly elaborate pies with creative fillings to impress royalty as the pastry lid was removed to reveal what was inside.

Medieval image of a cook lifting up the crust of a pie before a king
Vintage engraving of a illustration from “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

Sometimes, cooked and redressed birds were placed on top of the pie to identify their contents.

Redressed birds sit atop pies
 (Redressed birds) TasteSense of Taste or Allegory of Taste
By Jan Brueghel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618. Museo del Prado.

You’ve probably heard the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king

Four and twenty blackbirds fly out of a pie to the surprise of the king
Illustration by Lawrence Elmendorf, in The Boyd Smith Mother Goose, (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1920).

This is not just a silly rhyme—it literally happened. Royal cooks baked pies and then carefully concealed live birds in the crust just before serving. When the pie was cut open, the birds flew out. Recipes from Italian and English cookbooks in the 1500–1600s contain recipes for “to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and fly out when it is cut up” and “Live Birds in a Pie” (which also contained live frogs).

Some (very, very large) pies were even said to contain an actor reciting poetry or a whole band of musicians! A banquet thrown for the Duke of Burgundy in the 1500s featured a large pie with a young woman inside, which was the beginning of the “surprise pie” and “girl in the pie” tropes.  

This was a form of entremet, a term that once referred to a set of small dishes served in between courses of a banquet or as dessert. But by the Middle Ages, entremet had become a form of entertainment through edible or nonedible ornaments and live performances. The four-and-twenty blackbird pie was a dish meant not just to be eaten but also to entertain and dazzle the royal taste.

She’s My Cherry Pie

Fruit pies entered the scene in the 1500s. English tradition attributes the first cherry pies to Queen Elizabeth I, who was known for her fondness for fruit pie. Forget the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the relative political stability during her reign, and a golden age of English literature and drama—the reign of Queen Elizabeth brought sweet, sweet dessert pies to the world.

Speaking of English literature, Shakespeare used pie as a dramatic device (as if it weren’t already dramatic enough) in Titus Andronicus. Titus has two villains baked into a pie because they attacked his daughter, and then serves the pie to the victims’ mother.

As American as Apple Pie

Though pie was featured in other European cuisines, the pie was an English specialty that was unmatched in any other country.But asEnglish settlers brought their beloved pies with them as they colonized North America, recipes diverged somewhat, and pie became as American as—well, apple pie. (Apple pie actually came from our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who printed a recipe in the fourteenth century that included figs, raisins, and pears along with apples—but no sugar, as this would not have been widely available until the seventeenth century.)

In the 1600s and 1700s in America, pie was served at every meal and became a staple at social gatherings and celebrations. New England was even known as the “pie belt” due to the popularity of the pastry. The early colonists used long, narrow coffins to encase a variety of fillings. They eventually switched to a round shape, and during the Revolutionary Era, people finally began to eat the pie crust.

Shepherd’s pie and cottage pie were most popular at first, in true British fashion. Soon, though, colonists began to bake pies with fruits, berries, and other ingredients that grew in the New World. As colonists moved west, they continued to adapt their pies to use local ingredients. Over time, both America and Great Britain had increasingly greater access to sweeteners like maple syrup, molasses, and honey, as well as cane sugar due to the exploitation of enslaved people on sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands. It took a couple of centuries, but sweet pies eventually won over in America, while savory pies retained their hold in Great Britain.

Thanksgiving Pie

Pie may have been served at early “thanksgiving” celebrations in 1618–1621, but pumpkin pie was most definitely not on the menu. The earliest recipe for pumpkin pie comes from a 1675 English cookbook and used a British preparation of spiced and boiled squash as a pie filling. This pie was savory rather than sweet and did not make its way to the United States until the 1800s. Squash was an import from the New World to the Old World, but pumpkin pie was an export from Great Britain to America.

Our national mythology surrounding Thanksgiving comes mainly from much later in our country’s history. Sarah Josepha Hale, who advocated to celebrate Thanksgiving as a unifying national holiday after the Civil War, described the perfect Thanksgiving dinner as including fried turkey with gravy, ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

In the South, sweet potato pie typically took the place of pumpkin pie due to greater availability, and pecan and walnut trees lent themselves to nut pies as well. Sweet potatoes came to America on ships that brought slaves from Africa. The sweet potato dishes that became a regional favorite in the southern United States thus have roots in the slave trade. In the North, pumpkin pie remained popular along with apple. The Midwest developed a liking for cream and cheese pies, while the plains inherited Swedish tart berry pies.

Pie has a long and storied past, much of it fascinating from the perspective of history, linguistics, and literature. But like many aspects of European history, pie was influenced by extravagant and indulgent displays of wealth in service of royalty. Like many aspects of American history, pie was influenced by colonialism and slavery. Going forward, may our celebrations and traditions and the food we associate with them connect us to the past while reaching toward a more equitable future.

Sources

BBC. “A Shortcrust History of Pies.” Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zmtn2sg.

Etymology Online Dictionary, “pie.” Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/pie#etymonline_v_14952.

Harbster, Jennifer. “Pie-ology: A Full Filling Story.” Library of Congress, November 18, 2011. https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2011/11/pie%E2%80%A2ology-a-full-filling-story/.

Mayer, Laura. “A Brief History of Pie.” Time, November 26, 2008. https://time.com/3958057/history-of-pie/.

McDonald, Hannah. “Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie on Thanksgiving?” Mental Floss, November 1, 2021. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/608034/why-we-eat-pumpkin-pie-at-thanksgiving.

Oxford English Dictionary, “pie.” Retrieved November 19, 2021, from oed.com.

Paul, Gerard. “History of Pumpkin Pie—From Savory, to Sweet, to Thanksgiving Staple.” Many Eats, December 1, 2020. https://manyeats.com/history-of-pumpkin-pie/.

Stradley, Linda. “History of Pies.” What’s Cooking America. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://whatscookingamerica.net/history/piehistory.htm.

Warren. “History of Pies.” Everything Pies. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.everythingpies.com/history-of-pie/.

Where Does Halloween Come From?

Where does Halloween come from? The answer involves community bonfires, ritualized hospitality, and visits from the Otherworld.

We’ve talked about trick-or-treating and jack-o’-lanterns, so now let’s dive into the origins of the holiday itself!

Celtic Samhain

Halloween comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”). It is observed on October 31–November 1, the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark half” of the year. Samhain was a liminal celebration, a time of transition between summer and winter, light and darkness—a time when “the normal order of the universe is suspended” (Rogers, 2002). The liminality during Samhain meant that the lines between the spirit world and the physical world began to dissolve for a night. Monsters, gods, spirits, fairies called Sidhs, and ancestors might cross over from the Otherworld into the human world. Spirits and fairies played tricks on mortals, and the night was one of supernatural intensity.

The holiday included such festivities as feasting, guising or mumming, divination, sacrifices, and a bonfire. Rituals mediated the sublimation between the supernatural and natural world but also displayed the values of hospitality, caring for the poor, and celebrating the cycle of death and rebirth.

During Samhain, people disguised themselves from the spirits that roamed the night and avoid becoming the target of their tricks. The best way to do that was to wear masks and dress in animal skins to blend in with the supernatural beings, to become a ghost or a fairy for the night.

Guising or mumming was a precursor to modern trick-or-treating. In this tradition, young people dressed in disguises visited houses in their village and played tricks, danced, and performed until the occupant guessed their identity and gave them food. As a type of ritualized hospitality, guising appeased the homeowners’ ancestors and blessed the house to be free from the mischief of the real spirits that were thought to roam the night.

On Samhain, households allowed their fireplaces to burn out while the harvest was gathered. Then, Druid priests started a community bonfire at the top of a hill using a wheel to cause friction and spark flames. The round wheel and the resulting light of the bonfire represented the sun, which was now retreating in the shorter days of winter. The pillar of smoke wafting up from the fire represented the axis mundi, the world pillar that connects heaven, earth, and the underworld. The fire itself protected the village from sinister spirits and Sidhs. Each person took a flame from the communal bonfire to re-light the hearth in their home, bringing the light and protection and warmth of community back to their own dwellings.

Sacrifices were also an important aspect of Samhain. People sacrificed animals that would not survive the cold months ahead to satisfy the spirits and also laid food as an offering at their ancestors’ graves. The poor in the community, who represented these ancestors, would gather in the cemetery and eat the offering.

Various divination practices and games provided both entertainment and somber predictions about death, marriage, and life. Some sought out wise women to prophesy about the year ahead. Some placed stones around the bonfire that represented people; those people ran around in a circle with torches, and in the morning, if a person’s stone was out of place, it signified imminent death. Other divination rituals involved using food like apples, hazelnuts, or oatmeal to predict one’s future or even the name of one’s true love. One divination trick involved hiding items in a cake, and a person’s future was signified by whatever they found in their portion of cake, such as a coin for wealth or a ring for marriage.

Snap-Apple Night shows a Halloween party where people are bobbing for apples.
Snap-Apple Night shows people feasting, playing divination games, and bobbing for apples in a Halloween party in Ireland. These traditions have their roots in the festival of Samhain.
By Daniel Maclise, 1833.

Roman Samhain

When Rome conquered the Celts in the first century CE, they introduced their own traditions into Samhain. These included Feralia, a public festival honoring the dead, and the feast of Pomona, which celebrated the first apple harvest of the year in honor of the goddess of the harvest.

A tapestry showing Pomona gathering apples
Pomona, Roman goddess of orchards, fruit, and the harvest.
By Francis Helminski, Wikimedia Commons.

Christian Samhain

Starting in the fifth century CE, as Christianity began to grow in areas that were once pagan, church leaders began to reframe Samhain as a Christian celebration, in a display of cultural adaptation we’ve also seen in Christmas and Easter traditions.

In the seventh century, Pope Boniface cast it as a day to celebrate Christian saints and martyrs and moved the date to May 13. This didn’t stop anyone from continuing to build communal bonfires in the fall.

A century later, Pope Gregory moved the date of the celebration back to the fall. The night of October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve (“hallow” referring to a saint or holy person). Hallowe’en (“a holy evening”), as it was later called, became an evening vigil where families visit the graves of loved ones to pray and leave flowers and candles. Some also bring with them a feast, including their dearly departed ones’ favorite foods. Gregory also declared that November 1 would now be a feast day called All Saints Day. This day is an opportunity to remember all the known and unknown saints and martyrs throughout Christian history. In the tenth century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny Monastery designated November 2 as All Souls Day to honor not just saints but all Christians who had passed on. Catholics and Anglicans today consider All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day to be holy days to remind themselves to live as the saints and then to ask for God’s mercy for all souls. Throughout November, a Book of the Dead is placed near the altar in the church for parishioners to write the names of the dead they wish to be remembered.

Christians pray and place candles and flowers on the graves of their loved ones on All Hallows Eve.
On All Hallows Eve, Christians visit the graves of their loved ones to pray and leave flowers and candles.
Photo by Kaj Bjurman, 2007, from Wikimedia Commons.

Even though Christian celebrations began to take hold, Pope Gregory’s declaration didn’t stop pagan traditions—people continued to celebrate the harvest, the seasons, the supernatural encounters, the sharing of light during the beginning of the darkest time of the year. By the end of the Middle Ages, the merging of the sacred and the secular produced a richly textured mix of meanings and traditions, all centered around the connection between the mortal world and the world of spirits.

Hundreds of years later, the Irish had spread them to other countries in Europe and brought them across the Atlantic to America. The Reformation in Europe had led to the prohibition of All Hallows Eve among Protestants, but Halloween persisted as a secular holiday. The Puritan tendencies of early America prohibited Halloween there as well. But the influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century brought the widespread celebration of Halloween in conjunction with existing harvest celebrations and fall festivities. The cultural amalgamation of Celtic, Roman, Christian, American, and likely other traditions has produced the Halloween we know today—a night full of costumes, mischief, tricks and treats, apple bobbing, and fall festivities, all of which have ties back to the rituals of Samhain.

Sources

@_soul_stice, Instagram post, October 19, 2021.

Crain, Alex. “All Saints’ Day – The Meaning and History Behind the November 1st Holiday.” Christianity, October 29, 2021. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/all-saints-day-november-1.html.

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World. “Origins in Samhain.” Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/13things/7448.html.

History.com editors. “Samhain.” History.com, October 19, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain.

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. (Oxford University Press, 2002).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Halloween.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Halloween.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Samhain.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Samhain.

Wikipedia. “Samhain.” Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain.

Why Do We STILL Do Daylight Saving Time?

Why do we do change our clocks twice a year for Daylight Saving Time? The answer involves Benjamin Franklin’s trusty almanac, bug hunting, and coal-powered warfare (notice that farmers are not on the list).

“Spring forward, fall back.” Every second Sunday in March, groans echo throughout 75 countries in the world as everyone gets up an hour earlier than their body is used to. And every first Sunday in November, those same people rejoice when they get to sleep in for an extra hour. The idea is to maximize sunlight during waking hours in the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer by shifting our clocks to add an hour of sunlight to the end of the day. We’re not actually losing or gaining any time; we’re simply robbing an hour from March and giving it to November to “save” daylight. But who is the Robin Hood responsible for such theft?

The Origin of Daylight Saving Time

You’ve probably heard that Daylight Saving Time (DST) was proposed to benefit farmers who wanted extra daylight to work in their fields later in the evening, but this is a myth.

In 1784, Benjamin Franklin published a satirical letter in the Journal de Paris, lamenting that most Parisians slept until noon (at least, he did) even when the sun rose at 6:00 a.m. According to his almanac, which listed the hour of the sunrise and sunset each day, they were missing out on six whole hours of natural sunlight but burning candles late into the night. Though Franklin didn’t suggest a shift in clocks, he suggested a shift in schedules to align life more fully with the rise and set of the sun, who “gives light as soon as he rises.” He calculated that, by doing so, the country could save the modern equivalent of $200 million by “the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.”

As Franklin’s letter hints, the primary policy rationale behind DST is actually energy conservation, though society was burning coal more than candles by the time it was proposed.

In 1855, a New Zealand entomologist named George Hudson suggested a two-hour time shift to allow for more light in the evening hours to go bug-hunting. In the early 1900s, William Willett independently came up with the idea to help Great Britain avoid wasting daylight and proposed it in Parliament, backed by Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—but to no avail.

Finally, in 1916—two years into World War I—Germany took notice of Willett’s idea of moving the clock forward and adopted it as a way to conserve energy during the war effort. Almost every other country involved in the war soon passed daylight saving laws. Because industrialized nations were primarily using coal power, the time shift actually did save energy and contribute to the war effort during this era.

(And in World War I, coal was power. As Germany faced international blockades and domestic shortages of necessary resources, the British allied forces’ control of the coal industry became one of the decisive, war-ending assets that led to the defeat of the Axis powers. Coal fueled the British blockade that weakened Germany to the point of defeat.)

Though DST was mainly a way to save fuel, another economic objective behind it after the war was to encourage people to use the extended daylight hours in the evening to shop, attend sporting and recreational events, and spend more time outdoors.

A map showing countries that observe Daylight Saving Time.
Countries that observe Daylight Saving Time.
Image by TimeZonesBoy, May 30, 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Daylight Saving Time in America

A senator changing the time on a clock.
The U.S. Senate clock is changed for the first DST in America, 1918.
Image by U.S. Government.

The United States formally adopted Daylight Saving Time in 1918. The dates when the time change occurs have been changed over the years, and the most current legislation is the 1966 Uniform Time Act, which regulates time zones and the observance of DST across the country.

Currently, all states but Hawaii and Arizona currently observe Daylight Saving Time. Hawaii abandoned Daylight Saving Time in 1967 because it is close enough to the equator that the sun generally rises and sets around the same time each day, regardless of the time of year. (Likewise, most tropical nations and territories do not observe Daylight Saving Time either because variations in day length are negligible.) Since 1968, Arizona has permanently been on Mountain Standard Time, with the exception of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, which do observe Daylight Saving Time. (This means that if you drive east on the Arizona State Route 264 while DST is in place, you will change time zones six times in less than 100 miles!) Due to its location, there is plenty of daylight in Arizona year-round, and residents benefit from cooler temperatures in the evening rather than more sunlight.

In 2021 alone, thirty-three states have introduced legislation addressing the issue of DST. In the last four years, nineteen states have passed legislation or resolutions to enact DST year-round. However, they still need the approval of Congress for this legislation to take effect. Some critics of DST argue that permanently turning our clocks ahead an hour will not only eliminate the nuisance of the time change but, more importantly, alleviate some of the health consequences of DST in the spring while maintaining quality of life in the winter. Different states vary in their preference of remaining permanently on daylight time or standard time, but, as noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “the actual March and November time changes are almost universally reviled because of all the accompanying adjustments we must make, like coming home from work in the dark and the slower-than-expected resetting of our internal time clocks” (NCSL, 2021).

The Pros and Cons

We know we can’t create more daylight, even if we tried. The earth will continue its rotation and revolution, unhindered by our puny human efforts. But we can manipulate the way we think about it by altering our construction of time. One benefit of DST is that it provides longer evenings in the spring and summer since we wake up an hour earlier. The extra hour of light provides time for outdoor activities, encouraging a more active lifestyle and increased spending in the tourism and recreation industries.

A cartoon with Hercules trying to stop a clock. "You can't stop time. . . but you can turn it back one hour at 2 a.m. on Oct. 28 when daylight saving time ends and standard time begins."
A cartoon reminding people to set their clocks back. DST now occurs the first Sunday in November.
Image from U.S. Government.

A potential benefit of DST is increased safety. Some studies have found that DST contributes to a reduction in pedestrian fatalities and crimes such as robbery in the evening hours simply because it stays light later. However, other studies have found that fatal car crashes increase by 6% in the week after we “spring forward,” especially in the morning hours, due to a disruption in sleep cycles. Sleep deprivation causes more drowsy driving incidents during this period, as well as contributing to an uptick in heart attacks, strokes, and workplace injuries. These unwarranted interruptions in our circadian rhythms seem to do more harm than good. One researcher commented, “It would be better for sleep, the body clock, and overall health to have more morning light and less evening light, as is the case under permanent standard time” (Ries, 2020). However, it’s important to note that these disruptions are temporary, often lasting just a few days. For example, the incidence of heart attacks rises 25% on the Monday following the March change to DST, but the overall incidence of heart attacks throughout that week is average as compared to the rest of the year.

The most often cited benefit of DST is that our daily routines coincide more with the hours of natural daylight, reducing the need for artificial light and yielding energy savings, albeit very modest ones—a meta-analysis found average energy savings of 0.34% due to DST. Energy savings are largest farther from the equator, while subtropical areas actually increase energy use due to DST. Another study found that even when electricity usage for lighting goes in the winter down due to DST, energy usage for heating and cooling goes up, rendering the overall effect neutral. The researchers concluded that “the effects of daylight saving time on energy consumption are too small to justify the biannual time-shifting” (Havranek, Herman, and Irsova, 2016, p. 26).

Research shows that only 33% of Americans are in favor of continuing Daylight Saving Time. Most see it as an annoyance, and most proposed “benefits” turn into downfalls with a little investigation. More than 140 countries have adopted DST at some point, but about half have abolished it since. Will the United States be next?

Sources

Blakemore, Erin. “Daylight Saving Time 2019: The Odd History of Changing Our Clocks.” National Geographic, November 1, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/daylight-savings-time-arizona-florida-spring-forward-science.

Coate, Douglas, and Sara Markowitz. “The Effects of Daylight and Daylight Saving Time on US Pedestrian Fatalities and Motor Vehicle Occupant Fatalities.” Accident Analysis & Prevention, vol.36, no. 3 (May 2004): 351–357. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0001-4575(03)00015-0.

Ducharme, Jamie. “The Reason Some States Don’t Observe Daylight Saving Time.” Time, November 4, 2017. https://time.com/5005600/states-without-daylight-savings-time/.

Franklin, Benjamin. Letter to the Editor of the Journal of Paris. 1784. http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/franklin3.html.

Fritz, Joseph, Trang VoPham, Kenneth P. Wright Jr., and Céline Vetter. “A Chronobiological Evaluation of the Acute Effects of Daylight Saving Time on Traffic Accident Risk.” Current Biology, vol. 30, no. 4 (January 2020): 729–735.E2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.12.045.

Havranek, Tomas, Dominik Herman, and Zuzana Irsova. “Does Daylight Saving Save Energy? A Meta-Analysis.” MPRA Paper No. 74518, October 12, 2016. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/74518/1/MPRA_paper_74518.pdf.

Kotchen, Matthew J., and Laura E. Grant. “Does Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Indiana.” NBER Working Paper 14429, October 2008. https://www.nber.org/papers/w14429.

National Conference of State Legislatures. “Daylight Saving Time | State Legislation.” October 8, 2021. https://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/daylight-savings-time-state-legislation.aspx.

Ries, Julia. “The Number of Fatal Car Accidents Spikes after Daylight Saving Time.” Healthline, March 6, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/daylight-saving-can-make-driving-less-safe.

Thorsen, Steffen, and Anne Buckle. “Daylight Saving Time Statistics.” Time and Date. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.timeanddate.com/time/dst/statistics.html.

Wei-Haas, Maya. “Why Daylight Saving Time Exists—And Is So Unpopular.” National Geographic, March 12, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/daylight-saving-time.

Wikipedia. “Time in Arizona.” Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_in_Arizona.

Zeller, Joseph. “Coal: A Significant Factor in Germany’s Defeat in World War I.” Canadian Military History, vol. 27, no. 1 (2018).

Take This Article with a Grain of Salt

Why do we take something uncertain “with a grain of salt”? The answer involves a universal antidote to poison, Bible commentary, and some questionable photos of Ireland.

To take something with a grain of salt means to understand that something may not be completely accurate, to interpret something skeptically because it may be unverified or uncertain. For example, if you were relating an interesting fact about panda bears that you heard from a tourist at the zoo, you could tell your friends to “take it with a grain of salt” since you aren’t sure whether the source of information is trustworthy.

Outside the United States, other English-speaking countries use the phrase “take it with a pinch of salt” to mean the same thing.

But why a grain or pinch of salt? Why not a twist of lime or a drizzle of olive oil?

The Roman Cure

King Mithridates VI (135–63 BCE), ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus, was continually in conflict with the Roman Republic for decades. His relentless attempts to build an empire made him one of Rome’s most formidable opponents and one of the most celebrated rulers of Pontus. In addition to his military endeavors, he has gone down in history as “The Poison King.”

Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century).
Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century).
Image by Sting, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Mithridates was obsessed with toxicology and paranoid that his enemies were planning to poison him. His fear over real and imagined assassination attempts led him to research all known toxins and their remedies, experimenting on prisoners of war to understand the effects of various substances. He attempted to make himself immune to poison, Princess Bride-style, by ingesting small doses and gradually increasing the amount to build up tolerance. Later scholars including Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79) claimed that Mithridates developed and regularly ingested a universal antidote for all known poisons, known as mithridate or mithridatium. Pliny wrote that Mithridates’ panacea contained over 50 different ingredients, including small amounts of various poisons, that were ground into power and mixed with honey. The original recipe, however, has been lost to history. Historians today believe that Mithridates likely did not actually have such an antidote, but continued to fund research while publicly bragging that he already had it to fend off potential assassination attempts.

Three jars used to hold the semi-mythical drug mithridatum,
By Wellcome Images, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Pliny, a Roman author and natural philosopher, amassed a great body of knowledge from studying and investigating natural and geographic phenomena. He wrote the Naturalis Historia, which claimed to cover all ancient knowledge and became an editorial model for later encyclopedias.

Plinywrote in the Naturalis Historia that after the Roman general Pompey (106–48 BCE) defeated Mithridates, he found in Mithridates’ private cabinet the following recipe for an antidote in Mithridates’ own handwriting:

Take two dried walnuts, two figs and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

The Latin phrase addito salis grano literally means “after having added a grain of salt,” but it was translated as “with a grain of salt” (cum grano salis in Latin) to more closely match the grammar of modern Romance languages. The idea here is that a poison or an unsavory medical cure is more easily swallowed with a small amount of salt.

The Modern Medicine

The implication that a grain of salt can mediate the effect of poison did not take on a metaphorical slant until much later, influenced by scholarly study of classical Latin texts. In 1647, the English religious commentator John Trapp wrote, “This is to be taken with a grain of salt.” No one is exactly sure what he meant, and it’s possible that this expression did not convey the same meaning it holds today. Perhaps a particular piece of commentary on the Bible was a little hard to swallow, for whatever reason.

The phrase didn’t really gain traction until the early twentieth century. It did not surface again until the August 1908 edition of The Athenæum, a U.S. literary journal. The journal included this text:

Our reasons for not accepting the author’s pictures of early Ireland without many grains of salt . . .

Apparently, the photographer’s work did not meet the editorial guidelines of the journal. By this time, it seems that the metaphor was already common enough that readers understood the meaning even when it was slightly altered for rhetorical effect.

From here, the saying “with a grain of salt”—based on the idea of using salt to make something unpalatable easier to swallow—began to catch on as a metaphor for adding a little skepticism when consuming potentially doubtful information.

The UK caught on later in the century. The earliest printed citation comes from the 1948 book Cicero & the Roman Republic:

A more critical spirit slowly developed, so that Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors.

This quote itself provides a good lesson on studying etymology and language change—use good judgment, vet your sources, and take things with a grain of salt when it seems that there are gaps in the historical narrative.

Salt Bae
Just ask Salt Bae, who became an internet meme in 2017.

Sources

Corwell, F. H. Cicero & the Roman Republic. Pelican Book, 1948.

Hall-Geisel, Kristen. “What Does It Mean to ‘Take It with a Grain of Salt’?” How Stuff Works, June 30, 2020. https://people.howstuffworks.com/grain-of-salt.htm.

Hyden, Mark. “Mithridates’ Poison Elixir: Fact or Fiction?” World History Encyclopedia, June 2, 2016. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/906/mithridates-poison-elixir-fact-or-fiction/.

Gutoskey, Ellen. “Why Do We Tell People to Take Something ‘With a Grain of Salt’?” Mental Floss, September 22, 2021, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/648536/take-it-grain-salt-meaning-and-origins.

Martin, Gary. “The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Take with a Grain of Salt.” The Phrase Finder. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/take-with-a-grain-of-salt.html.

The Idioms. “Take with a grain of salt.” https://www.theidioms.com/take-with-a-grain-of-salt/.

Wikipedia. “Pliny the Elder.” Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder.

Where Did S’mores Come From?

Where did s’mores come from? The answer involves the Girl Scouts, a Wikipedia hoax, and the Father of American Vegetarianism.

We know they’re called s’mores because they’re so good, you always want “some more” of them. But who actually invented everyone’s favorite campfire treat?

S’mores were most likely invented in the 1920s by Girl Scout troops at Camp Andree Clark in upstate New York. As reported in the Norwalk Hour in September 1925, the Girl Scouts shared a treat called “Some-Mores” with each other that “consist of a graham cracker on which is placed a piece of Hershey chocolate, a toasted marshmallow, another piece of chocolate and a graham cracker.” Other sources shows that the Camp Fire Girls (a girls’ organization formed two years before the Girl Scouts) began to enjoy s’mores around the same time.

1940s (unspecified)— Seven scouts in a semi-circle roast marshmallow on sticks over a stone campfire. Source: NHPC.

Another early source for a s’mores recipe is a 1927 official Girl Scouts guidebook called Tramping and Trailing With the Girl Scouts. The guidebook included a recipe for “Some Mores,” and, similar to the description in the Norwalk newspaper, they haven’t changed a bit since then—a marshmallow toasted over a campfire is sandwiched with some Hershey’s chocolate between two graham crackers, allowing the heat of the marshmallow to melt the chocolate. Of this gooey, sweet snack, the guidebook remarks, “Though it tastes like ‘some more’ one is really enough.”

The identity of the author of the recipe, however, is contested. The guidebook does not list an author, but in 2009, a troop leader by the name Loretta Scott Crew was credited for the recipe on Wikipedia. There is reason to believe her name was invented as a hoax to test the trust of the internet in Wikipedia, the result being that an erroneous attribution is still circulated to this day.

Experimental young girls were not the only ones to combine graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate—various mass-produced treats included all three elements before the Girl Scouts even existed. Nabisco’s Mallomar, dating from 1913, was a round graham cracker topped with a marshmallow and covered in dark chocolate, and the MoonPie of 1917 was a palm-sized graham cracker and marshmallow sandwich dipped in chocolate.

MoonPie
MoonPie. Image by Evan-Amos from Wikimedia Commons.

But before that . . .

Marshmallows

You may have heard of the marshmallow plant. It looks something like this:

Althaea officinalis. Image by H. Zeli, June 27, 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is an herb has been used for thousands of years as an herbal remedy for sore throats, indigestion, and pain relief. It is native to the marshes of Europe and Asia. In Ancient Greece, China, and Rome, the marshmallow plant was used for food and medicinal purposes. In Egypt, marshmallow sap was combined with honey, producing a candy reserved for the gods and rulers. The root of the plant was also boiled with sugar to release the root sap until it thickened, then strained and cooled to make “suckets,” which were like cough drops.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the French whipped up a light, airy confection using marshmallow sap, egg whites, and sugar purely for enjoyment. These were expensive to make and reserved only for the upper classes. But soon, the marshmallow sap was replaced with gelatin to produce a cheaper version that was still light and fluffy. (In case you’re wondering, modern marshmallows are made with corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, and preservatives.)

The idea of roasting marshmallows over a campfire came about in the 1890s. It became very popular in the beach towns of the Northeast, where marshmallow roasting parties were held at summer resorts. This was seen as a trendy, novel way to flirt and connect with people over a delicious treat that tasted like a “sublimated combination of candy and cake” (as reported in a letter from Asbury Park, New Jersey). This was also “an excellent medium for flirtation” when a young person ate a marshmallow off a potential suitor’s stick.

Graham Crackers

Graham crackers, on the other hand, were intended to be quite the opposite. Sylvester Graham, who invented the graham cracker in the mid-1800s, was a firm supporter of the temperance movement and believed that his crackers would suppress sexual desire. He was an adherent to a school of thought that claimed minimizing pleasure and stimulation of all kinds was the surest path to good health. Along with graham crackers, he and his followers—the Grahamites—ate a steady, bland diet of graham flour and graham bread and led one of the first vegetarian movements in the United States. Graham was known as the Father of Vegetarianism in America.

Some of this may seem laughable in the face of modern science, but Graham had many things right—he was a proponent of regular exercise, clean water, and preventive care, as well as being one of the first to suggest that stress causes disease.

Convinced that commercial bakeries were adding unhealthy ingredients to their products (and rightly so—there were few food regulations at the time), Graham promoted his crackers made with only coarse-ground wheat, oil, molasses, and salt (no sugar allowed). After he died, sugar was added to graham crackers for mass production—right around the time the marshmallow was gaining popularity.

Hershey’s Chocolate

This deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say that “the Great American Chocolate Bar” made its debut in 1900 and has never looked back. With all the ingredients in place and available to the masses, the time was ripe to combine them into a delicious new treat.

S’mores Today

Today, thanks to the endless creativity of ordinary people and the instant sharing of ideas through the interwebz, there are many different ways to eat s’mores. Swap out plain milk chocolate for white chocolate or a Reese’s cup or a Ghiradelli raspberry dark chocolate square. Use chocolate graham crackers or Oreos or pretzels. Make things a little saucier by adding peanut butter, caramel, lemon curd, or Nutella or into the mix. Or add strawberries, banana slices, or even bacon for a unique spin on the standard s’more.

“One is really enough,” but with so many variations, how could you stop at just one?

Sources

Cronkelton, Emily, “Everything You Need to Know about Marshmallow Root.” Healthline, March 19, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/marshmallow-root#side-effects-and-risks.

Food Timelines. Food Timeline FAQs: Candy.  https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcandy.html#marshmallowroasts.

Gentile, Jessica. “If You Love S’mores, You Have the Girl Scouts to Thank.” Chowhound, August 10, 2020. https://www.chowhound.com/food-news/205847/the-history-of-smores/.

Kelly, Debra. “Where Does the Term S’mores Come From?” Mashed, November 8, 2016. https://www.mashed.com/30437/term-smores-come/.

“Marshmallow Roasts are the Fad.” Asbury Park, New Jersey, letter in the New York World and Chicago Daily Tribune, August 8, 1892 (p. 6). Retrieved from https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcandy.html#marshmallowroasts.

Roberts, Anna Monette. “If You Were a Girl Scout, You’ll Be Proud of This.” Popsugar, August 10, 2015. https://www.popsugar.com/food/Who-Invented-Smores-38029222.

Rupp, Rebecca. “The Gooey Story of S’mores.” National Geographic, August 14, 2015. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/the-gooey-story-of-smores.

Tramping and Trailing With the Girl Scouts. Girl Scouts of the United States of America, 1927, p. 63.

Wikipedia:Articles for deletion/Loretta Scott Crew. Retrieved August 29, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Loretta_Scott_Crew.  

Wikipedia. “Graham Cracker.” Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_cracker.

The Language of Love

Why do we have such strange ways of saying we’re in love—whether we’re infatuated, head over heels, or crushing on someone? The answer involves structural metaphors, semantic change, and secret diaries.

Love Is Out of Control

Sometimes it’s not enough just to say we like someone. Sometimes we’re SO passionately enamored that normal, everyday words just don’t describe it. In fact, we’ve created an entire metaphorical system to describe the way we experience love. A structural metaphor, as this is called, is when we map an abstract concept onto a more concrete concept and develop layers of metaphors upon this structural foundation—a foundation that we don’t even need to define or explain to understand. Structural metaphors are so embedded in language that it is difficult to communicate without them, and we expect others to understand them intuitively.

When it comes to love, we have a few structural metaphors that serve as the foundation for the way we talk about it: love is out of control, love is magic, and love is a journey.

Let’s take a look at love is out of control. Think about how it feels to fall in love with someone: your palms sweat, your heart races, you feel a little shaky, and you would do anything to impress the object of your affection. You do things that seem silly or dumb or out of control based on intense feelings of attraction.

You’re falling in love, a variation using vertical velocity on the theme of being out of control.

Maybe you’re infatuated—a word that comes from the verb infatuate, meaning “to turn something into foolishness, to make a fool of.”

Or you’re besotted—“affected with a foolish manifestation.”

You’re crazy about her, he’s driving you wild, you’re madly in love with your new beau!

Head over Heels

So why do we say that someone is “head over heels” when they’re in love? Isn’t your head . . . usually above your heels?

In the 14th century, the phrase “heels over head” came about as a way to describe the feeling of being upside down—hopelessly, topsy turvy in love with someone. This phrase builds on the structural metaphor of love is out of control—think about how it feels to do a somersault—you’re dizzy, the blood rushes to your head, the world suddenly looks very different.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this phrase was gradually recast as “head over heels,” which makes a little less sense but still conveys to us a sense of doing somersaults or cartwheels. The phrase can also mean literally tumbling upside down, or it can mean running frantically.

Crush

Speaking of being head over heels, the internet wants to know—am I crazy or falling in love? (Is it really just another crush?)

The primary meaning of crush is to smash or to pound something to particles. Figuratively, it means to humiliate or demoralize, to “cause overwhelming pain to someone,” or to “suppress or overwhelm as if by pressure or by weight.”

A crush is an intense and usually transient affection, and it can definitely be overwhelming, drawing on one of the meanings of the word crush. Emotions are running wild. It can be humiliating if the crush is not reciprocated. It is the emotional equivalent—in both the positive feeling of being in love and the negative fear of rejection or humiliation—of being smashed to pieces. When we think about the structural metaphor of love is out of control, crush seems like a good way to describe this feeling!

Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy: No one has a crush on me. I am too strong to be crushed.

The first recorded use of crush as a noun meaning “a person one is infatuated with” occurred in 1884 in the diary of Isabella Maud Rittenhouse, a young woman of Cairo, Illinois, and later an outspoken leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She wrote, “Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone.”

Soon thereafter, in 1895, the word was first used as a verb meaning “to be infatuated with someone.” In a book about life at Yale University, it was recorded that “Miss Palfrey . . . consented to wear his bunch of blue violets. It was a ‘crush,’ you see, on both sides.”

The new use of crush may have been influenced by the scandalous 1856 novel Madam Bovary, whose English translation includes a passage that describes an overwhelming and potentially disastrous infatuation:

But the more Emma recognized her love, the more she crushed it down that it might not be evident, that she might make it less. She would have liked Leon to guess it, and she imagined chances, catastrophes that should facilitate this.

Alternatively, Warren Clements proposes that Isabella Maud Rittenhouse’s use of crush may have been a parallel to the word mash, which had been used since the 1870s to mean one’s “sweetheart.” To be mashed was to be “flirtatious or head over heels in love.” (Another term popular around the same time was pash, a shortened form of passion: “He really has a pash for you!”)

Going back even further, Ernest Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English postulated that since mash was “regarded as spoon-diet,” the kind of fare for one who couldn’t chew their food properly, mash may have been related to the slang term spoony. Since the 1820s, spoony had been used to mean being romantic in a goofy, sentimental way.

From spoony to the mash eaten with that spoon to crush, a synonym of mash, we sure have a way of describing our out-of-control romantic attachments.

Sources

Adams, Cecil. “Shouldn’t the Expression “Head over Heels” Be “Heels over Head”? The Straight Dope,May 17, 1991. https://www.straightdope.com/21341906/shouldn-t-the-expression-head-over-heels-be-heels-over-head.

Clements, Warren. “Feeding Love by the Spoonful.” The Globe and Mail, August 26, 2011. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/feeding-love-by-the-spoonful/article626912/.

“Crush.” Etymology Online Dictionary. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/crush#etymonline_v_416.

“Crush.” Merriam-Webster. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crush.

“Head over Heels.” Dictionary.com. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/head-over-heels.

“Isabella Maud Rittenhouse Mayne.” Find a Grave. Retrieved August 14, 2021, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144080841/isabella-maud-mayne.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1980.

Lawler, John. “Making the Point with Metaphors—Not Just for Poets.” The Editorial Eye 28, no. 4 (April 2005): 1–3. http://websites.umich.edu/~jlawler/April05Eye.pdf.

The Archetypal Apple

Why are apples seen as the “default” fruit in Western culture? The answer involves Greek myths, Latin spelling mistakes, and English semantic narrowing.

The English word apple comes from the Old English æppel, which meant not only “apple” but “any kind of fruit” or “fruit in general.” It’s an old, old word stemming from Proto-Indo-European *ab(e)l-, meaning “apple.” In Middle English and Early Modern English, eppel or appel was mostly used as a generic term for all types of fruit, excluding berries but including nuts. Dates were fingeræppla (“finger apples”), cucumbers were eorþæppla (“earth apples,”), and bananas were appels of paradis (more on that later!).

The simple answer to our question then, is that it is a matter of semantic narrowing. Apple went from being a general term for fruit to denoting the fruit we know today as an apple. Languages descended from Greek and Latin went through a similar process for the word for fruit as well. The Greek word melon originally meant “apple,” but it was combined with other roots to form words like mēlopepon “gourd-apple.” Melon was used in Greek as a generic term for any type of unknown fruit. The Latin word, pomme, makes reference to Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees. Pomme has likewise been used to refer to any fruit in general or specifically to apples (the phrase pomme de terre in French literally means “earth apple” and is the term for “potato”). The semantic value of the apple lies in the fact that it is an archetype for fruit, a pattern or prototype for all other fruits.

The apple holds great meaning in many cultural traditions throughout the world. Fruit in general is often seen as a symbol of fertility due to both its form and function. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols records that the various meanings attached to the apple are—at their core—all interconnected. The apple is seen as a key to knowledge and wisdom of some kind, whether that be knowledge of mortal life and humanity, knowledge about oneself, or intimately knowing another. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the world views the apple.

Apples in Olympus

Greek, Chinese, and Norse tradition all contain various references to and stories about apples wherein they are symbols of fertility, beauty, and eternal youth. Apples can also be a negative symbol of temptation or vanity.

In Greek mythology, Eris, the goddess of chaos and discord, threw an apple into the wedding party of Thetis and Peleus out of anger that she had not been invited. (The “apple” in the story was actually a now-extinct fruit grown in the Balkans that was similar to a pomegranate.) She inscribed into the apple kallisti (To the Prettiest One). The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple of discord, and Zeus appointed Paris of Troy to select which of the three the apple should belong to. Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility, persuaded Paris to give her the apple by promising him that she would make Helen—her half-sister and the most beautiful woman in the world—fall in love with him. The resulting relationship between Helen and Paris precipitated the Trojan War. Thus, an “apple of discord” is the kernel of a small argument that leads to a much bigger dispute!

Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens, 1633. Museo del Prado.

Based on this story, the apple became a sacred relic of Aphrodite (or Venus, in Roman tradition). Throwing an apple at someone was the ancient Greek version of a marriage proposal or declaration of love, and to catch the apple was to accept. Today, newlyweds share an apple on their wedding night to ensure a “fruitful” union.

Apples in the Garden

The fig tree, native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, held similar symbolic meanings as the apple, as evidenced in ancient religious texts. The fig was one of the earliest domesticated fruits in the world, along with the olive and grape—all of which have their origins in the Fertile Crescent, one of several cradles of human civilization.

The Garden of Eden, the location of the creation narrative in Abrahamic religions, contained an abundant variety of trees and plants. Adam and Eve, the first human beings, are commanded by God to eat freely from the garden except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Tree of Knowledge is not identified with a particular type of fruit. Eve is tempted by a serpent to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and she and Adam both choose to do so. Their eyes are opened as they receive knowledge, and they cover themselves with fig leaves when they realize they are naked. In Hebrew tradition, the Tree of Knowledge itself is considered to be a fig tree, though this is not stated in the text.

In Islamic tradition, the Tree of Immortality, as it is known, is often portrayed as a fig or olive tree.

Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful Animals) by Abu Said Ubaud Allah Ibn Bakhitshu.
1294–99 CE. Maragh, Iran.

Buddhist tradition sees the fig as a symbol of enlightenment. The Buddha reached enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, a species of fig tree. This symbolism from another area of the world corroborates the metaphor used in the Garden of Eden account—the fruit of knowledge is enlightenment.

In addition to representing knowledge, the fig is strongly associated with fertility and abundant life in many cultures. It is a symbol of male and female joining together—its plump shape is a metaphor for female fertility, and the sap of the tree represents male fertility.

In Christian tradition, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is often portrayed as an apple, though it is variously seen as a fig, pear, or pomegranate—all richly evocative of the ideas of fertility, the cycle of life, and desire due to their resemblance to human sexual anatomy. One fruit contains many seeds, each with the potential to produce a tree, which will then produce more fruit, and the cycle continues forever. The dual meanings of temptation and fertility are thus strongly associated with fruit in general, and the apple and fig in particular. Some Christians hold that one of the results of Adam and Eve’s choice to eat the fruit is the physical condition needed for procreation, as well as the knowledge needed to navigate mortality.

La tentation d’Adam et Ève, XIIIth century.

So how did the fig get turned into an apple?

The idea that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was an apple comes from a mix-up of the Latin words mălum, meaning “evil,” and mālum, meaning “apple.” The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was turned into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Apples!

Later literature that drew from the Bible, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) continued cast the fruit as an apple, which only reinforced this mistranslation—but also reinforced the existing link between apples and knowledge. Renaissance art often featured the apple as the “forbidden fruit” in the Garden of Eden story.

Another matter to consider is that in contrast to figs, “apples were historically among the most difficult fruit trees to cultivate and among the last major ones to be domesticated in Eurasia, because their propagation requires the difficult technique of grafting” (Diamond, 1997, p. 150). Perhaps the cultural and dietary significance of apples was greater for Latin speakers at the time they were interpreting the Bible, while figs were more prominent for Hebrew speakers of an earlier era—though this is no more than conjecture.

The apple is referenced elsewhere in the Old Testament as well—readers are instructed to keep God and God’s commandments as “the apple of thine eye” (Proverbs 7:2, see also Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalms 17:8). The “apple” of one’s eye refers to the pupil, which resides in the very center of one’s eye and is fixed upon the thing one desires. In Hebrew, the word used for “apple” in these verses literally means “dark part of the eye.” The word “apple” was substituted in English translations of the Bible, using an idiom that first appeared in Old English around the ninth century. The phrasing in the English translation indicates that, to an English speaker, an apple represents the thing most desired or cherished above all others.

In the Song of Solomon, the apple is likewise a metaphor for beauty and desire: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Solomon 2:3). The word “apple” here is variously translated as “orange” or “citron”—the idea being that fruit of any kind is a symbol of desire and sweetness, among other meanings.

If an apple represents a thing that is most desirable, it makes sense for English speakers to cast the tree in the Garden of Eden as an apple tree, which Eve saw was “to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6, emphasis added).

Adam’s Apple

The Adam’s apple, a laryngeal protuberance formed by cartilage, is present in all humans, but is much more pronounced in men.

You may have heard the folk etymology behind the Adam’s apple as something like this: After Eve ate the fruit (“apple”) of the Tree of Knowledge, she convinced Adam to taste it, and a chunk of it got stuck in his throat as a reminder of his transgression. He then passed this on to all of his posterity in the form of a protuberance in the throat. It was later given the name “Adam’s apple” as a reminder of the Garden of Eden account.

Though it seems like plausible thinking behind the name in a society that held the Bible in high regard, this was not really the inspiration behind it. The English term as applied to human anatomy has been in use since 1625. The French pomme d’Adam and the German Adamsapfel both refer to the same thing. From the medieval period until the 1700s, a term meaning “Adam’s apple” was also used in various languages to describe literal fruits—pomelos, citrons, and plantains, for example, were all called “Adam’s apple” at one point. A Mediterranean variety of lime with indentations resembling the mark of a person’s teeth was a particularly vivid reminder of Adam biting into the fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Medieval Latin texts use the term pomum Adami as a name for several different fruits, including the pomegranate. This name implied that these were among the “fruits of paradise” enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Around the same time, medieval Arab medical scholars were cataloging the anatomy of the throat, deciding on a word meaning “pomegranate” as the name for the laryngeal protuberance. We don’t know the exact reason why they chose this metaphor, but the pomegranate, too, is highly symbolic in Islamic religious tradition and beyond. European writers adopted the Latin translation, pommun granatum, for the laryngeal protuberance, then applied the synonym already in existence: pomum Adami.

And there you have it—the apple features prominently in mythology and religious thought, while etymologically capturing the essence of fruit itself. It is a symbol of temptation and knowledge, desire and abundant life.

The various meanings of the apple show up elsewhere in everyday life and popular culture. Snow White in her naivety was tempted to eat a poison apple that put her under a curse that only a prince could break (which strongly parallels Christian themes, if you think about it). Johnny Appleseed went down in American folk history as the sower of both apple seeds and religious ideals, spreading fruit and wisdom in service of nature and his fellow humans everywhere he went. Your laptop and phone most likely have an Apple logo on them. A student presents an apple to the teacher as a gift of knowledge.

How do you like them apples?

Sources

“Adam’s Apple.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/Adam’s%20apple#etymonline_v_40638.

“Apple.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=apple.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York City:W.W. Norton, 1997.

“Fruit in Mythology.” Encyclopedia of Myths. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Fi-Go/Fruit-in-Mythology.html.

Kettler, Sarah. “7 Facts About Johnny Appleseed.” Biography, June 11, 2020. https://www.biography.com/news/johnny-appleseed-story-facts.

“Melon.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/melon.

Merriam-Webster. “Why Is It Called an Adam’s Apple?” Word History. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/why-is-it-called-an-adams-apple-word-history.

“Pomona.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/Pomona.

Smithfield, Brad. “In Ancient Greece, Throwing an Apple at Someone Was Considered a Marriage Proposal.” The Vintage News, September 10, 2016. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/10/ancient-greece-throwing-apple-someone-considered-marriage-proposal/.

Tearle, Oliver. “The Curious Symbolism of Apples in Literature and Myth.” Interesting Literature, April 2021. https://interestingliterature.com/2021/04/apples-symbolism-in-literature-myth-meaning-analysis/.

Wikipedia. “Apple of My Eye.” Retrieved July 27, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_of_my_eye.

Spelling Bee

Why do good spellers compete in a spelling “bee”? The answer involves all the favorite subjects of a spelling bee winner—etymology, philology, and, of course, spelling.

The Queen Bee

According to Merriam-Webster, lookups of the word “murraya” spiked 100,000% on July 8–9, 2021.

Patterns of word usage ebb and flow over time, and—based on current events, pop culture, and other new or recycled ideas—so does our interest in certain words. One of those events is the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

On July 8, 2021, eighth grader Zaila Avant-garde of Louisiana became the first Black American to win the highest honor that may be bestowed upon the orthographically gifted. The winning word “murraya,” which most of us have probably never heard before, refers to a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees named for Swedish botanist Johan A. Murray.

And Zaila’s ability to spelling obscure words is just the beginning of her talents—she also holds three basketball-related world records, she can unicycle and juggle simultaneously, and her side interests include gene editing and neuroscience.

The Helpful Bee

Unlike “murraya,” the word bee itself isn’t likely to turn up on a spelling bee word list. But most people, even spelling champions, probably don’t know the origin of the word. (Are honeybees particularly good at spelling competitions?)

As used in the context of a spelling bee, “bee” is an alteration of a word that was rendered “been” in some dialects of English. The word descends from the Middle English “bene,” which denoted “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task” (Merriam-Webster). “Bene” is also related to the English word “boon,” which similarly indicates a blessing, benefit, or favor.

This word “bee” has been used to describe community activities where neighbors made a social event out of helping each other with tasks. Historically, you might have attended a quilting bee, a (corn) husking bee, or a (barn) raising bee.

A pioneer quilting bee. The Quilt That Walked to Golden, p. 31.

And yes, some linguists also connect this term with the insect type of bee. The industrious and cooperative nature of bees provides an apt metaphor for a group of friendly neighbors working together to accomplish a task.

“Spelling bee” began to show up in print sources around the turn of the twentieth century. However, it was often modified with terms like “old-fashioned,” indicating that the spelling bee had been around for quite some time but under different names. Before then, a spelling competition might have been called trials in spelling, spelling school, spelling match, spelling-fight, spelling combat, or spelldown (these are all beginning to sound more like a Wizard’s Duel than anything else!).

The spelling bee, which is often described as a “brain sport,” is typically seen as competitive rather than cooperative. But the hard work required to prepare for such a competition and the buzzing of young contestants reciting letters point us toward the characteristics of the honeybee.

And what’s more, bees are foundational to our ecosystem. They pollinate the flowering plants that we depend on for food and raw materials and beauty and turn it into sweet, sweet honey. Likewise, the foundational elements of letters and words that build up the English language, which has been cross-pollinated with Latin and French and many other linguistic influences, are combined to produce the rich vocabulary and ever-evolving possibilities of expression that English offers today.

The Spelling Bee

In English, there was no such thing as “correct” spelling until the eighteenth century. Before then, writers freely spelled the same words in different ways. While others would generally understand what they meant, there was mounting frustration that there was no regularity in the written language. This frustration along with a Protestant push to increase literacy so that common people could read the Bible led to the publication of English dictionaries. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary was a highly influential dictionary of this time that prescribed English spelling and word usage. We can view the dictionary as a record of sometimes arbitrary decisions about which spelling of a word would be considered correct—decisions that we now see as indisputable.

Once there was an agreed-upon standard, “correct” language use came to be a sign of education. In class-conscious Britain, correct pronunciation was the mark of the elite, while in America, correct spelling was the signature of a scholar. By the mid-eighteenth century, it was common for American schools to hold spelling competitions for students—and thus, the spelling bee was born from the uniquely American obsession with prescribing how to write the English language. As mentioned previously, these competitions went by different names until the turn of the twentieth century.

Norman Rockwell, Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus (Spelling Bee), 1918. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The spelling bee was first held on the national level in 1925. Nine newspapers joined together to host the National Spelling Bee to promote literacy. The bee has been held every year since then except for during World War II and during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1957, Scripps adopted Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary as the official dictionary of the bee.

Spelling bees spread to many other countries around the world, but they are generally limited to English-speaking areas. Why? Because other languages have much more predictable spelling systems. English is one of the only languages where so much memorization is required!

To win a spelling bee takes more than just raw talent. It requires an exceptional degree of diligence and discipline for daily study, a love for the English language and its historical development, and support from expert coaches and commercial word lists. The 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee underscores the role of adult and community support, following the story of a young girl from an urban neighborhood and single-parent household who ascends to the ranks of the national spelling bee. Akeelah is a truly brilliant speller who overcomes both self-doubt and mocking from others. With courage and intelligence, she beats the odds and inspires all those who have rallied around her.

As elite spellers pass on their wisdom to the next generation and as coaching and commercial resources have become essential for success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the bar is raised higher and higher each year. Data analysis provides an avenue for analyzing weakness and improving efficiency in studying. We are getting better and better at the game.

In 2019, the bee ended in an eight-way tie as the contestants blew through round after round of challenging words as if they were a breeze. The Octo-Champs, as they are known, broke the game. Sports Illustrated wrote, “They hadn’t beaten one another. Instead, together, they’d beaten the dictionary.” Merriam-Webster responded: “The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD.” After the astounding win, the rules were changed to include multiple-choice vocabulary questions and a lightning round to eliminate the possibility of a tie.

Whether it is a fierce competition on an international level or a local elementary school contest, the spelling bee is a celebration of the “correct” orthography that—while still not fixed, but much less fluid than in times past—is a mark of dedication and education. In fact, one former champion describes winning the spelling bee as an embodiment of the American meritocracy, as it requires both individual discipline and access to resources for study to beat the competition (Sealfon, 2019).

Sources

Baccellieri, Emma. “How the Octo-Champs of the 2019 National Spelling Bee Have Changed the Game.” Sports Illustrated, June 7, 2019. https://www.si.com/more-sports/2019/06/07/scripps-national-spelling-bee-8-way-tie-unprecedented-result-merriam-webster-dictionary.

Bowman, Emma. “National Spelling Bee Adds New Rules to Help Winners Sting the Competition.” NPR, April 23, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/23/990400434/national-spelling-bee-adds-new-rules-to-help-winners-sting-the-competition.

Fogarty, Mignon. “Why Is It Called a ‘Spelling Bee’?” Quick and Dirty Tips, June 7, 2018. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/why-is-it-called-a-spelling-bee.

Merriam-Webster. “6 Actual Names for Historical Spelling Bees.” Word History. Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/alternate-spelling-bee-titles.

Merriam-Webster. “Trending: Murraya.” Merriam-Webster Trend Watch. Merriam-Webster online dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/news-trend-watch/zaila-avant-garde-wins-bee-with-murraya-20210709.

Sealfon, Rebecca. “The History of the Spelling Bee.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/history-spelling-bee-180971916/.

Shankar, Shalani. “Why It’s Big News When a Black Girl Wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee.” Chicago Sun-Times, July 12, 2021. https://chicago.suntimes.com/2021/7/12/22574106/scripps-national-spelling-bee-black-education-zaila-avant-garde-sun-times.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Dictionary.” Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/summary/dictionary.