Where does the phrase “to take a gander” come from? As one of the many delightful goose-related idioms in the English language (see “goose egg” and “silly goose”), the history of “to take a gander” involves male waterfowl and nosy neighbors.
As an idiom, “to take a gander” means to look at or investigate something. It can mean anything from a quick peek to a thorough examination.
A male goose is called a gander, while a female goose is a goose. Baby geese are called goslings. Geese have long necks, and a gander twists and stretches its neck to look around and keep an eye out for trouble. Geese are quite nosy and will poke their long necks around anywhere that seems interesting.
In England in the 1880s, gander began to be used first as a verb meaning “to look around” and later as a noun meaning “a look.” The phrase “to take a gander” came into fashion in the early 1900s.
Interested in more goose sayings?
A goose egg is either a big bump that forms as a result of hitting one’s head on something, or a zero score in a sports game. Both resemble a large egg.
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Basically, this means that people or things that are alike should be given the same treatment. What one person is allowed to do, another person should be allowed to do in the same situation. So if you make a nice raspberry sauce for your roast goose dinner, it will also be delicious on top of gander since they’re the same animal.
And finally, a silly goose is someone who acts in childish or foolish in a comical way. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary described a goose as “a large waterfowl proverbially noted, I know not why, for foolishness.” According to one source, geese have long been perceived or characterized as foolish due to (1) their clumsy-looking waddle when they walk on land, and (2) the gander’s dramatic hissing and waggling at a perceived threat in competition for a mate, which may have led to (3) the use of a goose to represent a vain or foolish man in Egyptian hieroglyphics (though there is not a clear connection to English here), and (4) the portrayal of geese as unwise or gullible characters in fables and fairy tales.
Some have posited that the word silly first meant something like “feeble,” “weak,” or “innocent” as applied to animals. An early mention of a silly (alternatively spelled seely) goose was in a collection of poems called The Paradise of Dainty Devices published in 1576. The word goose alone has also been used from the early fifteenth century to mean “simpleton, silly or foolish person.” Spend a few minutes watching a gaggle of geese, and you’ll understand why they have been associated with so many negative characteristics—they panic easily, honk loudly, and bumble around in a somewhat ridiculous way.
And this is just the beginning of the goosery—stay tuned for a rousing game of duck, duck, goose next week.
Why do we cut down evergreen trees and decorate them with glittering ornaments and lights during the Christmas season? The answer involves the sun god, the Garden of Eden, and Charlie Brown.
Ancient Symbolism of Evergreen Trees
Perhaps you’re familiar with the symbolism attached to Christmas trees. Evergreen trees—typically spruce, pine, or fir—stay green throughout the year, representing everlasting life. To some, the triangular shape of the tree represents the Trinity. The star on top represents the star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. The lights on the tree—candles, before electric lights were invented—also echo the light of the star of Bethlehem and symbolize Jesus Christ as the light of the world. Ornaments on the tree can mean many things, but they are often red, which brings to mind the blood of Christ.
What you might not know is that bringing evergreen trees into a dark winter abode once served as a reminder that the sun god, who was weak and sick in the winter, would bring new life once summer returned and he was strong again. In addition, evergreen boughs were once hung over doors to ward off evil spirits and illness. The idea of lighting the tree had its origin in pagan Yuletide rituals that celebrated the return of the light of the sun as the winter solstice passed and the days began to grow longer. Yule trees symbolizing the Tree of Life were decorated with ribbons, religious symbols, and objects that represented gifts people wanted to receive from the gods. The color green symbolizes fertility and new life, and red is associated with holly berries and mistletoe, plants once thought to be magical for their ability to keep their leaves and fruit through the winter.
Evergreen trees have been a part of winter festivals for thousands of years. From Yuletide and other winter solstice celebrations in Europe, to the early Roman festival of Saturnalia, to ancient Egyptian and Chinese worship of the sun god, bringing evergreen plants into homes and places of worship represented life and fertility in the darkness of winter. The Vikings and Saxons worshiped evergreen trees as a sacred symbol of deity, and some of that reverence was retained even after widespread conversion to Christianity.
The Paradise Tree
The Christian concept of the Christmas tree emerged in medieval Germany. At a time when many people were losing interest in typical church services held in Latin, craft guilds began to perform what were known as “mystery plays,” reenacting stories from the Bible in the vernacular language. One mystery play typically performed on December 24, the religious feast day commemorating Adam and Eve, included a fir tree as a prop to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise tree, as it was called, was decorated with apples to represent the fruit that Adam and Eve ate (the round, red ornaments we often use today are reminiscent of the apples on the Paradise tree). Wafers were hung on the tree to represent the Eucharist. In later years, these were replaced with cookies and other confections.
When mystery plays were banned in the sixteenth century, people began to set up Paradise trees in their homes. Often accompanying the tree was a “Christmas pyramid,” a contraption of wooden shelves that held religious figurines along with glass balls, evergreen boughs, and a candle. The Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid eventually merged into the Christmas tree during the Renaissance. It is commonly believed that that Martin Luther was the first to place candles on the tree in awe of the glittering stars in the Christmas night sky, though there is no evidence to suggest this story is true.
Over the next few centuries, it was common among German Protestants to set up Christmas trees in their homes and decorate them with apples, gingerbread, nuts, paper ornaments, and candles. They were generally small and sometimes small presents and toys The Christmas tree was rejected by German Catholics as being either a Lutheran tradition or an icon of paganism. However, Christmas trees became popular among German nobility in the early eighteenth century and then began to spread throughout the royal courts of Europe, at which point they became more of an expression of German culture rather than Protestant identity.
Christmas Trees in Great Britain
The Christmas tree was introduced to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Churches and homes in Great Britain had been decorated with evergreen trees during the Christmas season since at least the early 1600s, but never had they been decorated with lights and surrounded with presents in the German fashion.
When King George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the union formed with the Kingdom of Hanover initiated a cultural exchange of Christmas traditions. Charlotte is known to have decorated an evergreen tree at Christmastime in the 1790s.
However, it was Queen Victoria who truly catapulted the Christmas tree into the spotlight. In an 1832 journal entry, the future Queen Victoria expressed delight at seeing a festive evergreen tree decorated with lights and ornaments and with presents placed around it. Britain’s ties to Germany and its Christmas traditions were further strengthened when Victoria married her German cousin Albert in 1840, making him the prince consort of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Then, an image of the Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle showcased the royal family surrounding a glowing evergreen tree lit with candles, the young princes and princesses admiring the tree in wonder. This image created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. Because the middle class took their cues from the royal family’s new Christmas tradition, Christmas trees gained popularity in Great Britain through the 1830s and 1840s. Christmas trees were found first in the homes of the wealthier middle class and in places of public entertainment, then later spread to the homes of the common people.
Christmas Trees in North America
When the Windsor Castle image was reprinted in the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850, Christmas trees came into fashion across the pond. By 1870, Christmas trees were commonplace in America, and Christmas was declared a national holiday.
However, Christmas trees had been introduced to North America nearly a century earlier by German soldiers in Quebec, who were stationed there as allies of Great Britain in the American Revolution. In 1781, General and Baroness von Riedesel threw a Christmas party for the officers that featured a fir tree ornamented with candles and fruit. Other areas claim to be the home of the first Christmas tree in the United States, including a 1777 Christmas tree in Connecticut, which was set up by an imprisoned German soldier, and community trees established in areas where German families lived. After the revolution, German immigrants introduced the Christmas tree in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, decorated variously with candy canes, paper ornaments, kuchen (the German word for “cake”), and a star on top. The celebration of Christmas—including Christmas trees—was most pronounced in Pennsylvania, with its large population of German immigrants.
Up until the 1840s, however, many Americans still rejected the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol. Puritans attempted to stamp out any “heathen” traditions—Christmas carols, Christmas trees, or anything else remotely joyful— that had creeped in to their typically austere observance of Christ’s birth. The image in Godey’s Lady’s Book provided the momentum for the Christmas tree—and the holiday in general—to be adopted in other areas of the country.
The Modern Christmas Tree
Over the next century, Christmas evolved from a small-scale religious and family celebration to an entire commercialized season with a variety of traditions. By the 1950s, Christmas with all the trimmings was available to the common family in the United States and Great Britain. With greater commercialization came new types of Christmas trees—brightly colored aluminum trees, in particular, caught the eye of many a shopper in the early 1960s.
In protest, the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas took a stand against these space-age decorations. While preparing for a neighborhood Christmas play, Lucy instructs Charlie Brown to get a “big, shiny aluminum tree . . . maybe painted pink” to decorate. Charlie Brown instead passes through a field of synthetic trees to pick out a real—but small and drooping—Christmas tree. The television special subverts the creeping consumerism that had come to dominate the Christmas season as Linus recites the simple annunciation to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (see Luke 2:10–11). Aluminum trees quickly fell out of fashion after A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired.
Though many aspects of the Christmas celebration have their origins in paganism, the symbol of the Christmas tree took on new significance for Christians as they ascribed their own ritual meanings to it. Christmas today is celebrated by people of other religions or no religion, and the Christmas tree signifies different things to different people—eternal life, the hope of light in the darkness of winter, the warmth of a family gathering, or a reminder of Jesus as the light of the world.
Where do the names of the days of the week come from? And why are there seven days in a week? The answer involves Hellenistic astrology, Roman gods and goddesses, and a takeover by Norse mythology.
The concept of the seven-day week was first recorded in the Babylonian calendar of ancient Mesopotamia, which is based on the 21st-century BCE Sumerian calendar. Each of the four phases of the moon (waxing, full, waning, new) lasts about seven days, and the seven-day period corresponds to the time it takes the moon to transition. Four weeks—a “moon,” or a “month”—is about the length of a complete moon cycle. A complete moon cycle lasts precisely 29.53 days, so one or two days were inserted at each set of four weeks until the new crescent moon signaled the beginning of a new month. Additionally, an extra month was sometimes inserted by royal decree to reconcile the lunar year with the solar year.
The Jewish seven-day week was a distinct tradition that emerged from the biblical account of the seven-day creation period. The Book of Genesis describes God creating the world in seven distinct days or time periods, resting on the seventh day. This became the basis for the seven-day week in Judea, with the seventh day reserved for a Sabbath, or day of rest.
The seven-day week gradually gained popularity with the Romans starting in the first century BCE. By the fourth century CE, this system had become dominant across the Roman Empire and had spread to India and China as well. The Romans assigned each day a name of one of the seven visible planets in the sky, all those that were known to humans at the time (including the sun and moon, which were considered planets). The planets had each been named after a Roman god or goddess.
In Hellenistic astrology, the planets were commonly listed in the order of fastest-orbiting to slowest-orbiting from the perspective of earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. This is known as the Chaldean order. Astrologers believed that a different planet ruled over each hour of the day, and the planetary hours followed the Chaldean order. The days of the week were assigned every other name in this order to correspond with the planetary hour that begins each day at sunrise. Through this somewhat complicated astrological system, the days of the week were given the following names:
Monday (dies Lunae) was the moon’s day. Diana was the goddess of the moon.
Tuesday (dies Martis) belonged to Mars, the god of war.
Wednesday (dies Mercurii) was Mercury’s, the god of commerce, wealth, translating and interpreting, travel, and thievery. Mercury is known as the messenger god.
Thursday (dies Jovis) was for Jove, an earlier name for Jupiter. As the king of the Roman pantheon, Jove was the god of the sky and of thunder and lightning.
Friday (dies Veneris) was named for Venus, the goddess of beauty, fertility, and love.
Saturday (dies Saturni) was Saturn’s day. Saturn was the god of agriculture, liberation, and time.
Sunday (dies Solis) was for the sun. Apollo was the god of the sun.
If you speak a Romance language, the Latin names might look familiar to you. With the exception of Saturday and Sunday, which in many languages were changed to “Sabbath” and “the Lord’s Day,” the Roman names of the days of the week were preserved in Latin-based languages.
The Romans could have just named these days “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 2,” and so on—in fact, Portuguese does just this for weekdays. Many non-Romance languages, like Russian and Hebrew, number each day of the week starting on either Sunday or Monday. But many societies under the umbrella of the Roman Empire chose to honor the celestial bodies that represented their deities.
The Romans occupied the island of Britain from 43 to 410 CE, and the seven-day calendar week with its planetary associations spread to the Old-English-speaking inhabitants. The English days of the week correspond in meaning to the Latin days of the week, but they are etymologically distinct. The days of the week in English bear the names of Anglo-Saxon deities, gods and goddesses that originated in Germanic and Norse mythology.
(As a quick primer on the Old English names given in parentheses, the æ character is called ash and is pronounced like the a in ash. The g at the end of each word is pronounced like a y.)
Monday (Monandæg) is still the moon’s day, from Old Norse máni, meaning “moon.”
Tuesday (Tiwesdæg) is Tiw’s day, named for the Norse god of war and combat. Notice that Tuesday is named after the god of war in both languages—in Latin, this god is Mars, and in English, this god is Tiw.
Wednesday (Wodnesdæg) is named for Woden, the chief Anglo-Saxon god in charge of wisdom, healing, death, royalty, and the runic alphabet, among other things. Unlike the other namesakes of the days of the week, Woden does not have an obvious connection with his Roman counterpart, Mercury. However, upon a closer examination, both are shapeshifting gods who are associated with writing and with the dead. The possessive form of Woden in Old English was Wodnes, which accounts for the strange spelling of the word. In Norse mythology, this god is named Odin, whom you might know from The Avengers.
Thursday (Ðunresdæg) is Thor’s day! Thor, whom you definitely know from The Avengers, is the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder and lightning. Like the Roman god Jove, he rules over the skies. The Anglo-Saxon version of the name was Ðunor (or Thunor in modern spelling).
Friday (Frigedæg) is named after Friga, the goddess of love, who corresponds to the Roman Venus. She is associated with the home, marriage, and children. She was seen as the mother of the earth and is the wife of Woden.
Saturday (Sæternesdæg) adopted the name of the Roman god Saturn. No substitution occurred, possibly because there was no corresponding Anglo-Saxon god.
Sunday (Sunnandæg) similarly honored the sun, from Old Norse sól.
The Roman seven-day week and names for the days of the week were thus given a distinct Anglo-Saxon character in Old English, an example of cultural diffusion and adaptation that continues to influence our language and worldview today.
Since many aspects of the calendar are tied to the lunar and solar cycles, it makes sense why the Romans named the days of the week after the celestial bodies in the solar system. The planets revolve and rotate in order and harmony, just like the days of the week provide order for our lives.
Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? The answer may not be what you think—it’s both more complicated than the “pilgrims and Indians” narrative many of us learned in school and less sinister than many “myth-busting” articles have recently claimed. However, it does involve lobsters, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the holiday shopping season.
Feasting and Merrymaking in the Colonies
Ritual rhythms of fasting and feasting existed long before Americans began to celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Many Native American tribes held feasts to commemorate the fall harvest and give thanks to the Creator. Christians of different denominations practiced fasting in supplication for relief during times of difficulty and feasting to give thanks to God during times of plenty.
After a harsh winter that killed many of the Mayflower’s original passengers, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they called themselves) began the work of establishing the village of Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay. About fifty Pilgrims and ninety Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe celebrated for three days following a successful harvest in the fall of 1621. Since seventeenth-century sources do not identify this as a true thanksgiving observance in the religious sense, some historians hold that this was rather more of a harvest feast.
It may be that the first “true” Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1623—true because it was a feast following a period of religious fasting and because it was sanctioned by civil authority. Nevertheless, the 1621 Thanksgiving was a cross-cultural event with food, recreation, and expressions of gratitude.
There are only two primary sources documenting the 1621 feast, written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Winslow writes that the settlers had gone fowling so that they could “in a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.” He describes three days of feasting and entertaining “many of the Indians.” These included King Massasoit along with ninety men of the Wampanoag tribe, who had hunted five deer to present as a gift to the Plymouth settlers. Winslow rejoices, “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
This feast of plenty likely consisted of the venison brought by the Wampanoag, the wild fowl hunted by the settlers (possibly turkeys or ducks), seafood such as mussels and lobster, “Indian corn,” and vegetables native to the area like onions, beans, spinach, and turnips. Cranberries? Yes, but not in the form of sugary sauce. Pumpkin? Perhaps, but definitely not pumpkin pie.
Was this the first Thanksgiving-type celebration in the New World? Nope. Historians have recorded harvest feasts predating this celebration. The earliest in 1565 was a gathering of Spanish explorers and members of the Timucua tribe in St. Augustine, Florida. Harvest feasts among British settlers in Virginia were common as early as 1607. Winslow’s account of the 1621 feast simply surfaced out of obscurity around 1820 in a collection called Chronicles of Our Pilgrim Fathers, whereas records of similar events were not well known. In the 1830s, those who read this account saw similarities with Thanksgiving celebrations in New England and then deemed it the “first Thanksgiving.”
Another harvest feast took place in 1637 following a night attack on a Pequot Indian village. John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, officially declared a day of Thanksgiving in honor of colonial soldiers who had carried out the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children. In recent decades, many articles have claimed that this is the true origin of Thanksgiving. This perspective, while raising awareness about the harrowing injustices that European settlers committed in their dealings with Native Americans, nevertheless overlooks several Thanksgiving observances that came before, and it is most likely inaccurate to claim it as the basis for our modern Thanksgiving celebration.
Following these early observances, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated throughout the area of New England. The highly religious meanings attached to such feasts were overshadowed by the sentiment of gathering the family around the dinner table, a meaning that took on greater significance during Thanksgiving feasts in the 1700s and 1800s.
Thanksgiving as a National Observance
George Washington proclaimed a one-time “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” on Thursday, November 26, 1789. It didn’t have much to do with the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and there was no mention of Native Americans. Rather, the holiday was to be a public day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” The holiday was later commemorated on different days and months, and various states scheduled their own Thanksgiving celebrations. Until after the Civil War, Thanksgiving was still celebrated mainly in New England.
Enter Sarah Josepha Hale, a highly influential writer and magazine editor of the nineteenth century. Besides authoring the beloved nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale served as the editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1837 to 1877. This publication was the most widely circulated magazine of the time and influenced fashion, cooking, and lifestyle trends for women throughout the United States.
Hale took an interest in turning Thanksgiving into a nationally recognized holiday. She advocated for 17 years to promote Thanksgiving, publishing editorials in Godey’s and writing presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln. She felt that a day of thanksgiving could help heal a divided nation from the wounds of the Civil War. Hale also published recipes and promoted traditions that helped to popularize the holiday throughout the country as a day of national unity and family gathering. Her concept of Thanksgiving did not reflect the food or festivities at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, and the idea of Thanksgiving was still not commonly connected with the early colonists.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that Thanksgiving would be celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November. As Hale had envisioned, it was seen as a day of unification and gratitude that the country desperately needed following the Civil War.
However, the spirit of gratitude didn’t stop business leaders from requesting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the date to the second-to-last Thursday in November, thereby extending the holiday shopping season and boosting the economy. This plan, known as “Franksgiving,” was met with fierce opposition. Sixteen states decided to go on celebrating on the last Thursday in November, and the rest adopted the new date.
Finally, in 1941, Congress set the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of Thanksgiving, which still holds today.
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
The country is now unified in the date that we celebrate Thanksgiving, but are we unified in the meaning we attribute to the holiday?
Public interest in the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims began to grow around the turn of the twentieth century, shifting attention to the 1621 harvest celebration as the origin of Thanksgiving. American schools began to use Thanksgiving as a way to teach students about citizenship, drawing on the good-natured interaction between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag as an example. Some have criticized that by so doing, we have presented a cherry-picked image of relations between European settlers and Native Americans, omitting a long history of brutality. The pain felt by Native Americans both then and now cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. In protest, many Native Americans and others observe a Day of Mourning at Plymouth in lieu of Thanksgiving, honoring those who were killed in the Pequot massacre and educating others about the history of colonial relations with Native Americans.
Some see Thanksgiving as a day of family gathering, of delicious food, and of interrogation about their love life or plans for the future. Some see it as a day of prayer and gratitude. Some see it as a day for watching football. Some see it as a day that perpetuates inaccurate ideas about the nature of interactions between Native Americans and European settlers, which involved more death, destruction, and bloodshed than many of us would care to know about. Thanksgiving can be any and all of these things to different people.
But perhaps we can see it as a day to heal divisions in an imperfect country we call home, to express thanks to those we love, and to give to others.
Where did the word groovy come from? The answer takes us back to the early days of electronic sound production, to the Jazz Age, and to the outta sight world of the ’60s.
First, take a look at the word itself: groovy refers to something that’s in the groove. What groove?
The grooves on a record.
The phonograph, invented in 1887 by Thomas Edison, changed the way the world listened to music. Audio could now be recorded and played back in another place and another time. The phonograph recorded the vibrations of sound waves by etching corresponding grooves on a wax cylinder. To play the recorded sound, a stylus traced over the grooves, causing the same vibrations in the air. Later on, flat vinyl discs were used instead of wax cylinders to record the grooves, and the term gramophone was coined for the device.
The Jazz Age of the 1930s brought a swinging, syncopated sound to America—a sound that, when performed well, was described as being groovy. Jazz musicians were in the groove if they were perfectly in sync with the music, playing with swing and soul. The analogy was that the musician followed the music precisely just as a phonograph stylus follows the grooves on a record. It was a synergy of contradiction, of being in sync but with a colorful, dissonant, improvised swing.
Groovy was generalized slightly to take on the meaning of “first-rate, excellent” by 1937. By the 1960s, semantic drift led to the popular use of groovy as slang for “really cool,” “wonderful,” “fun,” or “good-looking.” The term hit peak popularity during the ’60s and ’70s. Though the term largely fell out of use by the ’80s, groovy is still used as a reference to the iconic days of tie-dye and disco.
Or if you’re Shaggy from Scooby Doo, it’s a term used to describe the alien girl of your dreams.
Why do most question words in English begin with wh? The answer involves a hypothetical ancient language, a semantic root shared with cheese, and curious people throughout the ages.
To explore why we say why (and who, whom, whose, what, when, where, whether, which, whither, whence, whatever, whoever, and wherefore!), we first need some backstory on the English language.
English is part of a large group of languages called Indo-European. Within Indo-European are many subcategories, including Germanic languages (of which English is a part) and Romance languages (from which English has borrowed heavily through French and Latin). English is most closely related to other members of the Germanic language family, including German, Dutch, and Frisian.
Now, enter historical-comparative linguistics. In this field of study, linguists attempt to reconstruct the ancestors of currently spoken languages by comparing similar words in related languages and proposing words that may have preceded them. Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language that represents the ancestor of the Indo-European language family.
Interestingly, most of the question words, or interrogatives, in English are derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root *kwo- or *kwi-. (The asterisk next to the word indicates that the word is a hypothetical reconstruction and has not been documented in natural language.) This root word, which likely meant “who” or “what,” then formed the stem for all interrogative pronouns. (Interestingly, this word is also the root of words as diverse as cheese, neither, and quote.) The sense of asking about a person or a thing was extended to asking about a place, a time, or a means of doing something. Different forms emerged to fill the speakers’ need to ask different types of questions. Though modified in form, these question words are now found in languages that descended from this prototypical language. Within many Indo-European languages, these words still display an etymological relationship with each other through a shared initial sound.
Linguists assume that regular sound changes occur over time, producing systematic differences in languages descended from a common ancestor. The most well-known set of sound changes in Germanic languages is known as Grimm’s law. As part of this set of sound changes, the k- sound in *kwo- and related words shifted to a x- sound (this sounds kind of like clearing your throat).
Further spelling and sound changes caused a shift from x- to hw-, and hw- was reduced to simply w- or h-, depending on the vowel that followed. As part of a systematic spelling change in the Middle English period, the spelling of most question words reversed the hw to wh.
And how about how? The word how in Old English was hū, which may have originally been *hwu. You can imagine how difficult the w- and u- sounds are to say without condensing them into one sound. The condensing of the w- and u-is fairly common because the w- sound is very similar to an elongated u- sound (oo). The spelling of how followed suit.
Let’s take a quick look at other languages. In German (a close relative of English), question words are wer, was, wann, wo, warum, and so on—even wie, the word for how, begins with a w. German mirrors English in the development of interrogatives beginning with wh, though the h was dropped from the spelling of those words in German.
In Italian (less closely related to English, but within the Indo-European category), sound change stayed closer to the original *kwo-. Most interrogative pronouns begin with a k- sound: chi, che, cosa, quando. Notably, some have departed from this root: dove (where) and perché (why).
Likewise, in Sanskrit (another member of the Indo-European language family), all the interrogative words have retained their initial k- sound: kaha (कः), ke (के), kaa (का), kim (किम्), kadaa (कदा), kimartham (किमर्थम्), and and kutra (कुत्र), among others, all show evidence of descent from the Indo-European *kwo-.
The story is the same throughout the language family: one common ancestor word gave rise to a variety of question words that follow a similar pattern in different languages. And now you know why we say why!
Who invented the cookie? The answer involves the luxuries of the Persian Empire, cookery books, and Dutch funerals.
Properly defined, a cookie is “a small flat or slightly raised cake.” Cookies can be made by cutting shapes from rolled dough (like sugar cookies), dropping dough from a spoon (like chocolate chip cookies), cutting dough into pieces after baking (like brownies), or several other techniques. A typical cookie is made with flour, butter, and sugar, though ingredients vary for different kinds of cookies. Small, simple cakes made with flour have existed since the beginning of baking history, but they were typically not sweet and could not truly be considered cookies.
Our favorite little cakes originated in seventh-century Persia. As one of the first areas to cultivate sugar, a necessary ingredient in cookies, the Persian empire enjoyed a variety of sweet cakes and pastries. Cookies were originally an experiment with a small amount of dough to test the oven temperature before making a larger cake.
Sugar—and cookies—spread throughout Europe by way of the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Crusades, and the spice trade. Cooking techniques and ingredients from the Persian Empire became popular in Northern Europe.
By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, cookies were common in all classes of society in Europe and were not just a luxury for the rich—filled wafers were sold on the streets of Paris, royal cuisine featured the sweet treats, and “cookery books” for the middle class touted recipes for “Fine Cakes.” These cookery books were essential in preserving and transmitting cookie recipes to future generations.
To make fine Cakes. Take fine flowre and good Samaske water you must haue no other liquour but that, then take sweet butter, two or three yolkes of egges and a good quantity of Suger, and a fewe cloues, and mace, as your Cookes mouth shall serue him, and a lyttle saffron, and a little Gods good about a sponfull if you put in too much they shall arise, cutte them in squares lyke vnto trenchers, and pricke them well, and let your ouen be well swept and lay them vppon papers and so set them into the ouen, do not burne them if they be three or foure dayes olde they bee the better.
Cookies have taken on many different forms over the centuries. Jumbles were hard cookies made with nuts, sweetener, anise, and caraway seeds, and made great food for long journeys. Crispy, twice-baked cookies were known as biscuits or biscotti. Tea cookies, also called teacakes or butter cookies, were rich and buttery shortbread cookies, less sweet than many American cookies today.
Dutch immigrants brought tea cookies to New Amsterdam in the 1620s. Their introduction of cookies to the United States has left its mark—the English word cookie comes from the Dutch koekje, a diminutive of koek, which means “cake.” In 1703, the Dutch served koeckjes at a funeral in New York.
Cookies that involve creaming butter and sugar together emerged around the eighteenth century, around the same time that baking powder was introduced as a chemical leavening agent. Though cookies were still special treats, affordable sugar and flour allowed more people to start baking cookies more often, and cookie recipes abounded.
In the twentieth century, the invention of modern ovens with thermostats yielded ever more cookie recipes: snickerdoodles and butter drop cookies and sand tarts. Homemakers—homebakers, one could say—made up new recipes based on what they had on hand at the time. Raisin cookies were introduced when sugar was scarce during World War II, for example, and peanut butter cookies developed along with the introduction of peanut butter in government-sponsored school lunch programs.
The cookie, in all its forms and shapes, has become a staple of dessert in Europe, the United States, and beyond. What’s your favorite type of cookie?
Why do children trick or treat on Halloween night? The answer involves traditions spanning centuries and continents—including placating mischievous spirits, praying for the dead, and playing pranks on unsuspecting neighbors.
Trick-or-treating can be linked to several different places and practices. The earliest known door-to-door begging ritual occurred during the Celtic festival of Samhain, the ancient precursor to Halloween. The Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago, believed that the spirits of the dead could return to the land of the living during the end of the harvest season. During Samhain, people thought they could protect themselves from bad spirits by impersonating them, dressing up like ghosts or demons to ward off the actual ghosts and demons. Banquet tables were also arrayed with food to placate the unwelcome spirits.
In ninth-century England, Christian and pagan traditions were fused into a holiday then called All Hallow’s Eve, followed by All Saints Day. In the medieval period, a practice called “souling” or “mumming” took place as children and sometimes poor adults traveled from door to door in costume begging for food or money. People typically offered pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead.
In Scotland and Ireland, a similar tradition called “guising” involved an exchange of songs, tricks, or other performances for fruit, nuts, or coins.
However familiar these traditions might seem, the history of modern trick-or-treating in America likely stems not from All Hallow’s Eve in the British Isles but from a German-American tradition called belsnickling.
Belsnickling was actually a Christmas tradition in which children would dress in costume and visit the homes of neighbors to see if the adults could guess who they were. Any child with a clever enough disguise would be rewarded with a treat. Belsnickling is the most likely precursor to trick-or-treating in America, but it may also have fused with Irish and Scottish traditions to form the Halloween tradition we know today.
So why do we say trick or treat? No one knows exactly when this exact phrase came about, but a 1927 Alberta newspaper was the first the report the phrase in use.
In eighteenth-century America, Halloween was all tricks and no treats. This was nothing new—“Devil’s Night” or “Mischief Night” had long been associated with pre-Halloween harvest festivities, and Samhain celebrations often featured mischief and mayhem. Up until the mid-twentieth century, adolescents gleefully pranked adults and terrorized younger children on Halloween, which was a great nuisance to everyone else and even became dangerous at times.
During the Great Depression, communities took control of the pranking situation by encouraging and organizing house-to-house Halloween parties to keep would-be pranksters otherwise engaged. Families had a limited amount of money to spend on parties, so the house-to-house format was a hit, and trick-or-treating began to gain traction. Post-World War II, the rise of suburbs in America provided safe, family-oriented communities in which trick-or-treating was cemented as a mainstay of Halloween. Additionally, with the end of wartime sugar rationing, candy companies in the 1950s saw an opportunity to market chocolate, candy corn, and other goodies to hand out to trick-or-treaters, thus displacing homemade treats, toys, coins, and nuts that used to fill the bellies of tiny witches, ghosts, and goblins.
Thus, institutionalized ritual begging is now solidly planted in American soil, along with pumpkin-shaped Reese’s cups and fun-size candy bars. We’ll take the treats over the tricks any day!
Why are Hollywood stars received with a red carpet at events? The answer involves Greek gods, Renaissance paintings, and railroad cars.
The first recorded instance of a red carpet is in the play Agamemnon, written by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus and first performed in 458 BCE. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and commander of the Greeks in the Trojan war, is greeted by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, who unfurls a carpet of crimson robes for him to walk upon—“a floor of crimson broideries.”
What a welcome! But Agamemnon is suspicious—only the gods are treated to such luxury, and he is but a mortal.
“’Tis God that hath / Such worship; and for mortal man to press / Rude feet upon this broidered loveliness …/ I vow there is danger in it,” he says, wary of the wrath of the gods that might come upon one who was so prideful.
(Spoiler alert: Agamemnon obliges, and he is subsequently murdered by Clytemnestra.)
The use of a red carpet to welcome the gods must have been in place before this time in order for the tradition to be established, but most of what we know comes after this time.
In Renaissance paintings, Oriental rugs lined the floors leading up to the thrones and palaces of rulers, patterned with red and gold. The provided a path of luxury and a mark of social and political dominance as kings and queens ascended to their seats of power.
Why red? Scarlet dye was once reserved for the wealthy; it was made from the cochineal scale insect which rendered it expensive and difficult to make. Additionally, the color red has long been associated with power, passion, and dominance. Nothing calls for attention quite like a bright crimson banner announcing who’s in charge.
In the start of the twentieth century, railroad cars began giving first-class passengers the royal treatment by welcoming them on board with a red carpet—a mark of exclusive luxury and high status.
The 1920s saw the beginning of the red-carpet treatment for Hollywood stars: in 1922, Robin Hood stars Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, and Enid Bennett stepped out on a red carpet to greet fans at the first true Hollywood premiere. The carpet stuck, and with it came flamboyant displays of wealth, fame, and fashion.
So is the red carpet a reflection of a hallowed reverence for actors and entertainers? Do we bestow upon celebrities the honors once reserved only for deity and royalty? Is Hollywood the aristocracy of modern America?
Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? The answer involves shady deals with the devil, Irish folklore, and some scary-looking turnips.
An Irish legend holds that a man named “Stingy Jack” had a drink with the devil one day. True to his name, Jack didn’t want to buy the drinks, so he tricked the devil into turning himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead of using the coin, Jack put the money in his pocket next to his trusty silver cross—which, according to folklore, prevents the devil from transforming back into his original shape.
Well, now it was time for the devil to make a deal with Jack. The devil convinces Jack to let him free on the condition that when Jack dies, the devil will not claim his soul. But Jack has been a bad boy—when he dies, Jack is not worthy for heaven, but the devil also won’t accept him into hell, as they agreed. Instead, the devil sends Jack off into the darkness with only a burning ember to illuminate his way. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the burning ember inside to create a lantern. The soul of “Jack of the lantern” has wandered the earth ever since, with only the lantern to illuminate his way.
Based on this account, the Irish copied Jack’s lantern by hollowing out turnips or potatoes and carving demonic faces onto them. Lighting up these diabolical lanterns was thought to scare off Jack’s wandering soul and other evil spirits.
Irish immigrants to the United States brought this tradition with them, using pumpkins rather than turnips in the New World. Though jack-o’-lanterns were not originally associated with Halloween, it wasn’t too far of a jump to display spooky decorations during a holiday of haunts and howls.
This is just one of many holiday traditions that come from legends about the supernatural that went through a process of synthesis with other beliefs and traditions.