Category Archives: Trivia

Facts. And stuff.

Pulling Someone’s Leg

The idioms are back again, hurray! Today’s instalment is all about the naughty side of tomfoolery. That’s right, although the phrase ‘to pull someone’s leg’ now denotes a friendly bit of banter, meaning something like ‘to make fun of somebody by making them look foolish’, it actually used to have criminal undertones.

There are many proposed origins for the phrase, but my research suggests that pulling someone’s leg was originally a method used by thieves to entrap their quarry and thereby relieve them of their valuables. One thief would be assigned ‘tripper up’ duty, and would use various instruments (usually a wire) to knock the target to the ground. Whilst the hapless victim crawled about on the floor, the other members of the gang would rush in to complete the robbery.

It is not difficult to see how the comical effect of somebody being tripped over during the course of bit of skulduggery might have given rise to today’s meaning of the phrase.

I am not American (praise Jebus) but I gather that ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in American English retains a sinister edge, alluding to an element of trickery or deception in the part of the leg puller. Perhaps this might be a lingering connotation from the idiom’s less than Christian origin.

 

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Roger (as used in radio commands)

So my sister set me this challenge. Actually I knew it already, so ’twas no biggie.

Roger is used on the radio to mean ‘message received’. But why? Was there some larger than life radio control man called Roger? Sadly not. Well there might have been, but it certainly was not he who sired the phrase.

The use of Roger  comes from military pilot radio transmissions in the Second World War. In 1941, before the now internationally accepted alpha, beta etc.  both British and American phonetic alphabets used Roger as the standard abbreviation for R, as in Received.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself on a US military radio channel, do not say ‘repeat’ unless you want to see ash and brimstone fall from the sky. Repeat is only used to request additional artillery fire (you would say ‘say again’ if you wanted somebody to repeat their last message). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Fun Friday Fact #18

Due to an oversight at the end of the First World War, Andorra found itself engaged in two world wars at the same time.

The tiny Pyrenean state’s name was omitted from the Treaty of Versailles (1919), meaning that the 11-man national army remained technically at war with Germany. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 placed too much of a strain on the Andorran resources. The beleaguered country hastily signed a private treaty with Germany, finally concluding the First World War and confirming its neutrality in the Second. In benching itself for the second global conflict, Andorra joined a long line of heroes including Ireland, Switzerland and those once mighty empires of Spain and Portugal.

Note: neutral status provided no guarantees from attack. For example Britain invaded the neutral Iceland, whilst Hitler was quick to take over the low countries and add them to his treasure chest.

That was fun now, wasn’t it? I’m sorry to inform you, my beloved readers, that this will be my final Fun Friday Fact. It’s been real, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, but I want to turn my attention elsewhere. I know you’ll understand. Goodbye, friends, goodbye.

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Fun Friday Fact #17

Between July and December 1941, with its economic centres around Moscow within reach of the advancing German army, the Soviet Union dismantled 1,523 enterprises piece by piece and transported them to the Urals, Volga, Kazakhstan and eastern Siberia.

On June 22nd 1941, Germany declared war with Russia and launched the now infamous ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Within a matter of months, the German army was only 150 miles away from the Russian capital. The German’s sweep through the rich iron, coal and steel regions of western Russian and the Ukraine had deprived Soviet industry of 3/4 of its iron ore, coal and steel, the beating heart of modern industry. 1/3 of its railway was lost and the availability of resources vital for the production of modern weapons, such as aluminium, manganese and copper, was cut by 2/3. To top it all, the rich grain lands in the Soviet ‘bread basket’ were in enemy hands, so that grain supplies fell by half for the 130 million Soviet citizens living in unoccupied Russia. In short, by December 1941, the Russian economy was on its knees.

Had Russia have fallen in 1941, then it is unlikely that Britain would have survived alone, certainly not against a Germany with the bulk of European industry under its control. But somehow the Soviet economy survived. In a truly staggering feat of human ingenuity, those factories within enemy range were dismantled and carried eastwards out of danger in one and a half million wagon loads on the Soviet rail network. In addition, 16 million Soviet workers were able to escape the German net, to stoke the fires again, some of them starting up production on the frozen floor as the factories were built around them. For the remainder of the war, the Russian war effort was sustained on this remarkable expansion so much so that from 1942, the eastern zones supplied 3/4 of all Soviet weapons and almost all the iron and steel.

The state of the affairs grows all the more incredible when one reflects on the fact that, in 1942, Russian industry produced more weapons in a year than it had done so before and more weapons than the enemy.

The main reason behind Russian industrial success was that the economy was centrally planned. This meant that, unlike America’s free market economy, where one could not simply turn milk into planes, anything and anyone could be used to promote war productions at the expense of everything else. The Soviet Union was turned into ‘Stalin’s single war camp.’ Businesses did not need to show a profit – there were no material incentives offered to factory workers working 16 hour days. The Soviet people were well used to state-set targets, and had been since the pre-war Five-Year plans. They knew the price of failure.

The effectiveness of the Russian economic plan from 1941-45 lay in its scale and its simplicity. The industrial centres in the Urals were not pretty, but each served a specific purpose: Magnitogorsk was the main producer of steel; Chelyabinsk, or ‘Tankograd’ churned out T-34s. The Soviet Union could not afford the luxury of employing a wide range of different types of weapons (they lacked the skilled labour and factory capacity) but this actually transpired to work in their favour. Crude mass-producition ensured large numbers and robust construction of a single model. This meant that spare parts (for tanks, planes etc.) were readily available, and that mechanics were well-versed with a particular model and could fix it quickly when it invariably broke down.

By comparison, the German economy in the Second World War was a bureaucratic nightmare. Hitler had attempted to take military control of economic affairs in a country where there was no precendent. As a result of the German military’s obsession with technological excellence each time a small problem was noticed in the performance of one of their machines, a whole new model would be developed so that the German army fielded a dizzying array of machinery. For example, while the Soviets had 5 main aircraft types, the Germans had 425. There was no chance that a German engineer would know how to fix all of them, or carry the necessary parts.

The German penchant for quality over quantity also meant that they were unable to compete with the Russians in terms of numbers. They saw mass-production as a synonym for ‘shoddy goods’ to the point where each of their weapons was painstakingly custom built. The great strengths of their economy had always been (and still are) high quality, skilled workmanship. But this was not enough. The Germans did produce better weapons than their enemies in many cases, but they were too expensive in terms of money and labour.

This failure on the part of the German economy to identify a winning strategy meant that the new Russian industrial centres were able to outproduce the Germans with a fraction of their resources and from a much smaller skilled work base. In 1943, the Soviet Union turned 8 mil tons of steel and 90 mil tons of coal into 48,000 heavy artillery and 24,00 tanks, while the Germans turned 30 mil tons of steel and 340 mil tons of coal into 27,000 heavy artillery and 17,000 tanks.

However tempting it is to claim the Germans lost the war with Russia, it is clear that the Russians won it. And as I have mentioned before, Stalin owed his country’s survival to the Soviet people, heroically toiling day after day on 1/5 of the British rations. For more details about their story, or the Second World War in general, one should consult Richard Overy’s excellent ‘Why The Allies Won’.

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Fun Friday Fact #16

At the time of Pearl Harbor, the Commander-in-Chief of the US navy was referred to as CINCUS, pronounced ‘sink us’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no sooner had Japan obliged America’s request than the title was hastily changed to the less controversial COMINCH.

Enough said I think.

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Fun Friday Fact #15

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is allegedly based on Serbian Second World War double agent Dusko Popov.

Popov was born in 1912 in Titel, Austria-Hungary (now Serbia). He was signed up as a spy by anti-Hitler Abwehr agents [crassly the Nazi’s secret service branch] early in the war and on their suggestion he offered his services to the British. Living in London as a double agent, Popov placated his German employers by feeding them scraps of MI6-approved information, while the assignments that were given to him by his earnest Berlin counterparts proved to be of great value to the British in assessing their enemy’s strategy. The Germans were so impressed by Popov’s trail of breadcrumbs that they considered him ‘their best man in Britain.’

Whilst in London, Popov set up a ‘spy ring’, made up of members who were all MI5 operatives. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, the lavish maintenance money they paid to Popov would be spent on operations against themselves.

In 1941, Popov was dispatched to the U.S. by the Abwehr to establish a new German network, after the kind that he had apparently so successfully constructed in London. He was given a list of questions about various intelligence targets, most famously including the American defences at Pearl Harbor.

Popov explained to the F.B.I. what he had been asked to do, but his warning concerning an imminent attack on Pearl Habor was treated with suspicion by the head of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover, who did not approve of Popov’s reckless ways (of which more later). During his time in America, Popov was threatened with arrest and deportation on several occasions.

Having left America, Popov became a key part of the Operation Fortitude deception campaign. After the Second World War, he was awarded with an OBE for his service to Britain, and granted citizenship. He died in 1981.

When he wasn’t selling the Nazi’s down the river, Popov enjoyed what can only be described as an extravagant lifestyle of epic proportions. Charismatic, good looking and the son of a mega-rich industrialist, Popov was paid huge sums by the Nazis, who believed that his play boy shenanigans were a necessary part of his cover. Bankrolled by the German state, he romanced his way around the world. One of his many conquests was  Simone Simon a then-famous (and already married) American actress. His code name ‘Tricycle’ referred to his enthusiasm for three-in-a-bed scenarios.

In 1941, Ian Fleming locked horns with this remorseless womaniser in a casino and was humiliated by him at the baccarat table. The legend goes that Fleming, who was at the time working for the British Navy Intelligence division, had been arrogantly showing off his money when Popov promptly slapped down $50,000 on the table, shaming the lesser man and forcing him to leave the casino in disgrace.

What a hero.

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A Square Meal

An easy one today children, but some people were asking me about it, and, as you well know, I live to serve.

The phrase ‘a square meal’, meaning, ‘a substantial, nourishing meal’ is often said to have originated from the Royal Navy, as originate the majority of the interesting idioms I have encountered. More specifically, it is rather rashly claimed that the phrase comes from the Royal Navy’s practise of  serving its sailors their meals on square wooden plates.

This explanation sounds likely, but hang on a minute there at the back, I’m not quite finished. You see sometimes these things are just too neat to be true. For one thing, I doubt that the meals the Royal Navy fed to its sailors would have been anything approaching substantial or nourishing, which meant that some bright spark on board would have had to have coined the term with a sarcastic meaning in mind. A tall order for your average C19th sailor. And that’s the other thing – the first recorded instance of the expression is in 1856, in an advertisement for the Hope and Neptune restaurant, in the California newspaper The Mountain Democrat, November 1856. It goes as follows:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”

Now if the phrase was indeed a child of the Royal Navy, then surely it would have been recorded somewhere in the Royal Navy’s logbooks sometime before 1856. The fact that it is not mentioned suggests an alternative derivation.

As we can see from the above, ‘a square meal’ is an American expression, which means that it is likely to have a simple origin (Americans being themselves simple). Indeed for our answer we need look no further than the word ‘square’, which has many meanings, including ‘proper, honest, straightforward’. And there we have it. We are not talking about a meal served on right-angled crockery, but a proper, honest feast.

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