To my loyal fans,
It has been a while. I must apologise for my silence; with my time divided between work and work, there is currently no time for play.
I imagine your fingers are trembling as you read this post. Unfortunately, it is my sad duty to inform you that I will not be announcing my return at this juncture. I am writing to you today to alert you to the fact that one of my short stories ‘They Called It Mametz’ has been published and is available for your enjoyment on Amazon. Who knows, some of you might want to see what all the fuss is about.
The story follows a group of soldiers from the 9th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, as they prepare for the Battle of the Somme. If you do give it a read, please let me know how you get on.
Whilst I am on wordpress, I should inform you that I have decided to hang up my typing gloves for now. If you wish to stay in touch, please do follow my exploits via my podcast, www.thethirstpodcast.com.
I hope you are all well.
‘They Called It Mametz’ at Amazon.co.uk
‘They Called It Mametz’ at Amazon.com
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.
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.
The first Allied shot of the First World War was fired by the Australian coaster Woniora. By coincidence, the first Allied shot in the Far Eastern theatre of the Second World War was fired at the same ship.
A pretty remarkable state of affairs, I think you’ll agree.
On August 5th 1914, the UK having declared war on Germany only the day before, the Woniora fired on the German steamer Pfalz (not to be confused with the manufacturer of German planes) when it attempted to leave Australian waters. The Pfalz was captured and served out the rest of the war the Australian troopship HMT Boorara.
Then on September 3rd 1939, the Woniora was fired upon by a (n Allied) twin 6-inch gun emplacement at Point Nepean, the entrance to Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. The ship’s commander, Captain F. N. Smale, had ignored orders to heave-to for inspection.
If you’re interested, the first shot of the Second World War in Europe was fired at 4:47am on the morning of September 1st 1939 (thats 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of the First World War) from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein. The target was the ‘Westerplatte,’ an area of Danzig, now Gdansk, containing Polish troop barracks, munitions storage and workshops.
For some reason this idiom, meaning ‘nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen’, appears in my novel. At that time I believed the phrase was, ‘on tenderhooks’. The fact that a mind as great as mine could have been confused in this way can only mean that the idea behind the phrase is dark and mysterious. But tenters and hooks were once a part of one of the trades that in the C18th and C19th helped transform this little island the most powerful force in the world. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about the wool trade.
After it has been woven, woollen cloth still contains oil from the fleece, mixed with dirt. It was traditionally cleaned in a fulling mill, but then it had to be dried carefully or it would shrink and crease. So the lengths of wet cloth were stretched on wooden frames, and left out in the open for some time. This allowed them to dry and straightened their weave. These frames were the tenters, and the tenter hooks were the metal hooks used to fix the cloth to the frame.
In the good old days, these tenters would have been a common sight. It is easy, in this context, to understand why describing somebody as being ‘on tenterhooks’ means that they are in an state of anxious suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter.
However it is not easy to understand, in any context, why WordPress has deemed it fit to suggest ‘Monday Night Football’ as a tag for this post.
Contrary to popular opinion, a Polish cavalry division did not charge German tanks at Krojanty, September 1st 1939.
I think we’ve all heard the story – a bunch of stalwart nincompoops hurling themselves with reckless abandon towards cold iron oblivion, armed only with stout hearts and mediaeval lances against the most sophisticated fighting force the world had ever seen.
Yes, the cavalry charge at Krojanty – one of the first attacks of the war – has become a legend. But, as is so often the case with these things, the truth is rather different. In actual fact, Polish cavalry charged against German infantry. They met with some success at first, but were subsequently forced to make a hasty retreat out of the range of the German machine-gunners. Italian and German journalists who visited the site of the battle soon after noted the bodies of Polish horses and cavalrymen, and attributed the cause of the destruction to a Panzer division, which had just arrived on the scene. As you can imagine, the Nazi press had a field day with this one, and the charge at Krojanty has since become a symbol for the futility of the struggle against the German tide.
It is sobering to reflect on the fact that Polish forces might as well have charged German tanks, so unable were they to resist the might of the Wehrmacht. Poland capitulated on September 27th and it was subsequently divided up and shared between the Nazis and their new allies the Soviet Union. The rest of Europe would soon follow suit. By 1940 the German army had swept through Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Britain alone remained in opposition. She was saved from certain annihilation by 21 miles of water, a sophisticated RADAR system and, most importantly, by the bravery and skill of a handful of RAF pilots. In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
All the best phrases have nautical origins. So it is with taken aback, meaning ‘surprised or startled by a sudden turn of events.’ Aback means in a backward direction. Like ‘adown’ and ‘around’, it was originally two words, but these became merged into one in the 15th century.
Taken aback, then, is an allusion to something that is startling enough to make somebody jump back in surprise. The first to be ‘taken aback’ were not people, but ships. The sails of a ship are said to be ‘aback’ when the wind blows them flat against the masts and spars that support them. In this way, if the wind were to turn suddenly so that a sailing ship was facing unexpectedly into the wind, the ship was said to be ‘taken aback’.
The figurative use of the phrase, meaning surprised rather than physically pushed back, came in the 19th century. It was used by the great Charles Dickens, amongst other people, who wrote in his American Notes of 1842: “I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in all my life.”