Monthly Archives: March 2013

Did it Really Rain Cats and Dogs Once?

So, how much truth is there in some of the popular sayings that people use every day?
Do “all roads lead to Rome”? Well, yes, actually, they do (or did) – historical fact, people!
In ancient times, if you came across a paved road, at least for a period of Roman times, it did lead directly to Rome. That’s because the Romans were the first people to build properly paved roads, and they started out making these delightful roads solely to and from Rome.

Skid Row
In the good old days – you remember them: war, famine, great depressions – fellows who felled trees, ie loggers, were not exactly top of the pops on the social scale. To transport logs in the days before we had chainsaws and big grabby machines to help deforest the planet 50 times faster, loggers chopped rough roads, hacked into the forest. They used these roads to drag out the logs – or “skidded” them out. Apparently, the term started out as a name for these access tracks, “skid roads”, but pretty soon, as loggers were at the bottom of the social pile, it came to pass that “skid row” became a term for poor or rundown areas.

British soldiers are widely known as “Tommies”. Why is this so? Well, there are a few plausible stories, but I am going for this one: In 1825, the British War Department issued forms that soldiers needed to fill out – and happened to use Thomas Atkins” as the name in a sample form showing soldiers how they were to fill in these forms. Next thing you know, British soldiers are known forevermore as “Tommies”

Learning the ropes
In days of yore, when you said to your parents, “I’m off to Europe to work in a bar for a year”; or if you were European, you might say, “I’m off to Australia because the judge said I had to go” – you got there by ship. Not the Queen Mary, either. You went on a sailing ship. These multi-masted marvels had, on average, 250 ropes (or lines) the crew needed to know and deal with. So sailors had to literally “learn the ropes”. Nothing made a Captain madder than some landlubber pulling the downhaul when he should have been hoisting the clewline. Learn the ropes!

In like Flynn
Errol Flynn. Stage and screen star of the 1930’s and 40’s. Expelled from school in Australia in 1926 for having sex with the laundry lady. Charged (and acquitted) of statutory rape in 1942. Failed in an attempt to join the US Army during WW2 for, among other things – having Venereal Disease. Married 3 times. Romanced dozens of young starlets during his Hollywood career. In like Flynn. ‘Nuff said.

Hat Trick
Doing something 3 times – “a hat trick” is often incorrectly attributed to ice hockey. The term actually came about in the 1850’s when an English cricketer took 3 wickets in 3 balls, and was awarded a “hat” as a prize.

Green Room
If you have ever been on TV, (I am yet to be discovered) you may have spent time in “The Green Room”. This is the place you hang out before your appearance. Theatres also have them for the actors. Sometimes, only the top banana gets to go in the green room. Like, for instance, if I were invited on the Dave Letterman show along with Sting; he would wait in the Green Room, and I would wait in the car park. C’est la vie. It is thought to date back to 1599, to an English theater, where the performers hung out in a room that just happened to be painted green.

Elvis has left the building
In 1956, it was first used to dispel a crowd of concertgoers, who hoped “the King” might pop back for one more encore. He didn’t, because he had left the building. Now one of the most popular sayings in the English language, it can describe anything from a person you think is brainless, to getting retrenched from your job. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Horace Lee Logan, the promoter who first uttered the immortal line.

Close but no cigar
So the story goes, in the 1930’s, 40’s & 50’s, men in America liked to test their strength and impress the ladies by going to the local fair, grabbing an oversized hammer – and hitting a target that sent a metal cylinder up a pole. If you were up to the task – a satisfying “ding” would announce to the crowd your immense power, and you would win a cigar as a prize. If you had spaghetti arms like me, all you got was a portly, boater wearing carnival man announcing to the crowd – “Close! But no cigar”.

Bought a lemon
There are many theories for this gem, but the one I like dates back to merry old England in the days when ‘exotic’ fruits started to appear in the Old Dart. Fruits like bananas, pineapples and even oranges. These strange and mysterious fruits were quite expensive, and so were often given as gifts. “Happy Birthday Grandma! Here’s a banana!” Unfortunately, like a Nigerian and his million dollars that need a home, there were unscrupulous fruit vendors, and occasionally, when granny took delivery of her birthday banana, she would announce; “you idiot, you bought a lemon!”

Do You Measure Up?

When you are alone, maybe with a glass of red in your hand, what is it that you ponder? World affairs? Politics? How can you make a difference? Yeh, whatever. I ponder things like this:

How tall (or short) do you need to be, to get a gig as a famous / inspirational / despotic world leader?

I have a small large obsession with military history. So in the course of reading a book about something extremely boring for 99% of the population, it struck me that Joseph Stalin – you know him – the guy that is estimated to have ordered the killing by execution, work-to-death, famine and general repression of approximately 20 million of his fellow countrymen – was very, very short. Interestingly, if you look at Soviet era statues and paintings He was depicted as, give or take, a 6-footer. But in the cold glare of reality, Uncle Joe was actually a petit 5 feet 5 inches tall (or short).

I know what your thinking, “short man syndrome”, but maybe not. Saddam Hussein, for example – a textbook despot – was a commanding 6’2”, in a country where the average height for a male is 5’5”.

So is there a height trend for individual countries and their elected (or otherwise) leaders? I needed to know. And so abandoning my obsessional search for the perfect meatball, I started to investigate post WW2 world leaders:

In the good ole US of A, the average male stands at 5’10”. Yet 75% of Presidents since 1945 have been 6 feet tall or above – it has been over 30 years since anyone has looked ‘south’ at a US president. “How is the weather down there, Pres. Carter?” (Bad pun alert!)

But is it a Cold War coincidence that the Soviet Union had the opposite statistics? In the last 90 odd years, only one Russian Premier has bothered the 6’ mark – and that was Boris Yeltsin – a man once found drunk, in his underwear, trying to hail a taxi out the front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. The Secret Service had to lock the White House liquor cabinet on that trip I can assure you. Apart from “belt ‘em down” Boris, the rest of the USSR/Russian leaders were all below average height; Khrushchev was reportedly too short to be allowed on the Kremlin pony rides. He topped out at 5’3” (5’6” with his fury hat on.)

The French started off great guns, making 6’5” Chuck DeGaulle the top Croissant. He just pipped a couple of 6’4” leaders, including Lyndon “thank you, grassy knoll” Johnston, as the tallest leader I could find. (Disclaimer: my research was neither… ahem… scientific nor exhaustive). Sadly, the Cheese-Eaters have let the side down in recent times, with the last two French Presidents resorting to platform shoes so they could sidle confidently up to people like Angela Merkel, the 5’5” German Chancellor. They both must have been so relieved they didn’t ever have to stand tippy-toe on a couple of phone books to get a decent photo opportunity with the old sausage loving 1980’s Chancellor, 6’4” Helmut Kohl.

So is there a pattern? Sadly it seems to be inconclusive. Hitler was a shorty, (5’8”) but took over from Von Hindenburg, who was a most Germanic 6’5”. Churchill (5’6”) was set amongst a string of mostly 6’+ bowler hatted Blighty lovers, until a magnificently coiffured Maggie Thatcher stepped down to the plate at 5’5”. Sometimes history also distorts the facts – Napoleon probably wasn’t as short as you may think, he was ~ 5’7”. (His height is often miss-quoted as 5’2”.)

So actually, the only conclusion we can make is I have just wasted 10 minutes of your time. Sorry about that. But for me, it’s back to my quest for the perfect meatball. Adieu!

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