Saturday, July 26, 2014

fingers crossed

 I'm sure most people have thought about this before, but it was only when I heard Rachel Maddow say "So, fingers crossed?" at the end of some slightly hopeful segment that it occurred to me to wonder about this phrase's origin. Of course, once you start wondering about it, it becomes obvious that it has to have something to do with the Cross, even though I think most or many people who use it are not invoking God and some might be appalled at the idea that they were.


Well, it turns out that it's not quite as simple as all that.There seem to be two different ideas about how the custom started, one being pre-Christian and the other dating from early Christian days. The older idea centers on the crossroads and not the cross. Apparently, in many cultures and not just ancient ones, the crossroad is seen as a place of spiritual power. Wikipedia tells us that it is the place of "betwixt and between" and therefore a place where access to other realms is possible. 

So this theory, explained on the Mental Floss website as well as The Straight Dope among others, is that people would meet at the crossroads, which Dex at The Straight Dope also tells us was a symbol of unity and a place where benign spirits mingled. One person would lay his finger across that of his friend and make a wish. It was a way of anchoring the wish until the wish was fulfilled. Gradually, though, I guess people didn't want to be bothered with finding a friend and going to the crossroads and decided that as they had a surplus of fingers of their own, they could just do the two fingers cross themselves. Dex made reference to a very interesting quote from Charles Panati, who wrote in The Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things:

"Customs once formal, religious, and ritualistic have a way of evolving with time to become informal, secular, and commonplace."  

So Dex goes on to talk about how fingers crossed involving a certain amount of ritual with two people and a crossroad becomes one person with two fingers, and eventually the simple expression "fingers crossed", which doesn't necessarily involve any fingers at all.

We do have another way we use fingers crossed, though, and that's the kind where you cross your fingers behind your back and tell a bold-faced lie. It's a pretty interesting mental maneuver when you think about it, and I think it ties in to the second explanation of where the gesture comes from. In the early days of Christianity, it wasn't always cool to be a Christian, and maybe you didn't want to be thrown to the lions or torn apart on a St. Catherine's wheel or whatever the torture of the day might be. So maybe you kept your newfound faith a bit low profile. Still, you would want to identify yourself to other Christians, so a handsign was developed. Some think that it used the Christian symbol of the fish and two people would each put their thumb and forefinger in the shape of an "L" and then touch thumbs and cross fingers, which may have looked something like this:

The fingers crossed behind the back may have come from this idea of signing that you are one of the faithful while saying something else to the powers that be. I actually found a quite convincing example of this at Snopes, which involves not the Romans and the Christians but the military and Hilary Clinton.

 Intrigued? Check it out right HERE.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jambole by Eddy Kenzo

I'm traveling for a few days, and though you probably won't even notice, I won't be posting a new post for a few days. Meanwhile, my friend Cassandra sent me a link to this vibrant bit of dance and I thought it would make a great placeholder. No, I don't know what Jambole means, and I don't even know if that's the right title for what you're watching anyway. Enjoy.

Here's the link as I'm not sure he wants to share on other sites.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


I learned a new word today. Actually an old word, but I don't recall ever seeing it before. I happened to discover that I could download a free copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Kindle, and as I was passing the time at the Laundromat, I did just that. (Funny, Google just capitalized Laundromat, and that was something I didn't know to do either. Further research may be required.) Anyway, waiting for the clothes to dry, and already done with the book I'd brought, I decided to try out the opening pages. And it starts out pretty well. All the aristocrats, or "aristos" in Baroness Orczy's terms, are trying to flee the city limits of Paris and make it to England in order to escape the guillotine, and the guards at the gate are having a cat and mouse sort of game with them.

"Men in women's clothes, women in male attire, children disguised in beggars' rags: there were some of all sorts: ci-devant counts, marquises, even dukes, who wanted to fly from France, reach England or some other equally accursed country, and there try to rouse foreign feelings against the glorious Revolution, or to raise an army in order to liberate the wretched prisoners in the Temple, who had once called themselves sovereigns of France."

Sometimes when you encounter a strange word on Kindle, the little look-up function is not so good--try reading a Northern Irish crime novel sometime--but ci-devant seems to be well within its capacity. In French:

ci: here; devant: before, in other words heretofore. And in other, other words the ci-devant aristos are those who were previously aristos, but no longer.

The Baroness herself.

It's funny, perhaps, that the word has fallen out of use when so much French came over the Channel and stuck. But maybe it's because there is a plethora of such words in English. Plethora in its sense of overabundance, of too muchness. Because we not only have "heretofore", but I also thought of "erstwhile", and just now, the word "hitherto". Apparently, ci--devant is really only best when you are trying to capture  the turmoil of the French Revolution.

Monday, July 14, 2014


So I was under the impression that I vaguely knew what mufti was. But after watching Endeavor last night on PBS I fear I may have it at least slightly wrong.I had thought mufti was the more casual uniforms worn in the military, and not the full regalia. But on Endeavor, at a certain point, the police dress up in mufti, which in this case means they disguise their true role by wearing civilian clothing.

As you can see, this will bear some looking into...


Source: The weekly press, 29 April 1926, page 28

(The caption reads "Returned soldiers in mufti and wearing medals marching past the Cathedral, Christchurch")

Well, I was wrong. To be in mufti does just mean to be in clothing other than one's uniform, whatever that may be. I think it is probably not very commonly used in the  U.S., as I realized that our own equivalent is perhaps "civvies", as in civilian clothing. Apparently in England and elsewhere in the British sway, they even now have something called Mufti Day, which is something like our casual wear day or some equivalent--it's not that unified here. In my former place of work, which didn't go in for formal work clothes in the first place, we were not as likely to have a dress down kind of day as we were some sort of dress up day.

"Mufti" actually comes from the Islamic world. In English, it stems back to the British Raj, and its intermingling with Muslim culture during colonization. A mufti was and presumably still is a judge. Rather chillingly for Westerners, one dictionary defines a mufti as 'one who gives a fatwa'. The most famous fatwa for most Westerners is the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for having the temerity to write The Satanic Verses. (It's a brilliant book, by the way, and I am perhaps in a minority position by liking it better than Midnight's Children.)

But a fatwa, in less inflammatory moments, is simply a judicial decision, rendered by a scholar of Islamic law. So don't get down on all muftis just yet.

So now we get to the second part of the question--how does "mufti" come to be a term for civilian clothing? Well, it's unclear. Although this strategy would be anathema to Anatoly Liberman, I will pass along the speculation that it comes from the 19th century theater and a rather stereotypical portrayal of Arabs there. Whether it was because they were portrayed exotically and colorfully, or because they were wearing robes and slippers is not clear. But I will say that this was not the kind of garb being worn by the British coppers on last night's Inspector Morse prequel.

The new guy is good, but we still miss you, Mr. Thaw.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I seem to have been using this word--or rather 'gallivanting'--a lot recently, though sadly, not because I've really been doing much of it of my own. No, but many people in my sphere seem to be traveling hither and yon, and gallivanting has seemed appropriate to their activities. Then I heard one of the characters on Last Tango in Halifax (a quite delightful show if you haven't caught on to it yet) use it the other night and thought I may as well track it down.

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in Last Tango in Halifax

I am going to guess that the English stole it from the French, but I'm going to alternatively guess that it is actually some sort of made up word that mimics French. What do you think?


Okay. The general sense of gallivant is to travel around for the sake of pleasure--you may define pleasure for yourself. Surprisingly, though, no one knows exactly what its origins are. There are guesses. "Perhaps from "gallant", some say. World Wide Words acknowledges the problem, but can't guarantee anything. They mention the phrase "gadding about" as having some influence. Anatoly Liberman who hasn't been cited here recently enough for my liking, had this fairly scathing though refreshing comment on such investigations over at the Oxford University Press blog:

"Gallivanting. All conjectures about the origin of this word resolve themselves into uninspiring guesswork. The suggestion that gallivant is a blend of gallant and levant (“decamp, steal away, bolt”) is not supported by any evidence. The OED has no citations of gallivanting that antedate the early twenties of the 19th century. A humorous (slangy) blend coined so late would probably have been documented better in the popular press and the culture of the music hall. The alternate spellings were gallavant and galavant. The Century Dictionary points to the dialectal synonym galligant. The origin of gallivanting will more likely be discovered in regional English. At this stage it is totally obscure. -"

So there you go. We don't know. Fortunately, the Online Etymology Dictionary has, in a manner new to me, brought us a little poem to show the words first words in print. It's a bit misogynist--okay a lot--but it was published in 1809, so I guess we must take that into consideration:

Young Lobski said to his ugly wife,
"I'm off till to-morrow to fish, my life;"
Says Mrs. Lobski, "I'm sure you a'nt",
But you brute you are going to gallivant."

What Mrs. Lobski said was right,
Gay Mr. Lobski was out all night.
He ne'er went to fish, 'tis known very well
But where he went I shall not tell.

["Songs from the Exile," in "Literary Panorama," London, 1809]

Speaking of gallivanting, Anne Reid may want to keep a bit of an eye on Jacobi. Later the very same night of PBS programming, Jacobi is featured with Ian McKellan on the farcical sitcom Vicious. 

Think La Cage aux Folles. Sort of.

He ne'er went to fish, 'tis known very well
But where he went I shall not tell.