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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
        Wednesday, May 5 2004

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

True stories

A member of our email list sent out a "fun read" on Tuesday that consisted of nine one-paragraph "explanations" of what things really mean, or at least what they meant when the phrases were originally used. This collection was mostly from the American Revolutionary War period, but I've seen a collection of similar explanations of common expressions for which roots are claimed to the middle ages. The most memorable from that collection, and perhaps the one closest to true, is a story about how "ring around the rosy" originally referred to a symptom of the plague—the "black death"—and how the children's rhyme ending in "ashes, ashes, all fall down," referred to the plague's frequent outcome of wiping out the whole populations of towns and cities and the incineration of most of the dead because there were too few able-bodied living left to dispose of them by any other way. (Click here for an argument that this black-plague "origin" of the nursery rhyme is just another urban legend.)

Yesterday's post seemed transparently more of a hoax than the "middle ages" collection, though it too may be just as fictitious. The one that got me most suspicious was the alleged origin of "gossip." According to the post:

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars who were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's&! nbsp;conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispat ched at different times."You go sip here" and "You go sip there." The two words "go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the term "gossip."

As I related in an answer post to the list, I have been reading a book of Irish folk tales, fairy stories, and other legends in which the word "gossip" appears repeatedly in a context I'd never seen for it before. In each time, a matronly woman was described as going somewhere with a fellow gossip, or several gossips, but there's no hint that the women were engaged in exchanging damaging reports about their neighbors. For this reason I'd been meaning to look up the word "gossip," and the suspicious post finally moved me to do so. Merriam Webster's online dictionary has as its 1b definition, "companion, crony." This especially fits the Irish folklore book, because "crone" is also repeatedly used. I had a strong sense of that word as meaning an old, or old-acting, woman, and the dictionary reinforces that hunch: "a withered old woman." But we know crones, also, as a species of bird, but I wasn't sure until checking MW that the species of bird is a vulture, which is probably where the comparison to the withered old woman comes from. And the real origin of "gossip" has nothing to do with sipping ale or anything else.

I was even more dubious about the post's explanation of the origin of "playing with [less than] a full deck." This I felt sure was a recent invention, in the company of "someone whose elevator doesn't stop at all floors," "lost some of his marbles," "two bricks short of a load," and more than I can look up on Google. How does anyone come up with such ridiculous concoctions, I wondered.

Suddenly I knew. When my sons were boys and the three of us made trips across the continent every other year or so, one of our favorite passtimes was playing "true story." I think Mike had gotten the idea from one of his middle school teachers. Far from being "true," the "true stories" were tall tales reminiscent of the tales of Paul Bunyan. I would say, for example, as we wended our way down east on the Sierra Nevada, "I wonder where the name for Reno ever came from?" and Mike would spin a yarn that would climax with something like "What shall we ever call our town?" to which all the people cried in unison, "We know!" which ever since has been rendered "Reno."

Somehow I find that more plausible than people playing with 51-card decks because there was a tax on aces and the players were forced to play with less-than-full decks.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy 

Unclear on the concept

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5 and Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.'" Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus!"

— Sent by Mary Ann Losiewicz 

Thought for today

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."

Ben Franklin
Sent by Trudy Myers 

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