Revisited Myth #120: Using X for “kiss” comes from illiterate people signing a document and kissing their signature.

May 22, 2017

The myth says that the use of using X to mean “kiss” began in the Middle Ages, when most people were unable to read or write. Documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Sounds like a myth, but it’s true. Using a cross as a signature has been common since the Middle Ages. The X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ and it was used as an abbreviation for that word–hence Xmas for Christmas. To kiss your mark indicated a sworn signature, like swearing an oath.

So why does O mean hugs? I couldn’t find a thing about that, but I believe O came much more recently as the logical accompaniment to X because of its association in “noughts and crosses” or Tic-tac-toe, the ancient game that uses Xs and Os.


Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.

May 13, 2017

Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth.

I want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, president of the Charleston Tour Association (a group representing over one hundred tour guides), and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian for the Charleston County Public Library system for their research on this subject. Everyone who looked into this topic found the legend highly improbable. According to Herchak: “This never made sense to me, given the great threat a burning structure poses to the rest of the city, and as you’re probably most likely aware, here in Charleston there were numerous disastrous fires (the Great Fire of 1740, as does all other Charleston fires, pales in comparison to the fire of 1861, but, nonetheless, it destroyed more than 300 buildings and bankrupted the first fire insurance company in America, established here more than a dozen years before the one organized by Franklin, who’s widely and erroneously given credit — there’s another myth buster topic for you — for organizing the first fire insurance company in America).” 

Dr. Nic Butler concurs.In my extensive research on a wide variety of topics in early Charleston history, examining primary source materials like old newspapers, colonial and post-colonial government records, and the like, I have not found any description or reference to the purpose of these plaques or marks or markers, whatever you call them. The idea that a fire-fighting company would NOT extinguish fires on buildings without markers simply defies logic. In a densely-built urban environment like Charleston or any other town, every fire, large or small, endangered the safety of the entire community. The notion of NOT fighting a blaze simply because the house was not insured is so utterly irresponsible that it could not have been tolerated.

“As early as 1785, the City of Charleston had a fire ordnance that levied a substantial fine on anyone who refused or neglected to assist in the fighting of any fire, or who impeded the fighting of a fire. The city’s fire ordinance was updated and revised over the years, but the mandate for citizens to assist in the fighting of all fires remained constant. A perusal of the fire reports in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston shows that fire companies and citizens in general responded consistently and promptly to battle any blaze, whether it was at the home of a rich family or of an enslaved family. Every fire endangered the lives and property of everyone.”

Fire mark, Smithsonian Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has fire marks in its collection, including the one pictured above, and museum literature says nothing about firefighters allowing unmarked buildings to burn down. “Beginning in the 1750s, some American insurance companies issued metal fire marks to policyholders to signify that their property was insured against fire damage. The fire marks bore the name and/or symbol of the insurer, and some included the customer’s policy number. The company or agent would then affix the mark to the policyholder’s home or business. For owners the mark served as proof of insurance and a deterrent against arson. For insurance companies the mark served as a form of advertising, and alerted volunteer firefighters that the property was insured. [my italics] The Charleston Fire Insurance Company of Charleston, South Carolina issued this fire mark in the early 19th century. The oval mark is made of iron, and consists of an inner image of intact buildings on the left, and buildings engulfed in flames on the right. A figure of Athena guards the intact buildings from the fire, and has a shield by her feet emblazoned with a Palmetto tree. There is a text above the intact building that reads, “RESTORED.” The outer rim bears the text “CHARLESTON FIRE INSURANCE COMPy.” The Charleston Fire Insurance Company operated from 1811 until 1896.”

Herchak also interviewed Henry Lowdnes, owner of C. T. Lowdnes Insurance agency and the fifth generation at an agency founded by his family in 1850, who agreed that “due to the huge threat posed by a spreading fire, it’s absolutely false that firefighters would have stood around and let a building in an urban setting burn because it didn’t bear an insurance marker.” Lowndes did provide some new information about rewards, however. “Rewards to fire fighting companies — volunteer or professionals of insurance companies — were common, both from city government for arriving first and from insurance companies for saving insured structures. In an urban setting where fires often are not limited to a single structure and entire streets or neighborhoods burned down, upon arriving at the scene of this type of blaze threatening multiple structures — which are firefighters going to first combat fire or protect — one that pays a reward or one that doesn’t? . . . But this is most likely never going to be backed by any sort of documentation other than the chance finding of a stray line in a newspaper of the time or the discovery of a personal letter mentioning and discoursing on it.”

So where does the myth originate? Could the existence of rewards in Charleston have led to the idea that firefighters might prefer an insured building over another, which could have led to the conclusion that they allowed uninsured buildings to burn? Perhaps. Or, as Dr. Butler points out, there was a practice in England which might have led to such a conclusion. In England, some fire insurance companies apparently did create their own fire-fighting units, and so fire insurance markers might have a special meaning to them. But the case is different here. The city of Charleston never had a fire-fighting company associated with any fire insurance company.” 

Dr. Butler continues, “In his book Charleston Is Burning: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (History Press, 2009), Daniel Crooks concludes that the fire insurance markers were merely a form of advertising. In the event of fire damage, an insurance marker on a house that was later rebuilt or restored was a visible sign that the insurance company had fulfilled its pledge to protect the owner’s investment. I had several conversations with Mr. Crooks (who has a small collection of historic fire insurance markers) about this topic while he was researching for his book, and I support his conclusion that the markers–at least in Charleston–were merely a form of advertising.” 


Victorian Tear-Catchers Myth

May 6, 2017

Thank you, Lisa Price, for bringing this to my attention. It’s certainly worth sharing.

 

I had not heard the myth of Victorian era tear-catchers (probably because there was no such thing), which says that grieving people captured their tears in decorative glass vials. These tiny, pretty vials were intended for perfume. Read more about this at Tear Catchers on Atlas Obscura, by Sonya Vatomsky.

 


Revisited Myth # 119: “Too many irons in the fire’ refers to ironing and laundry.

April 30, 2017
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Susan Armstrong wrote: I enjoy your blog very much. I recently saw a video of Civil War (re-enactor) laundress explaining her work. She made a statement about the term “too many irons in the fire” originated during the Civil War, when the laundress was ironing and had too many “irons” heating up by the fire.
I have NEVER heard this about laundry-ironing.

Neither have I, Susan. I believe the expression originated in the blacksmith trade. I checked with master blacksmith Ken Schwarz of Colonial Williamsburg who explained the smith’s point of view. “Iron can be overheated and ‘burned,’ damaged beyond use. If a smith tries to increase productivity, he may put more than one bar into the fire in order to minimize the time waiting for a bar to heat to a working temperature. If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss. Therefore, too many irons in the fire is counterproductive, causing the smith to work frantically to try to stay ahead of the process.”   

The laundry interpretation seems illogical to me. A laundress traditionally used two irons (although Mrs. Pott’s sadirons with detachable handle, below, were sold in sets of three)–one heating on the stove while she ironed with the other. Why have “too many”? You can only use one at a time.  For more about irons and ironing, see Myth # 95. 
  1. Previous Comments:
    Brian Leehan says:

    My particular historical interests are the Civil War era and the American West of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although a “city boy,” I always took an active interest in the history and life of the Cowboy. My understanding of the term “too many irons in the fire” has always been that it referred to the spring roundup and branding: a lot of cattle “outfits” would come together to separate-out the cattle that had been wintering on open range. Each outfit would brand their new calves, and there would be a lot of branding irons “in the fire.” I assume “too many irons in the fire” would refer to the chaos that could naturally occur with a lot of outfits trying to agree on who owned what, roping, holding and branding, etc.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of branding irons. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that the earliest known written use of the phrase dates to 1549 (in England): “Put no more so many yrons in the fyre at ones.” Another intriguing mention in the OED is the one from 1624 from America’s own John Smith: “They that have many Irons int he fire, some must burne.” And another from 1751, “I had now several important irons in the fire, and all to be struck whilst hot.” Medieval Europeans did brand cattle, so the phrase may refer to that practice, but the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  2. Susan Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the post. It is interesting how we use adages, attributing them to everyday / common activities. Researching a term can tell you where it “originated” or what it is “attributed to”.


Revisited Myth #118: Golf “caddies” were named by Mary Queen of Scots.

April 23, 2017

Some say that the term “caddie” was originally coined by Mary Queen of Scots in 1552. Here’s the story: She was the first female to play the game of golf. When she was living in France during her youth, it was traditional for French military cadets to carry the clubs of royalty. The cadets carrying golf clubs actually came to be called caddies due to the French language. The word cadet in French is pronounced “ca-dee,” thus the term. The word traveled to Scotland when Mary returned there in 1561.

The first problem with this is that the French word is NOT pronounced Cadee, but more like something between Caday and Cadeh. Another is the claim that she was the first woman to play golf. Possible but highly unlikely. 

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, caddy or caddie does come from the word “cadet,” from the French, meaning a younger son or younger brother, or the junior branch of the family. The first known written use was 1610, when it meant, “a gentleman who entered the army without a commission to learn the military profession and find a career for himself (as was regularly done by the younger sons of French nobility before the French Revolution).”

Caddie definition #1 from the Scots, 1730, “lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment as a messenger, odd-job man, etc.” 1817 “a caddy came with a large parcel to Mrs. Hogan’s house.”

Definition #2, 1634, from the Scots “a young gentleman latelie come from France, pransing . . . with his short skarlet cloake and his long caudie rapier.”  Or 1776 “with his sword by his side like a cadie.”

1908 #3 caddy: verb, to act as caddy for a golfer  

While we can’t know whether Mary Queen of Scots was really the first woman to play golf, the word origin part of the story seems largely true. 


Revisited Myth # 117: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was based on an actual wreck of a ship off Bermuda that was headed to Virginia.

April 15, 2017

Hogarth 1735: scene from The Tempest

Not a myth. This is true, or at least very likely. There is strong evidence that Shakespeare did use elements of the story of the wreck of the ship Sea Venture in his play, The Tempest. The ship was on its way to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 when a huge storm, probably a hurricane, blew it onto the uninhabited island of Bermuda. There the survivors salvaged everything they could from the ship and built a new one from the salvaged parts and the local cedar. Months later, they made it to Jamestown where their arrival saved the colony from abandonment. According to Colonial Williamsburg research files, “An account written by one of the voyage’s members, William Strachey, entitled “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight” (Gates was the future governor of the colony and a leader of the survivors) was sent to an anonymous noble lady at court. It was not officially published until 1625, after The Tempest was first performed, but many scholars agree that Shakespeare was at least familiar with the story and incorporated parts of it into his tale of a shipwreck on a mysterious island.” 

For more details, see Louis B. Wright’s A Voyage to Virginia in 1609 (1964) which republishes Strachey’s “”A True Reportory” and another primary account, Silvester Jourdain’s “Discovery of Bermuda.” Either or both of these could have been Shakespeare’s source. Or Hobson Woodward’s A Brave Vessel: the True Tale of the Castaways who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2009).


Hemingway Didn’t Say That

April 9, 2017

I thought you’d like this NPR piece I came across. It’s about a new book and false attributions–a form of history myth. You know, all those things that Yogi Berra supposedly said that he didn’t say. Garson O’Toole is the author. Check out his blog at www.quoteinvestigator.com.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee marked Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by sharing a charming, if banal, aphorism attributed to Lincoln: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

The problem is there’s no evidence Lincoln ever wrote or said it, which critics on Twitter were only too delighted to point out. The RNC took down the tweet, but all that trouble could have been avoided if they’d first checked in with Garson O’Toole. That’s the pen name of a man who has tracked down the true origins of hundreds of quotes on his website, Quote Investigator.

O’Toole has collected some of those investigations into a new book called Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. He says, “It’s a lot of fun to uncover these hidden histories, and I’m also very glad when I get to give credit to the person who actually said it.”


Interview Highlights

On why quotes often get wrongly attributed to Mark Twain

Mark Twain is known for having a fantastic sense of humor, and if you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it, to think that it’s wonderful. Many quotations, they’re anonymous or from lesser-known comedians reassigned to Twain. There might be a joke and somebody would say it’s Twain-like and then the next person will say, “No, actually, it’s from Twain.”

Hemingway Didn't Say That

On the origin of the quote “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt,” which has been wrongly attributed to both to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain:

The earliest evidence that I was able to find was a 1907 book by Maurice Switzer. And it seems to contain a lot of original material and it includes the statement “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” So it’s slightly different phrasing, but I believe that is what evolved to generate the modern common version.

On the quote by author Anne Rice that even she mistakenly attributed to Franz Kafka:

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.” … It was in an introduction to a collection of stories by Franz Kafka, and she was talking about how she’d been inspired by him. It was her perception of the way Kafka thought when he was writing his stories, but somebody reading that introduction thought that it must have been Kafka that said this instead of Anne Rice and so it started being distributed in that way.

I got an email from an individual who said that on Facebook Anne Rice had posted this quotation and she had attributed it to Kafka. And so that was enormously confusing to me because I thought that if anyone would be able to recognize that quotation, it would be the person who created it. So I sent a Facebook message to Anne Rice; she replied very quickly and said she would look into it to try to find out who actually created it. And then she came back with another reply saying that she’d discovered that in fact it was her words and that she had written it in this introduction, and as evidence of that she gave me a URL that pointed to my website. … And it’s understandable: She’s written a large number of words and she’d written this more than a decade in the past.

Author Garson O’Toole has a simple explanation for why quotes are often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain: “If you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it.”

Many of these quotations are cultural landmarks. They affect the way we think about, say, environmentalism. Let me find this quote: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” That’s been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson; it’s considered a Native American proverb; an Amish saying. But the earliest evidence I found: There’s an activist named Wendell Berry and he was discussing good stewardship of the environment … and I think he deserves credit for this kind of a cultural landmark.

Editor Melissa Gray and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.


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