What’s one of the best things about the English Language? The fact that we often have no idea what we’re actually saying. We’re so dumb like that! See Part I
Chip on the Shoulder
Today’s Meaning: “To bear a grudge, or to perceive inferiority.”
Nope, nothing to do with sculptors sneezing and sending their chisel right through the marble of their statue’s shoulder, this old phrase is actually to do with woodchips and manly men, spoilin’ for a fight. In 18th century America, when two fellas were squaring up to do pugilism on eachother, it was a provocative statement for one of them to grab a woodchip, rest it on his shoulder and dare the other to knock it off. Think of it as yesteryear’s boofhead equivalent to the open-armed ‘come at me bro’ taunt of today – but using a prop from the garden. Strutting about with a chip literally on the shoulder was ye olde badasse’s way of letting everyone in town know he was one angry man and well-prepared to throw down.
Wait With Bated Breath
Today’s Meaning: “To feel anxious or excited while waiting for something.”
Often spelled incorrectly as ‘baited breath’, you’d be forgiven to believe this was something to do with old sailors lingering about the docks with breath smelling like pilchards. But it has nothing to do with halitosis at all, as the term is actually ‘bated’, shortened from ‘abated’ – meaning lessened or lowered. It originates from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when the beleaguered usurer Shylock denies Antonio a loan, telling him he won’t bow to him and speak in ‘bated breath’ (a soft tone) because of Antonio’s previous jerklike actions (ie. spitting on Shylock, kicking him and being a general bastard). How the idea of anticipation entered the phrase, though is anyone’s guess.
Today’s Meaning: “Empty, insincere or nonsensical langauge.”
It’s easy to sneer down at the great unwashed from the lofty balconies of so-called ‘high-brow’ entertainment, judging them for their reality TV and canned laughter. True enough, the likes of Please Marry My Son and The Kardashians destroy brain cells faster than huffing spraypaint and a career in boxing, but people in glass houses should not throw stones. We may well describe inane television as ‘claptrap’ but the origin of the term lies in the glory age of high-brow snootery. At some point in the mid-18th century, classical composers and playwrights began to purposefully insert dialogue or crescendos designed specifically to rouse reaction from the audience. The kow-towing to the crowd was to spark applause – a trap for claps. The practice influenced a new direction in theatre especially, from Shakespearean plays to bombastic Victorian farce and comedy operas. The claptrap even had competing producers hiring groups of ‘clappers’ to sit amongst audiences and applaud voraciously at certain points to lull the other onlookers into similar reactions. Or they’d even hire groups to heckle and boo their rival’s shows. Cluey enough observers criticised the shameless practice, but cueing a reaction continues today, and effectively. [APPLAUD].
Today’s meaning: ‘Someone or something that is failing to function with little hope of recovery.’
Every now and again a phrase comes along with just awfully morbid origins, especially when they are literal. And involve explosions. ‘Basket case’ originates from the depressing halls of United States military hospitals at the end of World War One. It was a colloquial term whispered across the wards that referred to those desperately unlucky soldiers who’d been shot, grenaded, landmined, bayoneted, artillery shelled and mustard gassed to the point that they were left so brutally incapacitated, usually limbless, that they would need to be transported around in a basket. A bit like ET, but way sadder. (Note: Never, ever look up the 1982 film Basketcase, or its sequels if you ever wish to sleep again. Oh god!)
Today’s Meaning “An insane, or mentally unstable person.”
For most of history (until relatively recently, in fact) when someone started to go a little cray-cray and lose the plot, the elders and wise men of the community agreed on the most logical conclusion for the behaviour: it’s the moon’s fault. Yes, the moon, the timeless symbol of mystique, was believed to directly influence certain people by imposing on them strange behaviours through its own cycles. Without any understanding of certain behavioural disorders, such as bipolar or cyclothymia, the peoples of yore simply assumed it was the moon pulling the strings, as it does the tides, and casting people into spells of madness. And so the Latin-derived luna, meaning moon, was used to describe those people who suffered intermittent insanity. The moon was also linked to the female menstrual cycle, but let’s not go there.
Didn’t Pan Out
Today’s Meaning: “Events or circumstances didn’t eventuate as you had hoped.”
When some lucky carpenter struck gold in California in 1848, every man and his greedy dog scrambled to the American east to begin digging up the terrain in search of the shiny stuff. The most common method for the goldseekers was to use a pan to sift through the rocks in riverbeds hoping to uncover small chunks of gold. The belief was that every cubic foot of gravel would ‘pan out’ to around 20 dollars in gold. But those predictions were a little optimistic and after months spent knee deep in muddy water shaking a pan full of pebbles, most eventually admitted defeat and gave up the gold search – lamenting later that their dreams of untold wealth ‘just didn’t pan out’.
Rack your Brain
Today’s Meaning: “To strain your brain to remember or understand something.”
Medieval life was not all plague this and peasantry that – there was lots of torture going on too. The medieval folk loved their torture, inventing hundreds of sick and twisted ways to cause immense pain and suffering to fellow human beings. One of the favourite devices of the times was the rack, a simple machine that used ropes and cranks to slowly, but agonisingly surely, tear the limbs right off a body. Nifty! Shakespeare, doing what he did best, verbed the word (see what I just did there?) and ‘rack’ became a synonym for ‘strain’. Over time its use as a verb settled solely on mental strain, and is still used often today.
Flash in the Pan
Today’s Meaning: “Something initially impressive and showy, but fails to deliver anything of substance or value.”
The mention of pan, like the above ‘pan out’, leads many to believe this idiom also has roots in the gold rush days. Prospectors were supposedly excited by seeing a ‘flash’ in their pans, only to disappointedly discover it wasn’t gold but merely a glint from the sun’s reflection, or something. That’s a myth, but the real origin is equally literal. Old flintlock muskets used in the Napoleonic era and American Civil war were designed with little pans that stored charges of gunpowder to fire the pellet down the barrel, out the muzzle and into the baddy’s chest. Sometimes (well, often) a soldier would pull the trigger and light up gunpowder charge in the pan, but the gun would malfunction and fail to shoot a bullet. When that happened it was known as a ‘flash in the pan’, and also: ‘oh shit, we’re all going to die now.’
Today’s Meaning: “To speak enthusiastically”
I personally reserve a special kind of hatred for this overused, annoying phrase. It’s not clever and it doesn’t make you an expert on the subject. Anyhow, it is interesting as it’s the only thing keeping the archaic term ‘wax’ from extinction. The word ‘wane’, as in ‘to decrease’ is still kicking about, but everyone seems to have forgotten its direct opposite number, ‘wax’ – meaning ‘to grow/increase’. Technically you can wax a lot of things. You can wax your credit card limit, or wax the television volume or even wax a quaint little herb garden. But for whatever reason, perhaps with a sniff of irony, this dying word survives only within a phrase about speaking with excitement and poeticism. It also just makes me think about eating a candle, which is just weird.
There is a brilliant line in the equally brilliant 2008 film, Gran Torino. A line custom-made for Clint Eastwood’s grizzly drawl: “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with?” says Clintwood’s Walt Kowalski to a street thug some 50 years his junior, “That’s me.” History is full of folks who should not have been messed with. Good or bad, righteous or evil – there have been some proper badass mofos, who unleashed seven and a half circles of Hell upon those foolish enough to cross them. Here are five of the best…
1. Julius Caesar
(Roman – 100-44BC)
World-conqueror, Egyptian hottie-puller and resident Senate pincushion.
Who else’s name in history is synonymous with unquestioned supreme rule AND an alternate birthing procedure? That’s some honour, but one worthy of Gaius Julius Caesar. The man was one of those very rare figures in history who simply excelled at everything (except maybe listening, but more on that later). He was as shrewd a politician as he was gifted a writer and brilliant a general. The fact that he not only brought the biggest civilisation in the world at the time under his reigns; won the hearts and minds of its populace and did the dirtius maximuswith Cleopatra – the sauciest minx in recorded history – testifies to the all-round awesomeness of this man.
Caesar’s formative years were not quite your average coming-of-age. As the nephew of General Marius, he was picked on by the dictator Sulla (an opponent of Marius), stripped of his inheritance and forced to leaveRomefor his own safety – returning only once Sulla was dead. With that chip on his shoulder, Caesar entered military life, politics and nobility – with prodigious success. He forged and outrageously successful reputation as a general after conquering the long-embedded thorn inRome’s backside – Gaul. He also entered into an unprecedented political alliance with contemporaries, Crassus and Pompey, now known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar used his allies for his own ends, Crassus for money and Pompey for influence over the Senate. But as Caesar amassed an ever-expanding and unbreakably loyal army and with it, power and wealth, the Senate grew worried that he’d set his sights onRomeitself. They were right. Julius, a big fan of Alexander the Great, wanted more than just a governor’s post – he wanted ultimate power.
So the Senate planted Pompey – a hugely successful general in his own right – in their corner and told Caesar that marching into Rome with his would lead to his decimation at the hands of their boy, Pomps. Caesar brushed the threat aside like crumbs on his sleeve (if he had sleeves) and crossed the Rubicon River (giving birth to the metaphor) intoRome. Once there, he proceeded to kick Pompey’s sorry arse all over Europe – fromItaly,Spain,Greeceand eventually to Egypt (where he stopped to pursue a fling with Cleopatra and settle some Egyptian political affairs – just ‘cos).
After dusting Pompey’s final legions, he returned to Romewhere his opponents in the Senate scarpered like frightened pigeons. He took supreme control of Rome, single-handedly ending its long history as a Republic and beginning its era as an Empire. He set up sweeping political reforms, not only to protect his grasp on power (from then on all future Emperors were given the title ‘Caesar’) but to protect Rome’s future itself. He was famously assassinated after four years as Rome’s leader, but the impact of his military successes, his political reforms and straight-up awesomeness ensured Rome would go on to become the greatest empire in all of time. Veni, vidi, vici – bitches.
Who messed with him: Cicilian Pirates
In 75BC aged just 25 and already a Senator (thanks to a Civic Crown earned in battle) Caesar was captured by Cicilian pirates en route to Rhodes. The pirates held Caesar to ransom for 20 talents of silver, to which Julius scoffed and told them to demand 50. During the 38 days he was captive, Caesar built a rapport with the pirates, who were somewhat taken by his charm. He joked with them and read them poems and speeches he wrote. He even laughed that he would have them all executed, which they all took as humorous banter. After the ransom was paid and he was released, Caesar immediately rounded some ships and sailed directly back to the pirates’ location, where he found and arrested them all, taking back his ransom and some. When the local governor took too long to decide the pirates’ fate, Caesar took his captors from prison and executed the lot, just as he had joked he would. So, basically, Caesar performed some sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome situation on vicious pirates that captured him, made them love him even though he told them he’d kill them and then he killed them. It must have been some toga he wore with balls like that.
Caesar eventually became the most powerful man in the Western world, but he was not immune to sneaky assassination plots and daggers. Many tales are told of the numerous sooth-sayer warnings about his impending doom on the Ides of March, but he chose not to heed these warnings and was stabbed by a cluster of pissed-off Senators led by Brutus and Cassius when he entered the Senate that fateful day.
2. Enrico Dandolo
(Venetian, 1107 – 1205)
Old, blind and bitter Venetian leader who gave the Byzantine the ol’ what for.
The proverb ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ suggests to those seeking vengeance to be patient, to bide time until the opportunity to smite your wrongdoer best presents itself. Though for Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge who waited 33 years to get his back, well, his revenge was not so much cold as incredibly stale and probably disgustingly mouldy – but in any case, utterly devastating.
Enrico Dandolo was part of a politically-influential family in the Venetian republic during the height of the watery city’s power. It was also the period when the Christian Church was struggling to balance itself between the Holy Roman Empire in the West and theByzantine Empirein the East. The Byzantine government had seized a whole lot of Venetian property for no other reason than being jerks, and so Dandolo was sent in 1171 as a Venetian ambassador toConstantinopleto try and sort out the mess.
Again, for no apparent reason other than previously mentioned jerkness, the Byzantines refused to listen to the Venetian’s demands and instead chased the gondola-paddlers back home, blinding Dandolo in the process. Although he knew corneas would never again be filled with the ornate magnificence that is St Marco’s Cathedral ever again, Dandolo buried his bitter hatred for the Byzantines and carried on with his diplomatic duties. Some 14 years after the incident, he helped forge a treaty betweenVeniceandConstantinople– a treaty that would be useful for Dandolo in years to come…
In 1202, it was that time again – another Crusade to theHoly Land. This was the fourth and the mission was (surprise) to wrest control ofJerusalemfrom the Muslims. But as the Knights gathered in theportofVenice, they realised they had no more money to fund a full-blown invasion. Just as they were about to pack their shields and head back to their castles, Enrico Dandolo, now well in his nineties and the doge (governor) of Venice, stepped in and announced he would not only bankroll the fourth crusade – but his blind, old arse would be riding up front and centre. And so the army set off toEgypt, from where they planned to launch their campaign againstJerusalem. Except, they didn’t head toEgypt. No, Dandolo diverted the invading forces toConstantinople– their Christian allies of the East. Dandolo, blinded by both rage and the horrible things the Byzantines did to his eyes many, many years ago, orchestrated a full-blown sneak attack against an allied city – and not just any city, Constantinople . Big, impenetrableConstantinople. The crusaders eventually broke in and sacked the place, and in the process knocked the Byzantine army a heavy blow and set the empire itself on its spiral into oblivion.
Who messed with him? The Byzantines
When Enrico Dandelo was born, the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches was already straining relationships between the Byzantines and the Western European powers. But it was all on a theological grounds – i.e. ‘we’re better mates with God than you’, ‘your prayers suck and ours are awesome’, etc. When the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos started pestering the Italians, tensions increased, but everything was handled politically… even Dandolo’s blinding was an incident that blew over – for everyone but Enrico of course. Fast forward three and a half decades and Enrico, now the most powerful man inVenice, sent a surprise assault onConstantinople and brought the entire empire to its knees.
One year afterConstantinople was sacked, Dandolo died of natural causes. It seems that his soul was not able to rest until he exacted his revenge, he was 90-odd years old anyhow – ancient by medieval standards.
3. Genghis Khan
Founder of the biggest, baddest empire ever, lover of beheadings.
More than a millennium after the great Julius Caesar propelledRometowards empirical greatness, over in the wild Central Asian steppes another man would rise to do the exact same thing – only bigger… and nastier. Temujin, later Genghis Khan, was born into the ruling family of the Khamag Mongol tribe – one of the many disparate, nomadic tribes wandering the vast expanses ofCentral Asia. Genghis’s childhood was pretty messed up. His dad was poisoned by a rival clan; he and his family were cast out into poverty; he was imprisoned for killing his half-brother during a dispute; and then he was enslaved. With a little help from his dad’s old allies, he was rescued and reunited with his mother, who taught him a thing or two about being a leader – and a straight-up badass.
Genghis eventually rose to leadership and successfully united the tribes and combined the warrior forces to conquer a number of hostile clans in the region. By 1206, he had established the Mongolian Empire and became the first ‘Khan’ (king). He had turned what was once a rabble of raggedy-arse tribal warriors into a disciplined, fierce and angry army. Like Caesar, he treated his army well. He divided spoils of war amongst his soldiers and rewarded loyalty with promotion and bonuses.
Genghis could have sat back after that, comfortable as the beloved leader of an empire, with a harem packed to its silken ceiling with comely concubines. But his fascination with the military and craving for expansion was insatiable. With several brilliant generals under him (including Subutai – one of the greatest generals in the history of the world) Khan set sights to conquer all horizons. The Mongols were unstoppable. Under Genghis and the ‘dogs of war’ (his crack generals), the Mongolian army burst out in all directions from its central Asian nucleus like an exploding star. They decimated everyone and everything it their path, leaving only severed heads and smouldering ruin behind. The Mongol’a success was down to its combination of revolutionary siege tactics and downright brutality. While Khan bestowed benevolent moral codes for his people (he banned theft, female slavery, fighting and even protected animals from unseasonal hunting), he showed his enemies no quarter. One of his favourite games was what he called ‘measuring against the linchpin’, whereby after capturing a settlement; he would force all civilian male captives to walk behind a wagon. Anyone who stood taller than the linchpin (a bolt on the back of the wagon) was instantly beheaded. It was to both prevent any counter-uprising by older males and to scare the bejesus out of future targets.
By his death, Genghis had conquered at least half of Asia, from theSea of Japanto the Caspian. Like Caesar, he established lineage rule, and his son, Ogedai picked up where his old man left off. The empire would eventually go on to become the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen – covering 24 million square kilometres, or 16 per cent of the world’s land area – and one quarter of the world’s population. They also were perhaps the most brutal – it’s estimated 40 million people fell to the sword of a Mongolian. Forty. Million. Even Caesar would take off his wreath to that.
Who crossed him: The Khwarezmian Dynasty
While it would make sense to list Jamukha – the childhood friend and blood brother of Genghis Khan who eventually became his jealous rival and fought Genghis for Mongolian leadership (only to lose and have his back broken like a piece of balsa wood) – there is another, more brazen example of foolishness in raising the ire of great Genghis. When the Mongolian army reached the middle east – Genghis Khan thought to establish a commercial relationship with the neighbouring Khwarezmians- instead of just conquering them, which was getting a little passé by now. He sent a trade caravan to the city of Otrar, but the local governor was mistrustful of the gesture. He took the goods and arrested the merchants – some 500 men. Genghis wasn’t exactly pleased, but sent a three-man diplomatic team to the Khwarezmian leader, Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad to ask for his men to be freed and for them to all forget this little misunderstanding over some strawberry yak milk. But the Shah responded by shaving the heads of two of the messengers and beheading the third – as well as ordering the execution of the imprisoned merchants. With that, Genghis took off his diplomacy pants, did a few power-squats and put on his genocide trousers. He stormed in Khwarezmia with 200,000 of his most grizzled veterans, led by his best generals, and annihilated it. He literally erased the empire from history. As for the govenor of Otrar, he (apparently) had molten silver poured into his eyes and mouth, while the Shah died of fright after escaping to a tiny island in the Caspian.
Debate rages over the true cause of Genghis Khan’s death, but all seem to agree it was around 1227, when he was 65 years old. Some say he was killed in battle, some say he fell of his horse and others suggest he died after being castrated (understandably so).
4. Edward Low
(English 1690 – 1794)
Posterboy for acts of piracy and cruel and unusual punishment.
When you think of a pirate, you either think of Blackbeard or Johnny Depp. Though, neither Blackbeard (surprisingly) nor Depp (unsurprisingly) embody the true brutality of a rogue pirate captain. That honour belongs to the scurviest of scurvy dogs, Edward ‘Ned’ Low. Lacking conscience and compassion, Low’s name is remembered for his sheer ruthlessness. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described him as a man of “amazing and grotesque brutality”. That about sums Neddy Boy up. On his first outing as a rookie pirate stealing logs in Honduras, Low took umbrage at the captain’s announcement that there was little food for rations. Young Ned grabbed a musket and fired a round at the captain, missing him and nailing a comrade in the neck. Low and 12 others were punished for mutinous behaviour by being cast off a dingy to die. But die he didn’t. Instead armed only with anger and a belly of rum, he and his rowboat posse attacked the next ship to pass by. Low disposed the ship’s captain and commandeered his first vessel, on which he boldly “declared war on all the world.”
The Captain Low vs the World theatre of war was mainly off the American East Coast, but in a few short years, he and his crew of miscreants had captured around 100 ships, mostly sloops and fishing vessels, with a few skirmishes with French and British Man-O-Wars for good measure. But Low’s name was not made for his pirate conquests, but rather the merciless treatment of those unfortunate enough to stand in his way. As he went about amassing ships and booty, Low also amassed a terrifying rap sheet filled with counts of torture and grievous bodily harm. Low’s cutlass would go on to slice off many a limb and facial feature. He took delight in personally hacking captured crews to diced pieces and burning ship cooks alive. Low’s infamy equalled his ruthlessness and it took him precious little time to become one of the most feared pirates in the Seven Seas, and the most wanted.
Eventually even his own crew became distrustful and anxious of his unpredictable violence. Low’s last instance of evil (shooting his first mate in his sleep) caused his crew to mutiny and toss him overboard, marooned in a leaky dingy – bringing his brief but legendary pirate career full circle.
Who messed with him: The Portuguese Captain of the Victoria
Possibly the most upsetting example of Low’s infamous cruelty was during the capture of a Portuguese ship in 1723. When the Portuguese captain denied Low a haul of gold to by dropping it into the sea, Ned reacted in a fit of fury by slashing off the captain’s lips with a cutlass, broiling them, and forcing the victim to eat them while still hot. He then slaughtered the crew and left the ship floating, deserted. Pretty haaarrggh-sh (sorry, had to get one in somewhere).
Low’s demise is disputed. The National Maritime Museum (maybe the most reputable source) says Low escaped into anonymity in Brazil, while other sources say he was picked up by a French ship, where he was recognized, chucked in the brig and hanged. In any case, he’s in pirate Hell now – no doubt loving it.
5. Simo Hayha
(Finnish 1905 – 2002)
Sniper extraordinaire, Call of Duty nerd hero.
Amidst the madness of World War Two, the Soviet Russian juggernaut reinvoked its century-long desire to take over neighbouringFinland. Just two months after the war began, Soviet troops kicked off the Winter War when they crossed the Russia-Finland border with three times the manpower, 30 times the aircraft and 100 times the tanks of the itty-bitty Finnish army. But, while the Red Army had the sheer numbers, the Finns had Simo Hayha – possibly the deadliest man to ever wield a sniper rifle.
The Soviet advance was slowed by masculinity-shrinking frosty weather, dense forestation and punishing terrain; just why they really persisted is a mystery considering the Russian’s backyard is twice the size ofEuropeitself – with all the forests and frozen wasteland you’d ever want. In any case, if the Soviets thought the weather was bad, they were rudely shocked once Simo Hayha locked and loaded to unleash enough damage to make John Rambo wee his khakis. A farmer-turned soldier, Hayha was an extraordinarily proficient sniper, boasting robotic accuracy and ninja-like stealth. He was a one-man army, clocking up an unbelievable total of 505 confirmed sniper kills, plus more than 200 kills with a sub-machine gun. That’s not human – that’s video game stuff. Whole battalions struggle to inflict that level of hurt.
Simo was a master of concealment. He wore an all-white camo suit, compacted snow around him (so it wouldn’t move when he fired) and kept snow in his mouth to suppress visible vapour from his breath. What makes his natural disaster of a body-count even more gobsmacking is the fact he used inferior old-school iron-sights because telescopic ones could give off a glint of sunlight glare, a lesson he learned after popping several Russian snipers for that very reason. Hayha was a fearsome spectre, nicknamed the ‘White Death’ amongst Red Army ranks. They tried to eliminate him with counter-snipers, whom were dispatched effortlessly by Hayha; and then even artillery strikes on suspected positions. But Simo was too cunning, the ultimate role-model for what Call of Duty players would call a ‘camper’, picking spot after spot to hide, kill and move on. Eventually, a lucky Soviet potshot struck the Finn in the head. It was an incendiary bullet that reportedly took half of his face with it. But it didn’t kill him. No-one that badass dies of something as wimpy as an explosive bullet to the face. Hayha regained consciousness a week later – the dayRussia threw its hands up and declared peace (March 13, 1940). Hayha’s chest was festooned with medals and fast-tracked up the army’s ranks. Seven-hundred plus kills in less than 100 days of service. A dutiful and unlikely hero to his country and a devastating silent menace to his enemies. Definitely no noob.
Who Messed with him: Soviet Russia
The Soviets were foolish to invadeFinland and they suffered an embarrassing loss. Hayha was the ultimate example of many brave Finns who obstinately refused to yield to the Russians. The moment communist boots trod on his native soil, Hayha was Mr Homeland Defence. Any Russian foolish enough to wander within 500 metres of Hayha’s muzzle was rewarded with a bullet between the eyeballs. The Finns had worked hard against both the Swedes and the Russians for their independence in the previous centuries and they weren’t about to give up their newfound sovereignty that easy.
He survived a shot to the head and even though it disfigured his face, he went on to live a long and happy life as a moose hunter and dog breeder. He lived to the ripe old age of 96.