H is for Hooker and S is for Sideburn

Here are two men that I just recently learned about from Child 2:

On the left is Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was a Civil War officer with a bit of a checkered career: at one point being conspired against (according to Wikipedia anyway) by the man on the right, Joseph Hooker.

But that’s not what is of interest here, nor was it particularly fascinating to my current student of Civil War history, Child 2. No, what he wanted to share with me is that sideburns are known as sideburns because of Ambrose Burnside’s fancy whiskers, and that the word hooker, meaning a prostitute, came into the language because of Joseph Hooker’s fancy for the company of ladies of the night. Always good to talk about prostitution with your fourteen year-old son, no?

But beyond that, was he right?

Hmm. Well, in the case of Hooker, maybe not. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary cites ‘hooker’ as first making its appearance in 1845. Although Joseph Hooker was born in 1814, he wasn’t really famous until the Civil War started in 1861. But while I was looking this up I could not help but look over the vast number of words for a prostitute listed in the dictionary.


Here are a few side notes:

The first entries (not quite in this pic) are from Old English, confirming prostitution’s claim to be the oldest profession. Here are a couple to challenge pronunciation skills:




And here are a couple that stand out from the crowd:

Winchester goose (in use 1606-1778)

marmalade-madam (in use 1674-1717)

Twopenny upright (in use 1958-1978)

I could go on…

But instead, let’s switch to whiskers. Ambrose Burnside’s facial hair definitely brought the term side-burn into both American and English languages. My big fat dictionary has a section on ‘sidewings’ which it says was first used in 1811:


Side-burns, we see, crops up in the language 1887, amidst a clear up-tick in the need for words to describe men’s facial hair. Obviously I had to google Dundreary whiskers and Piccadilly weepers and am so very happy to be able to add a couple of photographs here of Edward Askew Sothern:

Sothern, an English actor, played Lord Dundreary in a play, The American Cousin. I can’t imagine a better example of an English eccentric and it seems both terms come back to this very fetching looking gent.

As a further interesting bit of trivia, The American Cousin was the play that Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in 1865. Although not with Sothern in the Lord Dundreary role.


A is for Aluminum

On Tuesday Child 2 found something I said so amusing that he had to get his phone out and record me. Seriously, that’s just wrong. Isn’t it??

Anyway the word in question, as you may have guessed, was Aluminum, because in Britain its not Aluminum, its Aluminium.

To be clear:

US English – Aluminum – pronounced Aloominum

UK English – Aluminium – pronounced Al-you-min-eum

For the record I can tell you that after you’ve repeated it 20 times for the entertainment of your 13 year old, you can no longer pronounce either right and may well wish you’d wish you had not been born.

So why this difference in spelling and pronunciation for the 13th Element of the periodic table? Well I did a little research and for a while I thought that the element was first identified at the beginning of nineteenth century by this man, Humphry Davy:


So I read a bit more about Humphry Davy and found out he (maybe) invented the Davy Lamp (which I remember learning about at school) and also that he was addicted to laughing gas (which wasn’t on the curriculum, sadly). Also sadly though, it turned out he didn’t discover aluminium/aluminum and the website I read that on was wrong. That’s because this man, Hans Christian Orsted, discovered it instead:


You can just tell by looking at him that he wasn’t addicted to anything, can’t you? Although he did write poetry, so perhaps I’m wrong.

After all that, I have failed thus far to shed any real light on the aluminum/aluminium difference, beyond the common, post-Independence divergence of the language. But I did get a giggle in a thread of comments I read on the About.com chemistry page on Aluminum which I have a snapshot of here, just to show that squabbles over US/UK language differences are alive and well on the good-old internet:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 1.30.58 PM

H is for Homecoming

This weekend Mr T and I had plans to go to a local brew fest with some chums. Tickets bought. Date marked on calendar. Weather forecast – bearable. But it has all gone wrong. We have been derailed by this American thing called Homecoming.

Homecoming is an event that takes place across the country in colleges and universities every Autumn. It’s billed as a chance for institutions to celebrate their ‘spirit’ by welcoming home alumni. The central activities are a football game (in our case that’s on Friday night) against big rivals and then a dance on the Saturday night. I have looked it up and it seems to be a pretty entrenched tradition, having started ‘way back when’ with the annual grudge meeting of the Yale and Harvard football teams.

harvard-yale-1903Well what is the problem, I hear you ask? Why would a football game and a school dance get in the way of an afternoon of merry brew-festing? The answer is Child 1.

Not only must Child 1 attend the football game on Friday night, where his girlfriend is a cheerleader (hear me groan!), he is also going to his first Homecoming dance with said girl and a bunch of other highly social 14/15 year olds. Which means we are driving. Living abroad teaches us that there are lots of differences between the States and the UK, but there are also things that don’t change wherever you roam. The joys of parenting teens is one of these things.

And while I am on about Child 1 – and since there is no chance of him reading this – here’s a bit more about him and Homecoming. As part of the ‘spirit’ we are enjoying because it’s Homecoming, the school has encouraged the wearing of different themed clothing each day this week. Monday was… (in fact I’ve forgotten Monday already!), Tuesday was Hawaiian day, Wednesday was ‘way back when’ day (that had to be explained to me) and today is purple and gold day (school colours). Kevin the teenager surprised me by being prepared to engage with this jollity but here he is maintaining his teenage aversion to having his photo taken in his ’70’s shirt for ‘way back when’ day.

IMG_5222See how he has spotted me taking his picture and is giving me the v-sign? Cheeky boy. And definitely still that wee bit British 😉