Thursday 25 February 2010

Alpha, Treacle, Beta, Dogger, Snow – what do they mean to you?

Words, all of them, probably mean something completely different to all of us. English is one of the most descriptive languages with many meanings for the same or similar things, or something completely different.

If I said “treacle” to you – what would you think? A very dark, sweet, sticky substance. If I said “treacle mine” – and we have one locally here in East Sussex – what would your mind tell you? Codswallop? (Twentieth century slang for ‘Nonsense’: ‘Cod [You can’t cod me] You can’t take me in or deceive me .. oh no?!) ... but a mine full of treacle?

Alice in Wonderland – theatrical release poster (film 2010)

Actually when we were growing up, we always had golden syrup, never the very dark ‘black treacle’, as it was known, which I found bitter. The reason the word ‘treacle’ is syrupping its way round my blog .. is because the new film “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is opening tonight in London.

The “treacle well” that features in The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, held at Binsey, Oxfordshire, is referred to in an article I read .. and I suppose in my youth I imagined just that: a well able to pump up treacle to have with my scones and cream for tea: delicious and permanently on tap – what could be better for a small child?

Treacle wells are fairly well known in England – Henry VIII even took Catherine of Aragon to St Margaret’s Church in Binsey on pilgrimage in the hope that the waters would help her conceive a son, while four hundred years earlier the local priest, Nicholas Breakspear, went on to become Adrian IV, the only British Pope (1154 – 1159).

St Margaret's Well, Binsey, Oxfordshire

The ancient Greeks gave the name “treacle” to several sorts of antidotes (panaceas), but ultimately it was applied chiefly to Venice treacle (theriaca androchi), a compound of some 64 drugs in honey. Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535) speaks of “a most strong treacle against these venomous heresies”.

Theriac” was the medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the first century AD and became popular throughout the ancient world as far away as China and India via the Silk Route trading links. By the medieval age treacle meant a medicinal compound for healing. It is likely that ‘treacle wells’ came to mean springs with not too wholesome waters, those contaminated with mineralisation, for example of arsenic, iron or manganese.

I’m calling time on treacle, though I could go on! As we’re thinking about Alice and children perhaps Alpha and Beta should come next .....

“A" can be traced to a pictogram an ox head in Egyptian hieroglyph or the Proto-Semitic ox’s head, Phoenician Aleph, Greek alpha, Etruscan "A" to the Roman "A", so similar to our "A" today.


Proto-Semitic Ox's Head

Phoenician aleph

Greek Alpha

Etruscan "A"

Roman "A"

The letter “A” (Alpha) tells the story in summary as shown above in this depiction through the eras, and with the second letter of the Greek alphabet, “beta” makes up the word “Alphabet”. The alphabet we use today, the twenty six characters of the Roman alphabet can be used for almost every language in the world; whereas Chinese has 45,000+ symbols, with an educated Chinese person using about 1,600 of these, but the man-in-the-street only about 1,500.

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

I was going to write about the Dogger Bank – the underwater sand bank in the North Sea between England and Scandinavia, which at one time, as Doggerland, connected England with Europe and we could walk across. Then up pops the word ‘dogger’ meaning a Dutch boat, a sailing ketch developed in the 17th century, for the fishing vessels that plied the waters around the area we now know as the Dogger Bank marked in red.

I also got to thinking about that dreadful word “snow” that we all seem to have had enough of this year – in English we have one word “snow”, but I’m sure I remember in the Danish book by writer Peter Hoeg, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, he stated that there are 26 words in Danish for snow! So much for English being a very descriptive language as far as snow is concerned. Yes we have sleet ... but nothing to describe the different facets of snow – soft, light, damp, crystal etc etc .

Then of course I did not know that “snow” is another word for a Dutch boat! It’s a type of brig, often referred to as “snow-brigs” – perhaps the two famous brig names you may recognise are the Lawrence and Niagara, American warships of the Battle of Lake Erie (1813). However this picture by Charles Brooking painted in 1759 is magnificent, I think.

A naval snow, by Charles Brooking, 1759

As you can see our Alphabet developed and became mixed and more refined as the lexicographers worked their magic over time. The humans spread language, mixed roots and allowed through regional differences, their nomadic wanderings, their exploration to see ‘what lay over the ocean’, this magnificent legacy that we have today which is WORDS. A way to describe our life, remember past lives through writings and stories from millennia ago, and to converse, post and journal our way with words for our readers.

Dear Mr Postman – we have had our fair share of rain down here , but in Scotland they’ve had lots of snow .. and it is miserable for all concerned – let’s hope the lengthening days will bring the slightly warmer weather with some sun and dryness thrown in. My mother slept through all the damp – that was a wise thing to do .. and sometimes (quite often) I’d like to jump in beside her and have a good zizz – like the hibernating animals – though I’d be grateful to find my fridge still well stocked, when I awoke!!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Sara said...

Hilary -- This post was a cornucopia of fun information for me to learn. I loved learning about treacle wells, the evolution of the letter "A", and the many uses of the word "snow."

At first, I wondered about the variety of topics and where we going with them, but you stitched it all together perfectly at the end.

"...the magnificent legacy that we have today which is WORDS."

You made very good use of your words. Thank you:~)

Wilma Ham said...

Wow Hilary, that post was sure a meandering through all sorts of interesting things.
So the continent was once part of the UK :~().
And trust us Dutch to come in with our boats everywhere.
Wells sure speak to my imagination, they are scary and enticing at the same time for me.
Alic in Wonderland, when I am reading your posts I feel like Wilma in Wonderland.
Love to you both and yes I can imagine that sometimes being blissfully unaware of such weather sounds inviting. I do hope that you look after yourself as well.
xox and love Wilma

Terro said...

I had heard of a "snow" as a ship, mainly from reading the wonderful Jack Aubrey series by Patrick O'Brien. Here's how a snow is described in "A Sea of Words: A lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales":

"The largest type of two-masted sailing vessel of the era, the snow, primarily a merchant ship but also used at war, carried square sails on both masts, with a TRYSAIL on a jackmast known as a snowmast--which was a SPAR set on the deck about a foot behind the MAINMAST and attached at the top of the mainmast."

I'm glad you included a picture!

Davina said...

Hilary, your posts are always so informative. I'm planning on seeing the new Alice in Wonderland movie when it's released here in March. Can't wait!

The development of language fascinates me. You've reminded me of high school when I studied shorthand; working with the symbols was fun.

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

What wonderful things words are. They help us to keep track of things, to say things like: "I love you". What would we do without them. It would be a much different world. Thank you for the great post as always. Have a great day.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sara .. thank you! Yes it was a cornucopia .. as you say. It’s just when I start looking at things .. so much more information pops up –for example treacle wells .. who could resist?!

The evolution of characters enabling us to have ‘an easy’ evolution of language seemed to be told with the letter A .. while the words I thought about ... turned out to be so interesting – can’t help myself!

Words .. I’m surprised sometimes I stay on song with my posts – occasionally they completely change with the new words or meanings thereof .. I find! Thanks so much Sara – glad you enjoyed it .. eventually!!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. yes it was actually a ‘hard wander’! I kept finding new things. Yes – we were together once .. I could have walked across to see you – but not now – NZ is rather further away. Yes – you Dutch keep appearing in all things connected with history! You had good fleets of ships that explored the oceans and found wonderful lands and changed our lives over the centuries.

Thanks Wilma – that’s an honour .. Wilma in Wonderland .. me too!!!!

Thanks for your hugs and love – I do look after me .. as much as I can – thanks very much for the thoughts .. great seeing you here ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Terro ..I thought you might have heard of a “snow” .. and I love the title .. “A Sea of Words: ...”; thank you for the explanation of how a “snow” would look .. yes – the picture is so good .. I loved it ..

Thanks for visiting and being here – always appreciate your insights ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Davina .. me too – I’ve fixed to see it next week as it’s on at our local cinema. Looks fun and really interesting. I love the way so much in our lives has simply evolved its way through time, which includes language, all the local tongues – some absorbed, some lost, some words taken in .. yet we can chase the roots of these words back over the different cultures.

I did shorthand and quite enjoyed it .. but never kept it up – my scrawl now is just about as bad to decipher! Just glad you enjoyed the medley of information .. – good to see you

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. good to see you .. yes – words are wonderful and we can record and remember so much – learn so much through our experts who are unravelling the history of words.

Mark said...

I learn so much when I come here. I have never heard the word "Treacle" before and I lived in England for 3 years, ha. Thanks for all you give.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark .. always delighted to throw out some different aspects of life ..

Had you heard of Golden Syrup? - that's what we called treacle .. but obviously not quite true. You probably had it in gingerbread, treacle tart - now there's a good desert!

Thanks so much for your comment - just pleased to share ..

Patricia said...

Oh this is fun Hilary and I hope I can get to see Alice in Wonderland myself.
My father was all for Molasses and then in Eastern Canada the real Maple Syrup of his youth. My father in law was a bee keeper. We have lots of Black Strap Molasses cures and honey cares on our list.

We are having lots of warm rain here too. It is rather ruining the Spring blossoms and the Mason Bees are being defeated in trying to pollinate the fruit trees. El Nino! Now there is a term
My author friend Nancy Luenn says that the Inuit Tribes have hundreds of words for snow and ice!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia .. great that you're enjoying it .. I'm sure you'll get to see Alice - Disney seem determined to get it out in DVD .. personally I enjoy the cinema.

Oh interesting - your father enjoyed Molasses .. and of course Maple Syrup .. different completely to treacle and golden syrup.

Bees - seem to be really suffering at the moment and they are so intrinsic to human life - I hope they don't completely disappear .. and your honey cures I can believe .. my Ma keeps saying to me .. have I started taking my honey!!

Oddly enough I've just drafted up some notes on wind systems .. and obviously El Nino is one.

I'm sure the Inuit do .. these old races with their verbal communications and few written texts have wonderful descriptions .. so Danish to Iceland to Canada .. I'd believe - hence numerous wors for snow and ice = yes!

We've lapsed there .. despite being part of the mini ice ages years ago .. not before language was developed though ..

Interesting - thanks Patricia .. good to see you .. Hilary

Chase March said...

Hi Hilary,

The Inuit also have more words for snow that we do. It really doesn't make sense does it? I live in Canada and we get plenty of snow. We really only have two ways to describe it 'snow' and 'packing snow.' Packing snow is the snow that stick togethers so you make a snowman or fort. Snow that doesn't do that, we just call 'snow.'

Do you call it packing snow as well? I'm curious.

janice | Sharing the Journey said...

What a treasure trove and wonderful personal patchwork your site is! I love that I never know what to expect here, and that I always learn something interesting. 'Dogger' is a familiar word from my youth, from back when they used to do the full weather forecast. Thanks, by the way, for your good wishes for snowbound Scots. I know the situation's nothing compared to Haiti and Chile, and what's been happening on the continent, but it's still harrowing for the elderly and vulnerable.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chase .. I think read somewhere else the Inuit have plenty of words for snow- perhaps one of your posts?

We just have 'snow' .. until the railways stop, and the roads stop, and blizzards hit, and the buses stop - & England stops .. or Great Britain.. ??? stops ... then we have all manner of cold, freezing words - usually just the wrong sort of snow!!

So when we made an igloo in the 1963 Jan - March winter .. it was obviously your packing snow - because it sure lasted!! Til June!!

So we have snow, frozen snow, .. and more of the same - not much help actually!! But essentially no - we don't!

Hence were hosting the Summer Olympic Games and not the winter ones - couldn't describe the weather .. we can describe grass and greens!

Bye - enjoy the week - Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Janice .. as a good Scots lass - I'd have expected you (and me) to know Dogger .. it is entrenched isn't it? I hadn't realised though it's quite so far north ..

Lovely sunny day here today - but your weather has not been pleasant, as you say nothing compared to the earthquake, flood or drought regions of the world, or where there's repression .. we count ourselves blessed.

Just delighted you enjoy the cornucopia of info I feel like putting out .. it's a bit hit and miss .. but keeps me interested - and you too = good news.

Have a great week - less than 4 weeks til the daylight is longer than night - long days bliss .. look after yourself and the family .. Hilary

BK said...

Hi Hilary, thank you for stopping by my blog; it is great to hear from you again. Hope that the rain is not dampening your spirit. Have a great week.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi BK - pleasure .. I've been looking at the post for ages and had hope to see the film sooner than this - but I like to support the little local mid-town flick-house! It's coming before Disney release the DVD after that controversey ...

Yay - we have sun today ... bliss .. just need lots more of the yellow blob so far away, but a wonder to feel!!

Evita said...

Hi Hilary

As I grew and learned more about expression, I found the vocabulary and English language to become more and more limiting.

Apparently other cultures (past or present) have better expressive words for certain things. Your article definitely points at how just the alphabet has changed over time! Makes one think how much is always lost in translation.

Anyhow, on another note, I am so excited and looking forward to seeing Alice in Wonderland! I loved that story as a child and really look forward to this version, especially in 3-D :)

Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord said...

Hi, Hilary!

Had I been digging out of the Dutch version of snow this weekend, I wonder if my arms would be more or less tired than they are now?!!

You are just so smart... and these posts blow my mind with their intelligence, research, and supportive imagery.

Why do I have the feeling that you're wickedly good at board games & such? (smile)

Stay warm & dry,

Paul Maurice Martin said...

I guess "A" is for "Antlers..."

Do you have maple trees/maple syrup in England? It seems to be a northern New England thing in the states, and usually people either really like it or really hate it.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Evita .. good to see you – I’m surprised I’d always thought that the English language was very descriptive and full of alternatives, and ways of expressing things (except snow!) – perhaps I don’t know? The article in Wikipedia on the English language makes interesting scanning ..

Yes – translation even in English – the Chinese Whisper scenario .. can be very damaging, misinterpretation of presenter, or receiver .. you’re right .. and “Mindfulness” again taking in what others are actually saying, not what you think they’re saying. Gosh hope I didn’t make a faux pas here .. with your comment?!

Me too – Friday lunchtime I’m going to see Alice .. should be fun .. and I’ve got the book to read by my bed .. so better get to it .. – interestingly our very knowledgeable film critic, who selects our films for the film society and has been a film buff since a kid (I was told by someone who was at school with him) .. said he thought the 3D didn’t add to it. However Tim Burton the producer was enthusing about it – I won’t know as I’m seeing it in good old fashioned normal flick-house. It’ll be fun .. and that’s what counts ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Megan .. I have no idea .. the thought of it – makes me tired to think about it .. and I haven’t done any digging. It has been really horrendous for masses of people – well you’ve worked up and earned your supper!

Thank you is all I can say .. in my mind I cobble interesting ideas together .. cobble probably being the operative word ...

Yes – I do like sitting down and playing games .. but I suspect you’re wrong .. I’m not that good – enough for a bit of fun – but some of my friends completely floor me with their intelligentsia .. let alone the family! I pale into insignificance .. but if the blog puts me on another pedestal .. well I’ll take that laugh!!

Just spending the evening playing games – we did that as kids .. it was great – I expect my parents were shattered the next day – we just slept in – demanding to play tennis for hours and then play board games .. well I did!! ..

Lovely sunny day today .. but freezing still – the weather up north is still bad and I am lucky this is where we are .. you too – mind the melting snowmen in your neck of the woods .. and just hope spring arrives soon for all of us .. thanks for visiting .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paul .. A for Antlers .. did you get that from my recent "February the half-way month" post? Good picture there of a set of Antlers .. those deer were not doing well & we’ve another really bad cold and snowy snap for them, which hasn’t gone yet and nor will do for another week or so ..

We have maples here – as decorative trees (my post 23 Oct 2009) – for their colour in autumn – known as Acers. The sugar maple is native to the hardwood forests of NE North America ..

Now you’ve got me looking at the tree and varieties .. it would make an interesting post – so I might do that .. – so I don’t believe we do produce maple syrup here, but whether that is alternative crop for the British future with global warming I don’t know.

I know that up-market bistros, or American styled restaurants will serve waffles and maple syrup quite often here .. in fact it may be more common than that .. the McDonalds type chains .. but I hardly ever go to those sort of places, so I’m not sure.

What you eat – we follow and eat! I prefer golden syrup – different flavour.

Thanks for visiting – always good to see you .. Hilary

Liara Covert said...

The points you raise truly invite readers to stretch the mind, expand memory and awaken the soul to its own levels of remembering. Many people forget about Doggerland, for instance. You have an uncanny ways of raising points that stimulate the mind and trigger chuckles and "ah-ha" moments. Thansk for the nudge with a smile!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. just glad you like the mix and match .. they make me smile too .. and my mind is always stretched, and being stretched. We forget so much - or don't know that we know so much is probably a more positive way to look at it ..

Laughing even by myself here .. inspires me on - so if others laugh with me - that's great and we can chuckle together .. if I keep everyone happy and amused -I'll be happy!

Erin Slusher said...

Wonderful post. Lots of snow everywhere. I am ready for spring in Colorado as well. Love the picture of the Dutch Snow (ship).

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Erin .. thank you .. there certainly still seems to be lots of snow around .. it seems a little less here - but I'm sure it's lying up further north in England and Scotland. I think we've all had enough and are ready for Spring - it's good to see the bulbs appearing .. and those little buds of colour are springing forth too ..

Glad you like the picture of the Dutch Snow - I'm, inadvertently I have to say, finding wonderful pictures from years ago .. they are so good - and one can 'see' exactly as they would have done when they were painting them ..

Thanks for coming over .. Hilary