Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Black umbrellas and red wine

Among the secondary pleasures to be found in reading a Charles Lenox mystery, authored by Charles Finch, is the somewhat obscure information that Finch tosses in as he tells his story. Most of this stuff, usually about the English language or about life in Victorian England, may be trivial, at least as far as the story is concerned, but it is interesting trivia. Here are a few examples from A Death in the Small Hours, the book I reviewed here on Monday.

John Wayne in London
Why are umbrellas black? Even today men carry mostly black umbrellas, although women's umbrellas have become more colorful. But how did black become the norm? Finch explains that it had to do with the coal smoke so common in London at one time. "Even every Englishman's favorite accessory, the tightly furled black umbrella, had become that color largely to guard against the discoloration of the polluted air that a white umbrella in London invariably suffered," Finch writes.

Why are some red wines called port? At one time, Finch explains at one point in the story, England made a trade agreement with Portugal stipulating that England buy only Portuguese wine if Portugal bought only English cloth. Portuguese wine, shortened to port, was for many years all that could be found in England. In the United States today, I learned elsewhere, all port wines do not necessarily come from Portugal.

What is corn? Finch writes, "The word corn, here in Somerset, referred to any kind of grain -- oats, barley, wheat." Corn, at least at one time, was the dominant crop in a particular region. If farmers, as around Somerset, grew oats, barley and wheat, then that was called corn. In the New World, maize proved to be the dominant crop, so American farmers called it corn. Today that's what most people think of when they hear the word. In Word Nerd by Barbara Ann Kipfer, we read that the word corn derives from a Latin word meaning "grain." "To American colonists," she writes, "corn meant any common grain."

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