The Sack of Champagne

It is a cliché that Shakespeare ranks among the great inventors of the English language, a commonly-believed fallacy that his vocabulary was larger than that of any other writer, and a simple fact that he is likely the single most-cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary. What is less known is his contribution to the language of German drinking.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters is the great rogue Falstaff, an incorrigible rascal whose taste for drink is matched only by his obesity. In early 19th century Germany, no actor was better known in the part than Ludwig Devrient, whose later life shows what might be called either a strong sympathy for his character’s style—or an early example of tenacious method acting. It was Devrient’s habit, on leaving the stage after playing Falstaff and, as actors tend to do, joining the others at the pub, to enter and bellow one of his character’s defining lines—namely, “Bring me a cup of sack!”

Sack was a very popular type of sherry in Shakespeare’s day, and his drunkards’ drink of choice. But it was not a common drink in the type of taverns that actors could patronise in Germany at the time, and what Devrient was actually calling for was the Bohemian drink of choice of the day—sparkling wine, most likely Champagne.

Champagne is now thought of as a high-class drink, but in the Romantic era it was quaffed in great quantities among artists, whose budget kept them from truly decent drinks. Devrient, touring throughout Germany, repeated his entrance in pub after pub—and as a result, cheap, barely-drinkable sparkling wine is still known in German today as ‘sekt’.

[Ed Note: In a historical parallel, in America’s early colonial days, lobsters were extremely abundant on the east coast, so much so that wealthy residents had no interest in eating the stuff. Lobster tails were served primarily to prisoners and servants, often despite protest. It wasn’t until railways began to serve this cheap foodstuff to inland passengers—passing it off as an exotic east coast delicacy—that it began its rise to the fine dining scene. Ultimately, America accepted the inevitable deliciousness of lobster during World War 2, when lobster was not rationed like other meats. -AB]

Going Under

LBJ driving his Amphicar
LBJ driving his Amphicar

Among other things, former president Lyndon Baines Johnson was known for his collection of unique automobiles, which he referred to as his “presidential toys.” He kept many of these at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, and among them was a rare Amphicar. As the name implies, the Amphicar is was an amphibious passenger vehicle, the only one mass-produced for civilians. About 3,900 of these vehicles were produced between 1961 and 1968.

While vacationing at his ranch, Johnson delighted in taking guests for rides in this car, without informing them of its unique talent. As a practical joke, he would often speed down a hill, exclaiming “The brakes don’t work!” or “We’re going under!” as he drove the amphibious car into a lake, typically terrifying his passengers in the process.

Internationally Adored

Merriam-Webster may be one of the most respected names in the dictionary business, but the giant isn’t always perfect. In 1934, the company released an edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary including the word “dord,” which was defined as a synonym for “density.” But no such term actually existed within the physics and chemistry lexicon.

This “ghost word” came about after someone at Webster misinterpreted a piece of paper sent in by the company’s chemistry editor. It read, “D or d, cont./density.” What the editor meant to convey is that “density” should be added to the list of words that can be abbreviated with “D.” Dord was somehow assigned a pronunciation guide (dôrd), it slipped past the proofreaders, and it ended up on page 771 of the esteemed catalog of English vocabulary.

Inevitable future line of IKEA wastepaper baskets notwithstanding, “dord” is no longer masquerading as a real word. An editor identified the impostor in 1939, but it wasn’t fully banished from all G & C Merriam Company dictionaries until 1947.

Victory in Death

Frank Hayes must have been excited as he climbed into the saddle on 04 June 1923. While the 35-year-old horse trainer and stableman had plenty of experience riding horses, this was only Frank’s second race as a jockey. He had worked hard to drop 12 pounds in just a few days to race Sweet Kiss, a bay mare owned by Miss A. M. Frayling, in a steeplechase at Belmont Park. The two-mile race was a nail-biter. Sweet Kiss and the odds-on favorite, Gimme, stayed within two horse lengths of each other for the entire course. At one point, Sweet Kiss swerved and nearly collided with Gimme, but she quickly recovered and crossed the finish line a length and a half ahead, Frank leaning closely over her neck.

Frank had won his very first race, and Miss Frayling rushed from the stands to congratulate him. But as she approached, Frank, who at first seemed to be reaching down to adjust his stirrup, toppled off the back of the horse and landed in a crumpled heap. The track’s official physician, Dr. Vorhees, quickly examined the man and pronounced him dead. It was later determined that Frank had probably died during the race, of a massive heart attack. His body had slumped over her neck and somehow stayed in the saddle. Sweet Kiss never raced again, but the Jockey Club decided that since Frank had finished the race on her back, he was the official winner of the steeplechase, making him the only jockey to ever win a race after death.

Mind-warping Knowledge

Before London taxi drivers are allowed to convey paying customers in their renowned black cabs, they must be ‘of good character’, in a reasonable state of physical health, and have spent, on average, about three years studying for a gruelling examination that tests their spatial awareness of all the city’s streets, shortcuts, and famous and not-so-famous landmarks and locations. This process extends well beyond remembering the basic street layout; candidates must be able to determine the shortest route between any two locations in the city, and may be asked to pinpoint one of around 25,000 different points of interest, or ‘points’, pieced together in a jigsaw-like series of 320 set routes, or ‘runs’, that crisscross the ancient capital. This body of learning is known as “The Knowledge of London”, or simply “The Knowledge”. Of those starting to learn the Knowledge, only 30% will eventually succeed in gaining It and passing the examination to become bona fide London cabbies.

Inevitably, the existence of over 20,000 heads so thoroughly stuffed with such a distinct pattern of learning proved irresistible to neuroscientists. In 2011, they used MRI imaging to inspect the brains of trainee London taxi drivers before and after Knowledge acquisition. They showed that one particular structure, the hippocampus— which is concerned with spatial memory and navigational ability— became measurably larger in individuals who had successfully attained the Knowledge and gained cabbie status. For many years, scientists believed such changes were impossible in adults, and that only foetuses and children could manage such brain-changing feats.

The Cantaloupe Peril

Serving your melon with a layer of prosciutto around it may simply seem like one of the many lovely contributions of Italian cuisine to the summer menu, but doing so is in fact a way of proclaiming one’s allegiance to Galen’s medical theories. Back in the Middle Ages, when Galen’s theory of the four bodily humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) was not the latest thing but the oldest thing, and therefore the done thing, fresh fruit was considered a dangerous proposition at the dinner table. Cold and moist, fruit risked lowering your inner temperature, knocking your humours off-balance and doing terrible things to your digestion. It was thought that wellness and survival required the appropriate amount dryness and heat—and the eating of cool and juicy melon was akin to throwing a wet piece of wood on a fire. In fact, when Pope Paul II died in July 1471, his death was blamed on excessive organ chilling due to a meal of melons.

For some reason, however, people still had the urge to eat fruit in spite of their doctors’ best efforts, and so various methods of offsetting the perils of fructivorous gourmandising were developed, some of which remain with us thanks to their deliciousness: having pears with a glass or port or cooked in wine, and, in this case, wrapping your dark, cold, and phlegmatic melon in some dry, salted, sanguine meat.

Unpresidented Situation

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington

The framers of the United States Constitution explicitly forbade the United States from granting titles of nobility in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, also known as the Title of Nobility Clause. Hence, shortly after winning independence, when it came time to decide how to refer to their leader George Washington, there was considerable controversy.

Senators desired a title that would endow George Washington with prestige when signing treaties and meeting foreign dignitaries. The Senate contemplated such options as “King Washington”, “His Elective Majesty Washington”, “Chief Magistrate Washington”, and “His Highness Washington.” The House of Representatives, on the other hand, rejected such pretentious titles as ill-suited for the “the nature of our Government.” They desired a simple title to curtail the ego of the republic’s leader.

Following weeks of argument, the Senate finally accepted the House’s tentative suggestion of “President,” a decidedly undistinguished term which theretofore referred to someone who presided over meetings like the foreman in a jury or a moderator in a debate. The Senate made it clear that they objected to the title and agreed only as a temporary measure. They intended to re-open the discussion when time permitted.

Today over 140 countries refer to their chief executive as “President.” As of 2016, 226 years after the debate, the US Senate has still not formally endorsed the title.

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