Surprising answers to perplexing questions | Sunday Observer

Surprising answers to perplexing questions

The English language is full of perplexing questions and the answers are quite surprising. Very often we hear that certain government institutions and projects are white elephants. For instance, SriLankan Air and Mihin Air were supposed to be white elephants because they were expensive projects which turned out to be nonproductive. However, we have not seen white elephants anywhere in the island.

A former king of Siam comes to our rescue. He is supposed to have given white elephants to members of his court who he wished to ruin. The four-legged, bulky creatures were supposed to be sacred and they were not allowed to work or parade in processions. But the owners of such animals had to feed and care for them at an enormous cost. No wonder, such people ruined themselves by maintaining white elephants.

Have you ever wondered why men’s shirts have buttons on the right while women’s clothes had them on the left? Most people being right-handed find it easy to push buttons on the right through holes on the left. We do this quite unknowingly. A long time ago, buttons were expensive items and they were worn only by rich people. On the other hand, wealthy women were dressed by maids. Dressmakers who knew this little secret put the buttons on the maid’s right and the wearer found them on their left. Even today, you find the buttons on the left of women’s clothes.

Some employees in the state and private sectors get the sack if they commit any serious offence such as accepting bribes. A long time ago, mechanics and other workmen used to bring their own tools to the workplace. When the employer is not satisfied with the performance of any workman, he will be given his wages and a sack to take away his tools. Although we do not carry sacks to the workplace, some of us get the sack!

Zero score

Tennis players are familiar with the expression ‘zero score’ which is usually called ‘love.’ Zero means no quantity or number. The word is recorded in the early 7th century, and comes via French or Italian, from old Spanish and ultimately from Arabic ‘sifr’ meaning ‘cypher’. In France, where tennis first became popular, some people thought a big zero on the scoreboard looked like an egg – and therefore called it the egg, which is ‘l’oeuf’ in French. When tennis became popular in England, the British borrowed the French expression ‘l’oeuf’, but pronounced it ‘love’. Apart from that there is no romance in the word ‘love’.

Some people cross their fingers as a sign of hoping for good luck. The practice seems to be coming from early Christians who secretly made the sign of the cross in this way to ask for divine assistance, without attracting the attention of pagans. Even today some Christians continue to cross their fingers even when pagans are not to be seen around.

At parties where people imbibe alcoholic drinks they usually clink their glasses before a toast. The practice is as old as the hills. In the distant past, people thought that the devil was omnipresent at festive occasions. To keep the devil away they sounded bells. Even today, revellers clink their glasses producing bell-like noises to scare the devil away.

Bride on the left

After getting married nearly six decades ago, we went to a studio to pose for a wedding photograph. The old photographer who used to cover himself and the big camera with a black cloth asked the bride to stand on my left. At that time we did not know why he made such a request. Later I found that in the past when men captured their brides from neighbouring villages, the groom had to keep his sword-hand – the right one – free during the ceremony to fend off a possible attack by the bride’s relations or any other jealous suitors. Although a groom does not carry a sword today, he still keeps his right hand free by asking the bride to stand on his left.

We give the cold shoulder to someone to show our intentional unfriendliness. We often do this at social gatherings. Similarly, when a woman spurns a man, she is said to be giving him the cold shoulder. Its origin can be traced to the early 19th century when Sir Walter Scott used it in his writings. A long time ago, it was customary for a hostess to serve hot meat to guests she liked and cold meat to those she detested. The cold meat given to an unwelcome guest was usually a shoulder of mutton. Today we give the cold shoulder to people we not like.

Referring to a major crime, newspapers reported that the police investigated many clues, but they were all red herrings. A red herring is a fact, idea, or subject that takes people’s attention away from the central point being considered. It is so named from the practice of using the scent of a dried smoked herring in training hounds. According to another source, the term stems from fox hunting. Red herrings were used to train dogs to follow a fox’s scent and not be diverted to a false scent.

Walking under a ladder

While explaining a grammar point in the first conditional, a teacher gave an example: “If you walk under a ladder, you will come to grief.” Is it really bad to walk under a ladder? The belief is based on the theory that to walk through a triangle would be to defy the Trinity and risk divine wrath. How does a simple ladder form a triangle? A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, which is the symbol of the Trinity in Christian theology and the mystic number three. No wonder, some people are still scared to walk under a ladder!

Why do people consider April 1 as April Fool’s Day? In many Western countries April Fool’s Day is traditionally an occasion for playing tricks. This custom has been observed for hundreds of years, but its origin is shrouded in mystery. Until the latter part of the 16th century, the European New Year began in late March and marked the beginning of spring. To celebrate the New Year, festivities involving much gift-giving and party-going were held for several days culminating on April 1. Subsequently, the then king of France authorized a change in the calendar, moving the beginning of the New Year to January 1. Some people did not like the change and continued to exchange gifts on April 1 as usual. Because of this practice, they were called ‘April Fools’ and were mocked at by others. They started sending frivolous presents and playing pranks on them. Even a child would know the meaning of the word ‘sky’ which is above the earth, where clouds and the sun can be seen. However, a child would wonder why the sky is blue on a cloudless day. Scientists explain that when sunlight – which is a mixture of all the colours of the rainbow – passes through the earth’s atmosphere, gas molecules and dust particles scatter their colours. Those colours with the shortest wavelengths are the most easily scattered. Since the shortest light waves appear blue, it is blue we see when we look at the sky.

“If the sky falls we shall catch larks.” This is popular proverb used dismissively to indicate that something will be attainable only in the most unlikely circumstances. Sometimes, certain things happen quite unexpectedly, out of a clear blue sky.

“The sky is falling” is a warning of imminent disaster, especially, one which is regarded as unduly alarmist. The expression comes from the nursery story in which the animals repeatedly warned the king that the sky is falling down. For an enterprising person we say, “Sky is the limit”. That means there is practically no limit to opportunities afforded to him.

[email protected]