Monday, 22 February 2021

M stands for Missouri

My name became official this week – I am now legally called the Rev’d Selina Missouri McMahon. Some inquisitive souls have asked how I chose that name. Let me give you some answers.

My surname, McMahon, comes from the Gaelic Mac Mathghamhna and literally means "Son of the Bear". This is why I often use Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) as a pseudonym. But I digress...

Now, as most of you know, Selina (which is actually derived from the French word meaning “heavenly” – it’s got nothing to do with the moon which is more properly known as Selene: a VERY different name altogether) was chosen because I wanted to keep my initials and signature the same, and was selected from a book of names (I literally just looked through the 'S' names until I found one I liked).

At first, I wasn't going to bother with a middle name - after all, I've managed quite well without one so far (my dad couldn't afford to buy enough ink to give me a middle name originally). But this time round, I had the option to take one. I considered various names including ones from my own family. And then I remembered Missouri…

Let me explain... 

About fifteen or so years ago I began work on my family tree. It was when I examined the 1901 UK census that I found something odd. Listed as an elder sister of my grandfather was a girl named Missouri, who had been born in 1896. This struck me as odd because 

a) The girls in my family have “normal” names such as Ada, Agnes, Anne etc. 

b) I’d never ever heard of her being mentioned by anyone. Ever. 

Sadly, my grandfather had died when I was about 9 years old so I couldn’t ask him, but none of my relatives from that side of he family had heard of her either. Some doubted whether I had read the census correctly so I obtained a copy of her birth certificate as proof she had existed. And then I found her death certificate also – she had died in 1914 of tuberculosis whilst an inmate in the local sanatorium which specialized in treating mentally ill patients. 

Why was she there? It took another 15 years to find out. 

I managed to obtain her school records which showed that she’d attended one of the local schools but was withdrawn when she was only thirteen. No reason was given. So I contacted the archives in England who gave me copies of the admissions papers for her time in hospital. She was admitted in 1909 because she was “an imbecile from birth” and had “tried to drop the baby [my grandfather] out of the bedroom window”. 

It seemed clear to me that she was actually mentally disabled, but mental health practice wasn’t as good then as it is today, as a result of which she had spent her last five years alone in the hospital before dying of a different disease to the one she was being treated for. She'd been buried and then was never mentioned again - it was as if she had never existed.

Since I was the one who found her (no-one would have known about her if I hadn’t “done some digging”) and since she would doubtless have suffered a far nicer fate today with our appreciation of mental health than was present back in the early twentieth century, I decided to adopt her name legally, in order to remember her even though the family had tried hard to forget her.

I never did find out why she was given such an unusual name. My great grandfather was a shipyard labourer and never travelled abroad, so didn't know the state or river that bears her name.

How quickly do we make value judgements of other people? How often do we ask how God judges them? Are our judgements really just, or are we simply paying attention to our own prejudices? Do we truly try to understand those with mental health issues?

Saturday, 30 January 2021

As Scottish as the Empire State Building

Every year, on 25th January Scots gather together to celebrate the writings of Robbie Burns. Poems are recited. Haggis, tatties and neeps (Tr. sheep's stomach stuffed with mince, boiled potatoes and turnips) are  served and washed down with liberal quantities of scotch whisky. Whether in their native Scotland, or spread more widely abroad this, probably more than any other, is Scotland's day.

"Scotch" is used to describe many things that originate in Scotland. Thus we have, for example, Scotch Whisky, made in one of the 130 distilleries on Scotland. Scotch Broth is a hearty thick soup that originated in Scotland and was normally made from mutton and barley (though other meats are frequently used nowadays). Scotch Ale is a dark, malty ale that originated in Edinburgh, and Scotch egg is an egg with sausage around it (but no-one knows why it is called "Scotch" - sometimes history is a mystery).

Occasionally people from Scotland are also described as "Scotch", e.g. "I met a Scotch man from Glasgow". 

This is very, very wrong. 

People hailing from Scotland are Scots - never Scotch. Sometimes this mistake has long-lasting implications as we will see.

On her rambles through time and space, Bailiwick noticed that, on 31st January 1928, Scotch Tape was marketed by the American company, 3M. Why, wondered Bailiwick, should this product share a name with products originating from Scotland, particularly since it's inventor was an American named Richard Drew? Delving deeper, we find its due to racial stereotyping, a poor command of the English language and a car.

Let's travel back to the eighteenth century. Scotland was bankrupt due to a financial crisis brought on by trying to compete with wealthier European neighbours. Frugality was a necessary means of survival in those times which is why the Scots carry a reputation for being thrifty to this day. 

Scroll forward a couple of hundred years and we see Richard Drew working for sandpaper manufacturer, 3M. He was testing the company's "Wetordry" brand of sandpaper in a local car bodywork shop and noticed how difficult it was for the car painters to get a clear-cut line between two-colour paint jobs. Determined to come up with a solution, in 1925 he invented the first masking tape.

There was just one problem – it didn't work. 

The first batch he produced had insufficient adhesive on it, as a result the tape refused to stick to the car. The painter was so infuriated at the frugality of the amount of adhesive that he exclaimed "Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!" Despite using the wrong adjective (Scotch) to describe the parsimonious application of adhesive, the term "Scotch" stuck (pun intended) and "Scotch Tape" was born. 

Labels are useful but they are sometimes misleading since they can be wrongly applied. People were labelled Christians for the first time in Antioch. That label is one we should be proud to have attached to us – but we also need to live up to what it truly means: to love God and to love one's neighbour as oneself, no matter their background, beliefs, gender or sexuality.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

L'oeuf is All Around?

Tennis players have been in the news a bit this week, which prompted Bailiwick to explore one of Henry VIII’s favourite sports (apart from beheading people). In particular, Bailiwick cast care aside and decided to plunge headfirst into the mystery Bailiwick calls, "The Language of Tennis". What are the origins behind the strange scoring system and terminology that is used in the game? Why is it so different from other games? What the hell is actually going on here?

The honest and truthful answer is that nobody really knows. But there are many myths and legends.....

Let's start with what we actually know. 

Tennis was originally played by French monks in the twelfth century, although it was more like a game of handball than the racquet sport we know today. The monks would call out “Tenez!” as they threw the ball: a word which literally meant, “Here is is!” or, more colloquially, “Look out!” But it's the system of scoring, which was first introduced in the Middle Ages that is the deeper mystery.

Some say that a clock dial was used to mark the scores by moving the hands of the clock a quarter for each point won. Thus the hands would be moved to indicate 15, 30, 45 etc., with the winner of the game being the first person to reach 60. This is a pretty good notion except for the fact that tennis scores run 15, 30, 40 - not 45! Why make the change? 

The reason normally given behind changing ‘45” was to “40” was to allow the rule that a game could only be won by having a two clear point advantage to be indicated. By moving the hand back to the 40 minute mark, the first of two clear points could be indicated by moving the player with the advantage's hand to 50 minutes, before finally marking the win at 60. Essentially the last segment was divided segment in half. 

Complicated? Yes. True? Probably not.

The whole idea of using the clock as a marker is problematic on at least two counts. Firstly, it seems odd that winning a single stroke should be indicated by giving someone 15 points - why not simply give them 1? But secondly, and more importantly, in the Middle Ages clocks did not have a minute hand – the marking of 15 minute intervals came much later. It seems unlikely that the hands would have led to the scoring system we have today.

There are other ideas as to the origin of the scoring, but none so universally "known" as the truth. Others suggest that the scoring system was based upon court markings that indicated how far from the baseline you could advance as the game progressed, but there is no clear evidence for this. Despite the fact that tennis scores are recorded as far back as the sixteenth century, no-one knows how they came to pass.

“Deuce” is almost certainly a borrowed word from the French word for two, deux, indicating that two more points are needed to win the game. Many people believe the French language is the origin of the word “love” to denote for zero points but this also has its pitfalls. An urban myth suggests that it comes from the fact that the shape of the zero resembles an egg. Since the French word for egg is l’oeuf they suggest this has morphed into the word "love" that is used today. Detractors of this idea point out that in a similar fashion, the French word for beef is boeuf so the English version of l’oeuf should probably be pronounced “leaf”. 

There are many things in our faith that we don’t know or fully understand. God gave us enquiring minds to ask questions: who, what, when, where, why. Our minds are a gift from God which we should use more often.


Saturday, 16 January 2021

Gandhi did not hate iodine!

Ok, I should probably clarify that statement. There is an urban myth that Mahatma Gandhi hated iodine which is completely untrue. He probably wasn't fond of uranium or plutonium because of their potential uses, but on iodine he had no fixed views. So how did this urban myth start? Let's look at salt.

Every schoolchild knows that table salt is sodium chloride; except it isn't – at least not totally. Apart from the mysterious "anti-caking agent" that you'll find on the list of ingredients, there is the unusual word "iodized" which most people see but don't ask too many questions about. So what does being i
odized actually mean? 

Salt has been a prized commodity throughout history. The word "salary" comes from the Latin word salarium which was an allowance Roman soldiers received for the purchase of salt (they weren't actually paid in salt itself - another urban myth!). Because of this, salt production is a major source of income throughout the world, none more so than in India where people make salt very simply – they gather seawater and let it evaporate leaving behind pure sodium chloride crystals. These can then be bagged and sold. 

And where there is commerce, there is taxation.

Since 1835, the British had taxed salt production. Let that sink in; they taxed the gathering of a natural product! Imagine taxing eskimos for gathering snow and you get an idea of how ludicrous this actually is. 

Gandhi resisted this unfair taxation and led the first salt march on 12 March 1930. Starting with just 78 followers, by the time it reached its destination 390km away, had grown to a gathering some 50,000 strong. At the Indian coast, Gandhi encouraged everyone to start boiling seawater to produce illegal salt, as a rebuke against the salt taxes. Inspired by this, by 1947 when independence came, common salt was an untaxed commodity. ANd this is where the iodized bit comes in.

Common salt has very little iodine in it. Iodine is a relatively rare element – most of us have some of it in our diet since it's found in vegetables and pulses, but when there is a deficiency, mental disorders, deaf-mutism, malformed limbs etc. are commonplace. We need a small amount of iodine to thrive. Even more critically, iodine isn't retained in the body – we need a constant source, and in places where there is little iodine occurring naturally, the easiest way to receive it is in the form of iodized salt – common salt with a little potassium iodide added to it. 

Switzerland became the first country to make iodization of salt mandatory in 1922 - most other countries followed suit soon after. In 1997, India came on board, but, three years later, the law was repealed due to the lobby of small salt producers, using Gandhi as a figurehead and claiming that iodization was the same colonialism which he had helped eliminate - and an urban myth was born, some fifty-two years after he had died. In 2005 the ban was repealed but, even today, almost 10% of the population of India still consume non-iodized salt. 

Our faith, like our diet, requires a number of factors in order for us to thrive. Bible reading, community worship, hymn singing are all important, but
unless they are underpinned by prayer, we will not grow properly.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter - or Can I?

So, you’re the ruler of France, sharing the same name as your great-uncle Napoleon, and you need to find a cheaper alternative to butter, in order to feed the lower classes and the military. What do you do? The answer's pretty obvious: you offer a financial prize to whoever can come up with the best alternative. So it was that French chemist Hippolyte Mega-Mouris found himself inventing a spread made from beef tallow which he called oleomargarine. Sadly, it wasn’t popular, not least of which because it had the appearance of lard rather than butter. He subsequently sold the idea and died penniless in 1880. However, his invention it found its way to America where, on 3rd January 1871 Henry Bradley received a patent for producing a similar substance using vegetable oils blended with animal fats rather than beef tallow. 

Unfortunately, this too was still unappealing in colour so that sales were, at first, poor. The solution was to add colour to make it more like butter. Naturally made butter, made from churning milk, obtains its colour from carotene (the same substance that makes carrots orange) which is to be found in the milk obtained from grass-fed cows. In the spirit of competion, margarine producers started to put similar colouring in their product to give it a similar appearance. ANd what happened? The dairy industry went ballistic! 

They argued that yellow margarine was actually masquerading as butter and was therefore deceiving the public. It didn’t seem to matter to them that butter produced from corn-fed cows is similarly pale and it was routinely dyed yellow. They argued that this wasn't deception but was merely a “cosmetic tweak”. But it was as a result of this articicial colouring that the Butter Wars began. 

By 1902, thirty-two states in the USA had imposed colour restraints upon margarine. Many had simply demanded that it could not be coloured yellow, whilst others (notably Wisconsin) went even further and passed legislation forcing manufacturers to dye the product pink, red, brown or even black! (This was twenty years before the invention of Vegemite - no-one had any idea of a dark spread for bread at this point.) 

These “pink laws” were subsequently overturned on the grounds that it’s illegal to enforce the adulteration of food, however, the ban on yellow colouring remained. The problem was eventually side-stepped by adding a small sachet of yellow food colouring to the pale product so that you could mix it and colour the pure white product yourself at home. The last of these laws was only repealed as recently as 1967. Nowadays, yellow margarine rubs uneasy shoulders with butter and numerous other spreads in supermarkets.

We place a lot of emphasis on how things (and people) look. However, God sees the contents of our hearts, judging not on outward appearance but on our inward love for each other


Saturday, 24 October 2020

Invisible Calendars - That's Something You Don't See Every Day.

As we reach the last Sunday in October we reflect that October is the tenth month but it’s name seems to imply that it is connected with the number eight. Indeed, the last four months of the year appear to have numerical origins, but the numbers don’t quite fit with our calendar. To find out why, we need to travel back almost three thousand years to a city in Italy. For this is, as so many things are, what the Romans did for us. 

To begin with, we need to remember that Rome is in the northern hemisphere of the planet – winter there is the same period of time that summer occurs here and the calendar was named to fit in with the north. To the Romans, winter was “dead time”. Nothing happened. The government and military were, by and large, inactive. As such, they didn’t bother giving these two months a name at all, but instead started their calendar with the first month of the year, March. 

The beginning of the year meant the beginning of new battles and conquests. Who better to name this month after than Mars, the god of war? April, on the other hand, was a period of new life blossoming. Plants would return after their winter hibernation and buds would begin to open. Aperio is the Latin word for “I open” and so April was named. 

There is some debate as to the naming of the next two months. Some say that they are named after the two Roman divisions of male citizenry: the maiores (elders) and the iuniores (juniors). Others believe that the names came from the Roman deities Maia (a nymph associated with the earth) and Juno, (the goddess of women). Regardless of which is true, that was where the fanciful naming stopped – the rest of the months of the year were named numerically, with Quintilis being the fifth month and Sextilis, the sixth, and so on. 

Then, Julius Caesar happened! 

Caesar dramatically reformed the calendar. The main change that he made was to move the winter months to the beginning of the year and give them names. Janus is a Roman god with two faces, one looking to the past and one to the future – which yielded an appropriate name for a month that falls at the beginning of the new year! So it was that in 45 B.C., New Years’s Day fell, for the first time, on 1st January. 

The (new) second month was named February after the word februum which meant purification since it was the time of year that people prepared for the coming of the spring which would arrive in March. Moreover, Julius redefined the length of the months to have 30 or 31 days (as we have today) and introduced the concept of the leap year. (He got this slightly wrong which meant that Pope Gregory needed to reform it slightly some 1600 years later, but we can forgive his minor faux pas.)

Unfortunately, this reform meant that the seventh month was now named after a word meaning “five”, the eighth, “six” and so on. Rather than finding new names, Julius decided to rename Quintilis after himself and Iulius was born. His intention was that the remaining months would be renamed after successive emperors. Hence Augustus (Julius’ adopted son and heir) renamed Sextilis after himself. Only these two months retain their imperial names – the rest were renamed but their new names never survived (indeed, July was almost renamed Quintilis following Julius’ assassination: the Roman statesman, Cicero, was so furious that the month did not revert to its original name that he wrote about it in several letters). 

When Domitan came to the throne, he renamed September Germanicus in honour of his victory over Germany, and later named October, Domitanus after himself. However, the award for “Megalomaniac of the Months” has to go to the emperor Commodus. He renamed all twelve months after his own various titles. October, in his time, was named Herculeus. It’s perhaps fortunate that his naming system didn’t survive otherwise Christmas Day would be celebrated on the 25th of Exsuperatorious (“all-surpassing conqueror”). 

It is easy to assume that some things never change – that they are fixed and immovable. However, we should remember that we change every day of our lives. Change can be painful, but it can also be beneficial, or even beautiful. Change is something that we shouldn’t fear.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Building Without Mortar

Along with the rest of the Western Region clergy this week, Bailiwick has been playing with Lego, in an attempt to unleash our creativity as we attended the regional clergy muster (via Zoom). Imagination and creativity are two of the most powerful tools in our arsenal when we come to exploring new ways of coming close to God, so it is not as trivial an exercise as it at first appears. Ever-seeking inspiration, Bailiwick decided to find out more about the little plastic pieces that can inflict more pain when stood upon with a bare foot than almost any other object in the known universe. 

It began, in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter who set up his own business making wooden toys. In 1934 he named the business Lego from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning "play well". Wooden toys, it was believed, would never be replaced by plastic.... 

Meanwhile, in England, Harry Fisher Page had become unhappy with wooden toys for his Kiddicraft company and began experimenting with plastic. In 1940 he invented an interlocking plastic building cube and continued to develop various similar building bricks (which are sometimes described as "the original LEGO") and were marketed in 1947. Ole obtained a sample of the bricks and realised that they could be improved by the introduction of the famous circles in the underside of each brick which allowed more variations of interlocking. By 1958 the modern Lego brick was born. 

Adhering to the Lego motto "only the best is good enough", the bricks were made with extremely close tolerances (they are manufactured to an accuracy of 10 micrometres), thereby ensuring each brick has an extremely good fit with all others. In addition, because of their consistency over the years, even today's modern bricks are compatible with the original 1958 bricks in some way. This leads to increased flexibility in creativity (for example, just six bricks of 2 x 4 studs can be arranged in 915,103,765 ways). Lego has been taken into space for experiments. Theme parks have sprung up all over the world. They produce 36 billion bricks a year and are the worlds largest tyre manufacturer (for their own wheels – not the family Ute). 

Even the most complex model starts with a single brick. The spread of the gospel message begins with one person. Be the first person; the original brick. Who knows what model will be achieved if you are.

M stands for Missouri

My name became official this week – I am now legally called the Rev’d Selina Missouri McMahon. Some inquisitive souls have asked how I chos...