19th Century and Onwards, Books

Secret Lives of Great Authors

Note: This post originally appeared on Wordscience, a now defunct writing-focused blog of mine, on March 15, 2009. I was recently flipping through that blog’s archives and came across this post, which I thought would be neat to share here too. I’ve recently shared another post from that blog, “Weather, history, and the origins of words,” which you can read here.


The title of this entry is the name of the book I just finished reading, which my dear friend Carly gave me for Christmas. It was a quick, fun (and funny) read. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Thoreau invented raisin bread.
  • It is thanks to Lewis Carroll that books’ titles are printed down their spines.
  • Walt Whitman donated his brain to science, but a technician dropped that Walt Whitman brain all over the floor.
  • Dickens could only sleep with his head facing the North Pole.
  • Salinger tried to treat his family’s ailments with acupuncture, except he used wooden dowels.

My only complaint with the book was the concentration of authors from mostly the States and the UK. I’m sure the term “great authors” is one that’s never easy to define and one probably can’t fit in all the authors one would like to, but was there really not even one Canadian? Or anyone from any other country?

Either way, it was an interesting book. Thanks Carly!

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18th Century and Earlier, 19th Century and Onwards, Books, Places

Weather, history and the origins of words

Note: This post originally appeared on Wordscience, a now defunct writing-focused blog of mine, on September 2, 2009. I was recently flipping through that blog’s archives and came across this post, which I thought would be neat to share here too.


Two things I like (after writing) are history and the weather. So it would come as no surprise that a book called Blame it on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History would be a lot of fun for me. Thank you, discount book store in St. Jacobs, Ontario!

Anyway, I’m awful at book reviews, so this isn’t one. Instead, I’m going to talk about some things I learned in this book that happen to not actually be weather-related: the origin of certain words. I didn’t expect to learn about that while reading this, but I did and I thought it was interesting. So, here:

  • Cheap: From the Old English word ceap, which used to mean “market,” hence the name of Cheapside in London.
  • Deadline: A line, painted between two markers, used outside war camps during the American Civil War. If anyone crossed this line, they would be shot dead.
  • Hooker: Named for Joseph Hooker, who was an American general during the same Civil War. Apparently his troops frequented prostitutes enough for his name to become a synonym.
  • Libel: From the French word libelle. Libelles were pamphlets circulated to spread rumours about the French royals before the Revolution.
  • Normandy: From the word “Norsemen.” Vikings conquered the area and the Normans were descended from them.
  • Sideburns: Named after General Ambrose Everett Burnside, who fought in the American Civil War and was apparently was known for his sideburns before they were called that.
  • Welsh: The Angles’ word for “foreigner” was wealas. They didn’t like the Celts much.

There you go. Wasn’t that fun and educational? Okay, well I thought it was!

18th Century and Earlier, Places

Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, York

In 2010 I visited York, England. I’d always wanted to go there, primarily because I was excited about all the historical sights in the town. My site’s header comes from that trip – it’s a small bit of what remains of St Mary’s Abbey, a Benedictine abbey established in 1088. As a Canadian, finding a structure that old and still standing was amazing. And it was made no less amazing by the fact that it was a short stroll from my B&B, and in the middle of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, completely open to the public.

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The abbey walls were built in the 13th century. Even though a small portion remains, you can see how it once was the richest abbey in all of the north of England.

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The plaque reads “Apse of Norman Church.”

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St Mary’s Abbey was destroyed after our old friend Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries. There are foundations still present on-site, as well as other structures including the abbott’s house (built in the 14th century) and the Hospitium, which was used to entertain guests – and is now a wedding venue.

You can find more about life in the abbey at History of York’s website.

I don’t remember what caused me to remember this particular portion of my 2010 trip, but now I’m itching to plan another trip to York! I’ve been sharing some historical memories from York on my brand-spanking new Instagram account, if you’re curious.