November 25, 2015

Queen Elizabeth’s “Annus Horribilis” and it’s ancestor, the “Annus Mirabilis”…

On November 24, 1992, Elizabeth II gave a speech in London to mark the 40th anniversary of her Accession as Queen of England and “the Commonwealth realms.”

The speech immediately became famous for her reference to the year 1992 as an “Annus Horribilis” — which means “horrible year” in Latin.

“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” the Queen said. “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.’ I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so.”

There’s no doubt that the year 1992 was an unusually unpleasant one for Elizabeth and England’s Royal Family.

In March, it was announced that the Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, would separate from his wife, Duchess Sarah Ferguson.

In April, her daughter Princess Anne divorced Captain Mark Phillips.

In May, the publication of the bombshell book Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words made it clear that the marriage between Elizabeth’s oldest son, Prince Charles, and Diana, “The People’s Princess,” was also on the rocks.

The book revealed that Charles had been having an affair with his old girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles (who later became his second wife). It also disclosed how miserably unhappy Diana was with Charles and the way she had been treated by other members of the Royal Family.

In August, the Sun tabloid newspaper ran a story about the “Squidgygate” tapes — intimate conversations between Diana and former EastEnders actor James Gilbey (who called Diana by the affectionate nickname “Squidgy”).

Also in August, The Daily Mirror tabloid published photos of Duchess Sarah, topless, having her toes sucked by American financial tycoon John Bryan.

In September, the Sun revealed that Princess Diana may have had an affair with British Army officer James Hewitt.

In early November, The Daily Mirror revealed the “Camillagate” tapes: secretly recorded phone conversations between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in which Charles said (among other embarrassing things) that he wanted to be Camilla’s tampon.

Then, on November 20, just four days before Queen Elizabeth’s speech, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, the official Royal residence in London, destroying historic sections of the building.

Given all this, the Queen’s choice of the words “Annus Horribilis” is understandable. And, the fire at Windsor Castle made the phrase oddly ironic.

“Annus Horribilis” is a twist on an older phrase made famous by the British poet John Dryden.

In 1667, Dryden published a poem titled “Annus Mirabilis,” meaning “a year of miracles” (or marvels, or wonders) in Latin.

Dryden’s poem described several historic events that occurred in 1666.

First, it recounts a series of English victories in battles with the Dutch.

Then it talks about the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Although large areas of London were burned, the Great Fire was stopped before it destroyed the entire city.

Dryden took these events as signs that God had performed miracles to save England from destruction and looked fondly on the expansion of the British Empire — thus making 1666 an “Annus Mirabilis” in his view.

I don’t know if Queen Elizabeth’s description of 1992 as an “Annus Horribilis” a few days after the Windsor Castle fire was purposefully ironic. If so, I’d say she has a very dry sense of humor indeed.

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November 18, 2015

“Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-one.” ... In Ben-Hur, that's good.

Screenwriter, playwright and novelist Gore Vidal is linked to two famous quotations about whipping.

One is a funny quip about the old form of corporal punishment called “birching” (whipping someone with a bundle of birch tree rods):

       “I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.”

This quote appears in many books of quotations and on many websites, generally without any source.

The Yale Book of Quotations has traced it to an article published in the UK Sunday Times Magazine on September 16, 1973.

The other quote about whipping Vidal is linked to is in the epic film Ben-Hur, which premiered in New York City on November 18, 1959.

Official credit for the screenplay of Ben-Hur was given to veteran screenwriter Karl Tunberg.

However, at the request of the film’s director, William Wyler, several other writers did extensive but uncredited rewriting, including Vidal and the famous playwrights Maxwell Anderson and Christopher Fry.

A quote in Ben-Hur that's often cited by movie buffs and books is from a scene in the galley of a Roman warship.

At this point in the film Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, is galley slave.

He's chained there with dozens of other sweating, near-naked men who row the ship.

The Roman naval commander Quintus Arrius, played by British actor Jack Hawkins, comes down into the galley to inspect the slaves.

He asks Heston, who he calls by his seat number – Forty-one – how long he’d been “in service.” 

Heston glares at Hawkins and says with a clear tone of hatred that he’d served a month less a day on the current ship and three years in others.

Hawkins seems to ignore Heston’s tone and walks on.

Suddenly, he turns around and lashes Heston on the back with the multi-stranded whip he’s carrying. (Called a flagrum in Latin.)

Heston rears up and looks menacingly at Hawkins. Hawkins looks down at him coolly and remarks: “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it.”

Then he says:

“Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

It’s not certain that Gore Vidal was the writer who contributed those famous words to the script.

It could have been Tunberg, Anderson or Fry.

However, given Gore’s sexual preference (he was openly gay long before it was as acceptable as it is today), and given his oft-quoted quip about mutual birch lashings by consenting adults, Gore seems like he might have a special flair for writing a scene that included sweaty, scantily-clad men and a whip.

In fact, Gore claimed to have purposely put a homosexual subtext into the movie's script in its depiction of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala, played by Stephen Boyd.

Messala is a Roman. Ben-Hur is a Jew (who later becomes a Christian). They both grew up in Jerusalem in wealthy households and were close childhood friends. Messala left to pursue a career as a soldier. Years later he is sent back to Jerusalem as a commander of the Roman troops stationed in the city.

When Ben-Hur and Messala see each other again for the first time in years, it's a happy and warm reunion.

Gore recalled discussing the nature of their friendship with director William Wyler in an interview in the excellent 1996 documentary The Celluloid Closet.

“I said, ‘Well, look, let me try something. Let’s say that these two guys when they were 15 or 16...they had been lovers and now they’re meeting again and the Roman wants to start it up...Willie stared at me, face grey. And, I said, ‘I’ll never use the word; there will be nothing overt, but it will be perfectly clear that Messala is in love with Ben-Hur.’ Willie said, ‘Gore, this is Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ I think is the subtitle,’ he said, rather vaguely, looking around. And Willie finally said, ‘Well, it's certainly better than what we've got. We'll try it.’”

Wyler later denied this conversation with Gore ever took place.

Either way, once you know about the anecdote, it’s hard to not to think of it when you watch the scene in Ben-Hur when the two childhood friends see each other again after years apart and give each other a long, warm hug.

Of course, as the plot progresses Ben-Hur and Messala become arch enemies. They have their final showdown in the famed chariot race near the end of the movie. In that sequence of scenes, the whipping is done to the horses.

Most viewers of the movie may not give it any thought. But I see it as a reflection of mankind's age-old cruelty to animals, especially knowing that nearly 100 horses died during the shooting of the movie.

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November 15, 2015

Ron Popeil created the Veg-o-Matic and inspired the Bass-O-Matic (but didn’t say “It slices! It dices!”)

Ron Popeil, The Salesman of the CenturyWhen Ron Popeil titled his 1995 autobiographical book The Salesman of the Century it was not the kind of exaggeration used in the “As seen on TV” style of ads he pioneered.

Ron was born in New York City in 1935. He’s the son of inventor Samuel Popeil, creator of the Chop-o-Matic food chopper and its ultimately more famous offspring, the Veg-o-Matic food chopper and slicer.

Ron Popeil began his career in the 1950s, by selling those kitchen wonders and other gadgets invented by his father in live demonstrations at retail stores and county fairs.

By 1960 the Sam Popeil-coined name Veg-o-Matic was on its way to becoming a household word.

On November 15, 1960, the family received a trademark registration for it.

Ron helped take the Chop-o-Matic and Veg-o-Matic to the next level by appearing in early TV infomercials promoting them, using the same demonstration techniques and rapid-fire pitchman patter he had honed working for his father.

Contrary to what many people believe, he did not say “It slices! It dices!” in the Veg-o-Matic commercials. I always thought he did myself until I did some more research.

As Popeil adamantly stated in his biography and in interviews that book sparked, he never uttered the words “It slices! It dices!” in any ads.

"The only lines I used on TV about slicing and dicing,” he wrote in the book, “had to do with onions: ‘When slicing or dicing onions, the only tears you'll shed are tears of joy.’”

However, Popeil also noted that in some pitches and print ads the Veg-o-Matic was described as the product that “slices and dices and juliennes to perfection.”

And, at some point, the words “SLICES AND DICES” began being used on the Veg-o-Matic box. Moreover, many current online ads for the product, which is still being sold, say:

The Ronco Veg-o-Matic is the one kitchen appliance you'll wonder how you ever did without! It slices, it dices, and so much more!”

So there is a connection between the Veg-o-Matic and the famous marketing phrase. It’s not just a figment of our imaginations.

In 1964, Ron created the Ronco company and went on to even greater fame and fortune.

During the following two decades, he invented or licensed a long list of Ronco products and perfected the “As seen on TV” approach to marketing them.

Some of the Ronco TV ads featured Ron himself, such as the one for GLH (short for “Good Looking Hair”), the much-mocked colored spray designed to cover bald spots on men’s (or women’s) heads.

Other Ronco commercials were announcer voiceover style demonstrations, showing the ingenious aspects of products like the Ronco Bottle and Jar Cutter, the Buttoneer, the Smokeless Ashtray, Mr. Microphone, the Salad Spinner, and the Pocket Fisherman.

Popeil, his products and his marketing approach inspired many imitators. Some Ronco products, like the Veg-o-Matic, were also licensed and further promoted in TV commercials by K-Tel, another pioneering “As seen on TV” company.

His Veg-o-Matic ads also inspired one of the greatest Saturday Night Live TV ad spoofs of all: the ”Bass-O-Matic” sketch performed by Dan Aykroyd on Episode 17 of Season 1.

In addition, Popeil led the way for later infomercial pitchmen like Billy Mays and Anthony “Sully” Sullivan.

He may not have been “the greatest” salesman of the 20th Century. But he certainly was one of them.

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November 11, 2015

How “God Bless America” created a musical duel between Woody Guthrie and Irving Berlin

In 1917, during World War I, American songwriter Irving Berlin was drafted into the U.S. Army.

He was already a successful songwriter at that point, known for huge hits like “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1915).

Berlin was stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. Not long after he arrived, an officer asked if he’d be willing to write a musical show for the soldiers at the base to perform.

Berlin agreed and composed a set of songs for a musical he called Yip-Yip-Yaphank.

He wrote at least eight songs for the show. They included “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning,” which later became a hugely popular hit, and several now-forgotten songs, like “Mandy” (a minstrel-style song performed by soldiers in drag and blackface).

One notable song Berlin wrote for Yip-Yip-Yaphank that didn’t make it into the show was titled “God Bless America.” 

Before the musical was performed in July 1918, Berlin decided “God Bless America” was “too solemn.” So, he cut it from the song list, stored his written copy away and forgot about it for twenty years.

Then, in 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Adolf Hitler and prevent a second world war ended up bringing the song to light.

Irving Berlin happened to be in London when Chamberlain announced that he and Hitler had signed the “Anglo-German Pact of Friendship,” or “Munich Agreement.” That pact permitted Nazi Germany to annex the part of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s supposed promise to refrain from any further land grabs and remain at peace with other European countries.

Chamberlain optimistically proclaimed that the agreement had secured “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain’s remark inspired Berlin. He told a friend he wanted to write “a great peace song,” a patriotic song that celebrated America at peace.

After a couple of false starts, Berlin recalled his abandoned song from Yip-Yip-Yaphank. He made some edits to the lyrics and ended up with the song as we know it today. It starts with these familiar lines:

       “God bless America,
       Land that I love,
       Stand beside her and guide her
       Through the night with a light from above.
       From the mountains to the prairies,
       To the oceans white with foam,
       God bless America,
       My home sweet home.”

Berlin gave his patriotic “peace song” to renowned American singer Kate Smith for its initial unveiling.

She debuted it on her popular radio show on November 11, 1938 — the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, the commemoration of the peace agreement that ended World War I.

Ultimately (and infamously) Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Hitler failed to prevent World War II.

However, “God Bless America” quickly became a major hit, a signature song for Smith and the unofficial American national anthem.

It also rubbed activist-folksinger Woody Guthrie the wrong way.

Irving Berlin and Kate Smith were rich and famous celebrities.

Woody Guthrie was a vocal advocate for low-income Americans and was a poor man himself. He knew from first-hand experience that life in America wasn’t so sweet for most people in late 1930s — the height of the Great Depression.

He felt America needed an anthem for those common folk, instead of a mawkish one that seemed to just wave the flag and ignore the economic problems millions of Americans faced.

So, in 1940, Guthrie wrote a song responding to “God Bless America.” He originally titled it “God Blessed America.”

In the original lyrics, he ended each verse with the words “God blessed America for me.”

And the original last verse had a sardonic twist:

       “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
       By the Relief Office I saw my people,
       As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering
       If God blessed America for me.”

Over the next few years, Guthrie reworked the lyrics of the song. It still reflected the viewpoint of working class Americans. But he gave it a more positive spin, changed the line used at the end of the verses and retitled it.

Guthrie recorded that version of the song in 1944. You’ll probably recognize it immediately from the first verse:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”

That’s right. Woody Guthrie’s well-known song “This Land is Your Land” started out as “God Blessed America,” his musical answer to Irving Berlin. And, ironically, it is now almost as famous and iconic as Berlin’s song “God Bless America.”

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November 09, 2015

“Business as usual”

It’s not uncommon to see credible sources claim that the phrase “business as usual” was coined by Winston Churchill.

For example, a glossary of World War I words and phrases on the BBC website says: “Business as Usual: Phrase coined by Churchill to suggest how British society should react to the wartime situation.”

Even some history books, such as A History of the World from the 20th to the 21st Century by J.A.S. Grenville, make that claim.

The truth is, Churchill helped popularize the phrase but he didn’t coin it.

It began appearing in newspapers and books as far back as the mid-1700s (as shown by this search using Google Ngram, a research tool that shows the appearance of words or phrases in thousands of digitized books).

The original use was literal. When a store reopened after some unusual event, like a fire, the owner would put up a sign saying “Open for business as usual.” Or, on some unofficial holiday, newspapers might report that banks would be open for business as usual.

Churchill’s use came early in World War I. On August 4, 1914, Great Britain officially that bloody fray by declaring war on Germany. At the time, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, a top position in the British Navy.

He and other British military leaders, politicians and businessmen initially assumed that Germany could be defeated quickly with Britain’s existing naval and army forces. Thus, they felt there was no need for a mass recruitment of volunteers or other actions that would disrupt the country’s labor force and economy. Indeed, they argued against any such government “interference” on the home front.

On the day war was declared, British Cabinet Minister David Lloyd George met with a group of bankers and assured them that the policy of the British government was “to enable the traders of this country to carry on business as usual.”

Many prominent businessmen heartily endorsed that policy and began repeating “business as usual” as a slogan.

For example, Henry E.  Morgan, who worked as both an executive for the W.H. Smith publishing company and as an advertising consultant to retail store magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, used it in a letter to the editor published in the Daily Chronicle on August 11, 1914. Some sources have wrongly credited Morgan with coining the phrase.

Around that time, Selfridge adopted “business as usual” as his catchphrase and he is often credited with coining it. Meanwhile, Harrods department store chain also began using the phrase in newspaper advertisements, leading some sources to credit Harrods with launching the phrase. Soon, other stores and shops began displaying “Business As Usual” signs to show their support for the government’s “non-interference” policy.

Winston Churchill further popularized the phrase by using it a speech he gave on November 9, 1914. As noted by many books of quotations, Churchill said in that speech:

“The British people have taken for themselves this motto – ‘Business carried on as usual during alterations on the map of Europe.’”

This “non-interference” policy was fully embraced by the British government under Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, as David Lloyd George told the bankers in August. Unfortunately, it turned out to be far too optimistic.

By 1915, the UK was forced to recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers and in 1916 imposed a draft on single men aged 18 to 41. This soon led to serious labor shortages and other disruptions of the economy.

Churchill’s use of “business as usual” during World War I was remembered and repurposed during World War II, when he served as Prime Minister and lead Great Britain in it’s fight against Nazi Germany.

The famed speeches Churchill made during those years are known for their combination of defiance and hope.

In the early 1940s, when German planes were making devastating nightly bombing raids on London, store owners put up homemade notices and signs on their bombed shops that said “Business As Usual.” Like the speeches Churchill gave during World War II, they were a message of both defiance and hope.

In the decades following World War II, the phrase has been used to mean maintaining the status quo, sometimes in a matter of fact way but often with a negative connotation.

For example, in 1962, the famed “Port Huron Statement” adopted by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) condemned the typical college campus as “a place of commitment to business-as-usual.”

The following year, the phrase was used in a similar negative way by civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.

In his moving “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C., King said of the race riots that had recently swept America’s urban areas:

“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

Today, “business as usual” continues to be used in both a positive and negative sense and as sarcasm, making it an unusually flexible idiomatic expression.

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