A nice cup of Joe

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve probably drunk at least 20,000 cups of coffee so far in my life (and look forward to enjoying many more).

Although it’s not a term I use very often, I have long been aware of “a cup of joe” as a slang term for a cup of coffee.  I have often wondered about the origin of this term, albeit not enough to get round to trying to find out.

Today, however, my question was answered in a post on one of my favourite food blogs.  It turns out that it dates back to the First World War, when it was first used by the US Navy.  At the time, the Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration was a man called Josephus Daniels.  He was keen to improve the moral standard of the Navy and thus introduced several changes including the banning of alcohol.

Needless to say, this was not very popular with the sailors, who had to drink coffee instead of their alcoholic beverages of choice.  They began to refer disparagingly to a cup of coffee as “a cup of Joseph Daniels”, which soon got shortened to “a cup of joe” and the name stuck.

It certainly sounds like a plausible explanation for the term.  But…

… a bit of further research (i.e. skim-reading the Wikipedia page on Josephus Daniels) turned up another, somewhat longer, article that casts doubt on this explanation.  It points out that the US Navy at the time was actually a relatively sober outfit in any case so Daniels’ banning of alcohol (which seems genuinely to have happened, though it was actually just aboard ships, apart from special occasions) didn’t actually make  a very large impact on the lives of the enlisted men, since their rum ration had been abolished about 50 years earlier.  It did affect the officers, as it put a stop to their regular wine drinking, but there were relatively few officers and so, as the Snopes article charmingly puts it “the impact of [the alcohol ban] would have been relatively mild, certainly not the stuff of which rueful sobriquets are coined”.

The Snopes article asserts that the actual origin of “cup of joe” is unknown but does postulate a couple of other, more plausible, hypothoses.

One is that “joe” is a corruption of another slang term for coffee – either “java” (which is still in fairly regular usage) or “jamoke” (which I’ve never heard before); it doesn’t explain the origin of “java”, which I assume comes from one of the places that coffee is grown, but it says that “jamoke” is probably a portmanteau of “java” and “mocha”.

The other hypothesis is that it comes from the use of “joe” as slang for an ordinary man (a usage that is attested at least as far back as the 1840s).  The idea is that “a cup of joe” is the drink of the common man.

Ultimately, the origin of the term is and will presumably remain unknown.  Still, it may give you something interesting to think about next time you’re relaxing over a cup of coffee.


Ten Good Men (Part 2)

A fortnight ago, I wrote a post about the group of Russian composers known as The Five or the Mighty Handful.   As I mentioned this group provided inspiration for, at least, the name of a later group of half a dozen French composers whose work I have recently been exploring: Les Six.

The astute among you will have noticed that the title of these two posts (“Ten Good Men”) refers to both groups but 5 + 6 = 11, not 10.  The reason for this discrepancy is that one of the Six was a woman.

The six composers were all active in Paris in the early years of the 20th century and they began to meet together in a bar shortly after the end of the First World War.  They would discuss their work and occasionally work collaboratively.  The group was officially named by music critic Henri Collet in a 1920 article entitled “Les cinq Russes, les six Français et M. Satie” (“The five Russians, the six French people and Mr [Erik] Satie”).  Collet was himself a composer (apparently a fairly minor one), but was not part of the group.

The group’s first collaborative project, and the only one they all took part in, was a 1920 collection of piano pieces (one each) entitled L’Album des Six.  I assume it came out some time after Collet’s article in the same year, as the group had evidently been named by the time the album was published.  I recently acquired a recording of this together with some works for flute and piano by the same composers, which I have been enjoying listening to.

Unlike the Five, who were led by Mily Balakirev, it doesn’t appear that the Six had a leader as such.  Like the Russian group, the different members of the Six achieved differing levels of fame.  In a spirit of equality, I shall treat them in strict alphabetical order according to surname.

The first member of the group was Georges Auric (1899–1983).  Apart from Prélude, his contribution to L’Album des Six, and a couple of flute and piano pieces,  I have only listened to a small amount of his music on YouTube (which seems to have a reasonable amount of stuff by him but sadly doesn’t let me scrobble my listening to last.fm) and I’ve quite liked what I’ve heard so far.

Next up is Louis Durey (1888–1979), another composer whose work is rather unfamiliar to me.  He seems to have not been an especially prolific composer. L’Album des Six was the only collaborative project of the group that he took part in (with a Romance sans paroles); apart from this I’ve only heard two of his pieces for flute and piano.  He is described by Wikipedia as being “probably the least remembered” member of the group.

Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) is somewhat better known, I suspect, than Auric or Durey, and he was one of the ones I had heard of before reading up about the Six.  I’m not sure that I’d heard (or at least knowingly listened to) any of his work until quite recently.  Possibly his most famous (or at least most frequently performed) work is a symphonic movement entitled “Pacific 231”, inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive.  I still haven’t heard that one, but I have listened to some of his other works including an oratorio (or “symphonic psalm”) entitled Le Roi David, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) tells the story of the biblical King David.  His contribution to L’Album des Six was a Sarabande.

I have been vaguely acquainted with some of the music of Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) for quite a while, in particular his “surrealist ballet” Le boeuf sur le toit, a piece strongly influenced by Brazilian choro music that appeared on a magazine cover CD  (exploring the theme of jazz-influenced classical music, as I recall – it was nearly 20 years ago that I got it).  That remains my favourite of his pieces, and one which I like very much, although I have more recently been listening to some more of his work in addition to the flute and piano stuff on my new album.  He contributed a Mazurka to L’Album des Six.

It was a growing interest in the work of Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) that led me recently to the rest of the Six.  I have heard some of his pieces in concerts over the years, and have had a recording of his flute sonata (in an arrangement for flute and orchestra) for a while.  While researching the Greek mythological character Tiresias, who plays a central role in T. S. Elliott’s poem The Waste Land, I discovered that Poulenc had written an opera entitled Les mamelles de Tirésias (I’ll leave you to find your own translation from the French if you need one!) based (very loosely) on the story of Tiresias and while trying to track down a copy of this to listen to I managed to find a set of Poulenc’s complete works at a very reasonable price.  Since I had generally enjoyed what I’d previously heard of his music, and his Stabat Mater was one that narrowly missed making it on to my short list of ones to get for this Easter, I decided to get this set.  I’m still working my way through it but Poulenc has already become one of my favourite 20th century composers.  He wrote a Valse for L’Album des Six.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) is the final member of the group and the aforementioned woman.  As with Durey and Auric, I had not previously come across her work and still only know a small amount of it.  The piece that she wrote for L’Album des Six was a Pastorale.

I doubt I shall get quite so much into the music of the rest of the Six as I have that of Poulenc, but I shall certainly endeavour to listen to some more from all the members of the group, including some of the other collaborative projects that most of them took part in.


Not bread alone

I have long been intrigued by the idea of квас (or kvass as it is usually transliterated, although the final consonant is not doubled in Russian), a fermented drink made from rye bread, popular in Russia and other eastern European countries.

Unfortunately it is not generally available in the UK (or at least, I’ve never seen it for sale here) and I didn’t manage to get any on my school trip to Russia in 1991 (which is probably about the time I first learned about it) or any of my subsequent visits to eastern Europe (although they have been confined to Romania and Hungary, neither of which are particular hotbeds of kvass fandom as far as I can make out).

The idea has occurred to me several times over the years to try and make my own, but it is only in the last week that I’ve actually got round to digging out a recipe and having a go.  I’m drinking the results as I write this and I have to say that it is interesting rather than especially pleasant.  I did read somewhere that kvass is an acquired taste and that does appear to be the case.  I can imagine myself growing to quite like it, if I keep on brewing it regularly enough, but on my initial acquaintance I’m not all that enamoured of it.

Of course, since I’ve never tasted kvass before I don’t know if what I’m tasting now is what it is supposed to taste like or just a result of my recipe, ingredients or technique not being up to scratch.

The essential method for brewing kvass (at least according to the recipe I used) is to dry slices of rye bread in the oven (mine ended up slightly toasted, so I possibly had the oven a bit too hot, although it was on the lowest setting), then steep them in not quite boiling water for a few hours, strain, add yeast and sugar, leave in a jug to ferment for a few more hours (I left it overnight) before putting in bottles (with a few raisins – I used sultanas as the nearest alternative I had to hand – optionally lobbed into the bottles, presumably for extra flavour), leaving at room temperature for about 3 days and then refrigerating and drinking before too long.

Kvass is slightly alcoholic, as you would expect from a fermented drink, but the alcohol content is pretty low (usually no more than about 1%, I gather).  I didn’t get round to trying to calculate the alcohol content of this first batch, although I do have a hydrometer which I could have tried to use.

It’s possible that the bread I used contained too much wheat and not enough rye flour, as I had a very limited choice in my local supermarket (essentially two different sorts of mixed wheat/rye loaves and no rye flour for making my own).  I only made a very small batch – about 1 litre, which I put into two bottles (with a little bit left over, which I tried drinking as “flat kvass” straight after the initial fermentation) and I have now just finished the second bottle (I had the first one a couple of days ago, shortly after I’d transferred them to the fridge).

I think I shall probably try at least a few more batches of kvass to see if I can get better results or develop a taste for it.  I think it could be quite a refreshing drink in very hot weather, if we get any this year, and it’s also supposed to be quite healthy.

One of the by-products of the kvass brewing process, at least with the method I followed, was a whole mass of soggy rye bread after the liquid had been strained off.  It occurred to me that this was rather similar to the starting material for a bread pudding (which, again as I make it, begins by soaking (usually slightly stale) remnants of bread in cold water for a bit, before mixing in raisins, spices and sugar and cooking), so I decided to try making it into a bread pudding.  I don’t know if it was due entirely to the extra wetness or whether the fact it was rye bread, but the final bread pudding came out quite soggy despite extra long cooking time.  It was very tasty, and much better than just chucking the bread away, but not the neatest bread pudding I’ve ever made.

Two Horses

As cars go, the Citroën 2CV is one that is quite close to my heart.

In general I’m not that interested in cars but I’ve always quite liked the 2CV mainly, I think, for reasons of nostalgia since one of these (in a lovely pea green colour) was our family car throughout the early years of my life.   I think my parents got it fairly shortly before I was born and we had it until I was about 6 or 7, as I recall.

Apart from the colour of our 2CV, things I remember with particular fondness include the canvas top that could be rolled back in fine weather, the hand-crank that could be used to start it as an alternative to the ignition key (which, as I recall, we never actually needed to use though I did enjoy the rare occasions when my dad would demonstrate this capability) and the fake-leather seat upholstery that got painfully hot (especially if you were wearing shorts) when the sun shone.  OK, so fondness is probably not the appropriate word for that last recollection but it certainly burned itself well into my mind, not to mention my legs.

As far as I’m aware, the name 2CV came from the French phrase deux chevaux, meaning two horses or, in this context, two horsepower – a description of the power of the car’s engine.  I’m fairly sure that deux chevaux was the first phrase of French I ever learned, although it would probably be exaggerating to say that this did very much to fuel my lifelong interest in languages.  (Speaking of fuel, I seem to recall that our Citroën used 3-star petrol, which I haven’t seen on sale for several decades now.)

I had a friend at university 12 or so years ago who used to drive a 2CV.  While helping him to bump start it one time, I discovered that the car’s body is made from incredibly soft metal that would visibly distort when you pushed against it.  I suspect it probably wouldn’t offer too much protection in the event of a crash, but I tried not to think too much about that while my friend was subsequently giving me a lift down the A55.

The reason I mention all this, or rather the reason I’ve been thinking about the 2CV today is that, after not having seen one for quite some time (several years, at least, I think) I saw two yesterday.  Both were the same colour (off-white / cream) but I’m fairly sure they were different vehicles as one was definitely a left-hand drive vehicle with French plates, being driven by a young-looking (and also rather nice looking, I might add) woman while the other was, I’m fairly sure right-hand drive and being driven by a bloke with a fairly impressive beard, who appeared to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine with the top of the car rolled down and a big smile on his face. I say that I’m fairly sure because I saw this one first (by several hours) and didn’t take particular note of what side the steering wheel was on; I would think that the very fact I didn’t notice it suggests that it was probably on the usual side for cars on British roads.

A new word I have

Question: What do Yoda and Gerard Manley-Hopkins have in common?

Answer: The speech of both is characterised by anastrophe.

There’s a fairly good chance that you’re familiar with the Star Wars films and therefore aware that Yoda tends to speak with a non-standard word order (“Help you I can” or “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”).  It is less likely that you knew that anastrophe is the technical term for this.

I was first introduced to this term a few weeks ago when my brother, Wulf, was visiting me and happened to mention it in conversation.  Being a fan both of the small, green Jedi Master and of obscure words, I was delighted to learn this word and resolved to slip it into conversation at the first available opportunity.  Unfortunately I forgot it before I had a chance to do so, but Wulf wrote about the word in his blog the other day.

To save me forgetting it again, I decided I would write about it here (with links both to Wulf’s post and the Wikipedia article on the subject, which you’ll find above).

The term “anastrophe” is  a Greek word (ἀναστροφή in its native alphabet) meaning “a turning back or about”.  As a technical term in English (and a number of other languages which have also borrowed it from Greek, with slightly varying transliterations) it refers to deviations from the usual word order of a given language for the sake of emphasis.

The Wikipedia article remarks that Yoda, as a non-native speaker of English (or rather, Galactic Basic, which is represented by English in the Star Wars films) may have been using non-standard word order by mistake rather than on purpose, so his speech may not technically class as anastrophe.  Interestingly though, he does occasionally use standard word order.  Sometimes it seems to be for special emphasis (e.g. “You must not go!” when warning Luke against going to help his friends in Cloud City before completing his Jedi training), which suggests that it could be a kind of inverted anastrophe. At other times there doesn’t seem to be any special emphasis and one is led to suspect that the scriptwriters were just being inconsistent (or, if the weird word order is due to Yoda’s imperfect grasp of Basic and, presumably, the influence of his first language, perhaps it  is intentional that he sometimes gets it right and sometimes wrong; I’m sure my Welsh is a bit like that!).

The other example of an anastrophe user I mentioned was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English poet who, according to Wikipedia, was particularly identified with the use of anastrophe.  He was quite experimental compared to many poets of his time and made several (fairly successful, IMHO) attempts to adapt the Welsh-language poetic techniques of cynghanedd to English verse, which is what especially attracts me to his work.

Here is just one example of a line from Hopkins, taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (one of his longest and best-known works):

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

This line illustrates both anastrophe – in the rearrangement of “they took to the shrouds” – and cynghanedd-like features — the repetition of the “sh” sound and the “took” – “shook” internal rhyme, and possibly also the alliteration of “hurling” and “horrible”.  It certainly works well, at least within the context of the poem.

Ten Good Men (Part 1)

It seems to be a fairly basic feature of human (and perhaps also animal) nature that like-minded individuals tend to congregate or, to borrow a pithy saying from English folk wisdom, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Therefore it is no great surprise that in various branches of the arts there have been several well-established groups.  I am thinking particularly of classical music and two particular groups of composers.  One is a group of French composers from the early 20th century, “Les Six”, whose music I have recently been getting into.  As you might guess from the name (even if you don’t speak French), there were six of them.  However, before I go into any detail about this group (which will be in a later post), I want to spend some time considering a slightly earlier Russian group known in English as “The Five“.  Not only does this group come chronologically first, by a few years, but also they were the direct inspiration for at least the name of the French group; also, I have been familiar with some of their work for quite a long time (although there’s still plenty more for me to discover).

The Five are actually known in Russian as Могучая кучка (Moguchaya kuchka, which roughly translates as “the mighty handful”) and I think this is a much more evocative name, although the other seems to have stuck in English.  I think it came by way of French (“Les Cinq”).  Whatever you call them, they were a group of five composers (no surprises there!) who were active in St Petersburg during the years 1856-1870.  The group had the shared aim of producing a specifically Russian kind of art music that was not merely an imitation of Western styles.  As such they incorporated several features of Russian folk music (including parallel fifths, which had long been shunned by the musical conventions of Western art music) as well as innovations of their own.  Details can be found in the Wikipedia article linked in the previous paragraph.

The leader of the group, although probably one of the less well-known members today, was Милий Алексеевич Балакирев (Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev).  He was, at least at the outset, the only professional musician among the group and was quite influential on the musical thinking of the others.  I’ve not yet listened to much of his work, but he has two nice overtures on Russian themes that are part of my music collection, and which seem to encapsulate the spirit of the Mighty Handful.

Almost certainly the least well-known (or well-remembered) member of the group was Цезарь Антонович Кюи (César Antonovich Cui).  He was a professional soldier and pursued music as a sideline.  I gather he was a moderately prolific composer, working in multiple classical music genres (though he didn’t write any symphonies or symphonic poems, unlike the rest of the group), but of his work I have only been able to track down one string quartet.  It is a pleasant, if not especially remarkable, piece.

Модест Петрович Мусоргский (Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky) is somewhat better-known these days than Balakirev or Cui, largely due to his tone poem Night on the bare mountain (sometimes translated instead as Night on Bald Mountain and made famous largely through Disney’s Fantasia, which is not a film I can recall ever having watched, although I’m fairly sure I’ve seen clips from it), his piano suite Pictures at an exhibition (later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) and his opera Boris Godunov.  I’m not (yet) familiar with the latter work, although it is widely regarded as Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and one of the greatest Russian-language operas.  I do know the other pieces reasonably well.  I recall a question from my GCSE music exam (or possibly the mock exam) which involved drawing a graphical score of the opening section of Night on the bare mountain.  This piece was originally published as St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (or, rather, Иванова ночь на лысой горе (Ivanova noch’ na lisoy gore) – the word lisoy literally means “bald”, although it is used figuratively for a bare hilltop; much like the use of the Welsh word moel for the same purpose, in fact).  A few years after Mussorgsky’s death, his colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov published an arrangment of it, simply as “Night on the bare mountain” without reference to St. John, and it is this version which became, and has remained, particularly popular.

In addition to editing some of the works of the other members of the Five, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Николай Андреевич (Andreyevich) Римский-Корсаков to give him his full name in the Cyrillic alphabet, was a member of the group in his own right.  His biggest impact on popular culture is probably the famous Flight of the bumblebee, an orchestral interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Sultan, which is commonly performed by soloists or groups of musicians on various instruments wanting to show off their technical proficiency at high-speed playing.  Other particularly well-known works of his are the Capriccio Espagnol (which I particlarly like, especially as a companion to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien), his Russian Easter Festival overture and his Scheherazade symphonic suite based on the tales of the One Thousand And One Nights (aka the Arabian Nights).

The final member of the Five was Александр Порфирьевич Бородин (Alexander Porfir’evich Borodin).  Like César Cui, he was essentially an amateur musician; professionally he was a chemist and physician.  Apparently he did particularly notable work on the chemistry of aldehydes and was also a notable advocate of women’s rights.  His best known works are a couple of symphonies (one of which I’ve not heard, as far as I know), two string quartets, a symphonic poem entitled In the steppes of Central Asia (although the Russian title – В средней Азии – just means “In central Asia”) and the opera Prince Igor.  Of the latter work, the most famous bit (and the only bit I’m at all familiar with) is the Polovtsian Dances, which are (apparently) located at the end of Act 2 (out of 4) and are often played as a concert piece independent of the rest of the opera.

The group of the Five fell apart in the early 1870s as the different members gradually began to go their separate ways.  Although they didn’t continue to work closely together, their influences on each other’s music seem to have remained fairly strong (or at least none of them, as far as I can tell, made a radical departure from the tenets of the group in their later work) and they also influenced many of the next generation(s) of Russian composers as well as the French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.  As I mentioned earlier, the name at least was also an inspiration for the later French group “les Six”, but that is a subject for another day.

Teething troubles

I went to the dentist this afternoon for a regular check up.

As expected, most of my teeth are in good shape.  However, the one with a filling is continuing to cause problems.

I first started getting problems with this tooth just over a year ago when it suddenly started to ache.  At the time I wasn’t registered with a dentist and hadn’t been for several years ever since my previous dentist had gone private and I’d been unable to find another NHS dentist with vacancies.  This sudden toothache gave me the impetus I needed to renew my search for one, which had lapsed somewhat, and I managed to find one (in my own town, no less) who agreed to put me on his waiting list.  Because it was unlikely that I would actually get to book an appointment for several months, I was advised to contact NHS Direct for emergency dental treatment to take care of my toothache.  I did this and had a temporary (or semi-permanent, as I think it was officially called) filling put in by another dentist further along the coast.

When I finally did manage to get onto the books of my local dentist and have an appointment, he did a routine x-ray of my teeth and discovered a big hole in my tooth hiding behind the filling.  Although the tooth wasn’t actually hurting me at all at the time, I took the dentist’s advice to have the filling removed and replaced with a permanent one.

That was last November and the tooth has mostly been fairly well behaved since then although I did start getting some pain in it shortly after Christmas, which prompted an emergency appointment with my own dentist.  He put some kind of varnish on the tooth, gave me some sample tubes of Sensodyne toothpaste to use and told me to come back if the problem persisted for more than a few days.  Fortunately the Sensodyne seemed to do the trick and I didn’t need to go to see the dentist again until my routine check-up today (which had been brought forward to 6 months from the last one, instead of a year, since I’d had the filling).

I mentioned to the dentist that I’d noticed a slightly sharp corner on my filled tooth and he took a look at it and said that the filling and the tooth itself were both slightly broken.  Apparently this means that the filling needs to be replaced so that decay won’t set in again behind it.

The bad news is that it means I have to go back for another filling in about 3 weeks’ time.  The good news is that, because the first filling is less than a year old it’s still under warranty and I don’t have to pay to get it replaced.

Last time, when I had the temporary filling replaced by the supposedly permanent one in November, it was my first time under the dentist’s drill (and with the attendant injection etc.) so I experienced a certain amount of trepidation due to the uncertainty of what to expect.  This time I know just how uncomfortable it is (I wouldn’t describe it as particularly painful but it’s certainly not what I’d call a pleasant experience) and I’m not sure whether that makes it better or worse.