Good Questions: Boxing clever over Christmas daze

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A DATE, a circle, a couple of phrases and more monkeys supply our diet of instant wisdom this week.

When, strictly speaking, does Boxing Day fall this year? Is it Sunday 26 December or the following day? (T Dibdin, Glasgow)

That's a good question. There is no consensus on the matter, and there never has been. The term dates back to the first half of the 19th century (the OED lists 1833 as the year of the first recorded use) and refers to the practice of giving 'postmen, errand boys and servants of various kinds' a Christmas box. By that standard, Boxing Day should strictly be considered the first weekday after Christmas Day. When Charles Dickens, in The Pickwick Papers, wrote: 'No man ever talked in poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin' day,' it was probably the first working day after Christmas he was thinking about. Yet in 1849,

G Soane, in New Curios, wrote: 'The feast of St Stephen (26 December) is more generally known as Boxing Day.'

According to the Bank Holiday Act 1871, Boxing Day is the 26 December, but the bank holiday moves to the Monday if that date falls on a Sunday.

So, pending future changes in Sunday trading, the answer seems to be that those respectful of tradition should celebrate Boxing Day on the Monday, while anyone preferring to follow the letter of statute should insist that Sunday is Boxing Day and Monday the Boxing Day bank holiday.

Why are there 360 degrees in a circle? (Bernard Jones, Coventry)

We need to go back to ancient Babylon and the origin of counting systems, time measurement and celestial mechanics for this one. The rough answer is because 360 is almost the number of days in a year. The idea of dividing a circle into 360 equal parts seems to have originated with the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who lived in the second century BC. He borrowed the idea from astrologers who had been dividing the skies in that manner for more than 2,000 years. The idea of dividing the celestial sphere into 12 parts, which originated in Mesopotamia, seems a natural extension of Babylonian counting and measurement systems in which the numbers 12 and 60 were chosen as bases.

Since 12 is divisible by 2, 3 and 4, and 60 by 2, 3, 4 and 5, these choices facilitate calculation especially when division into equal portions is required. The Egyptians constructed a celestial calendar, with 12 months of 30 days each, and 5 days added at the end of the year. To use the sky as a calendar, they identified 36 bright stars whose risings occurred at ten-day intervals. These stars are the decans which were later added as subdivisions of the zodiac.

With the 12 zodiac signs each divided into 30 days in the celestial calendar, the 360-degree circle of Hipparchus was a very natural generalisation. The word horoscope, incidentally comes from the Greek, Horoskopos, meaning hour-watcher.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica; The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers.

Please settle an argument and confirm the origin of the expression 'to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea'. (Graeme Parkinson, Wood Green, London). PS: What is the collective noun for a lot of pigs?

The phrase has its origins in nautical slang where the 'devil' was a seam between planks that was difficult to make watertight, particularly the long seam of the first plank on the outer hull next to the keel and the seam along the edge of the deck. The inaccessibility of such seams makes it difficult to perform the caulking process of hammering oakum into the gap and adding tar. In the case of the latter seam, only the thickness of the hull was between the 'devil' and the deep blue sea, hence the expression, signifying a choice between two positions, both unpleasant.

The collective noun for pigs is more difficult. It's a singular of boars and a sounder or drift of swine, but there seems to be no generally agreed term for pigs in general. It could, of course, as with skein and gaggle for geese, depend on whether the pigs are flying or on the ground.

Sources: Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by B A Phythian; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Can you tell me why we say 'grist to the mill' when grist actually comes from a mill, a product of the milling process? (Dave Till, Darlington)

The original meaning of 'grist' (an Old English word which has been traced back to the 10th century) was a gnashing of teeth. From that it came to mean any grinding process, then wheat brought for grinding. Hence 'grist to the mill' is an expression dating back to 1583.

The modern use of 'grist' to mean corn that has been ground, or the by-products of the grinding process, dates back to about the same time.

For the next 300 years or so, grist went indiscriminately both to and from mills. Until comparatively recently, the grist to the mill use faded away. Confusingly, though, the metaphor remains.

A similar, although even worse, confusion comes with the words 'sinistrorse' and 'dextrorse' (sprialling upwards to left and right respectively). Early botanists used these words from the point of view of the plant, later ones from the point of view of the observer, with the result that they swapped meanings entirely around 1900 and you can never be sure which is which. All grist to the mill for collectors of linguistic trivia.

Source: OED


Jennifer Gill of Rotherham writes to correct and complete our account of the Three Wise Monkeys, with an eye-witness report:

'They were at the Toshugo Shrine at Nikko, which is a beautiful mountain resort about 95 miles north of Tokyo. The shrine was dedicated to Tokugawa Layasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate and built by his grandson Lemitsu in 1636. Legend says that the monkeys 'will cure horses of epidemic'.'

After the final word on the monkeys, David Meredith telephoned to report a sighting of a fourth. His set, purchased in China, turns the trio into a quartet by adding 'do no evil', with hands, Mr Meredith says, 'over his naughty bits'.