Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
An explorer from the South Pole or
Central Africa has something to tell so very different from things
at home that its very strangeness may lend it an interest all its
own. So, too, have our grandfathers, who have come from the long ago
to the now.
Each age has its own peculiar manners
and its own customs. These distinguishing features may originate in
environment, in the necessities and special conditions of society,
or in mere accident. Then, too, a custom may wholly pass away with
the condition that gave it birth, or it may outlive those conditions
in whole or in part as a thing strange and unaccountable, perhaps
becoming a matter of interest and research. As in the evolution of
animal organisms higher forms retain traces of a lower from which
they were evolved, so in the customs of every day life we may see
vestiges or remnants of an earlier condition of society.
Our custom of bowing or removing the hat
in recognition of respect is probably a remnant of an old time
custom of prostration of the body in the presence of a superior—a
custom still prevalent in some parts of the world. It would seem
that this remaining vestige is with us moving down to the vanishing
point. Sometimes —perhaps more frequently than otherwise—a man
merely touches the edge of his hat, as if to show that he has one.
Nor does he always go thus far;—the token of respect or of
recognition may be further weakened to a slight nod of the head, a
waving of the hand or of a stick. With another generation it may be
attenuated to the crooking of the little finger or a wink of an eye.
The buttons on the back of a man's coat seem to serve no purpose
either for use or ornament, and are supposed to be relics of an old
time custom when they were used to hold up the coat tails of a
person riding on horse-back or in other movements that might be
hindered by dangling skirts.
Many English words had their origin in
some social condition, custom or belief now obsolete. The word
influence originally applied to a power or force supposed to go out
from the stars to the earth, shaping and controlling the destiny of
men. The same idea attached to the word disaster which originally
meant a calamity brought about by the influence of an evil star.
Saying that a person had met with a disaster was equivalent to the
statement that he was ill-starred, or that some serious ill had
befallen him through the baneful influence of a star.
It is rather surprising that we have so
many words in our language that appear to have had their origin in a
period of infidelity or of unbelief in God as the supreme ruler of
the world. Among words of this class we find fate, destiny, luck,
fortune, accident, happening—words that appear to imply belief in
some determinative force back of the God of the Christian faith. Or
may such words have originated under conditions of society similar
to those of the ancient Athenians who, in their ultra-religiosity,
having duly recognized all the deities they had ever heard of and
desiring to be quite safe, erected an altar to an unknown god? With
some such object, wishing to keep on good terms with all the gods,
our Anglo-Saxon forefathers had a god for every day in the week from
Sun-day to Satur-day.
Judging from the meaning of the words
derived from the names of the planets, the deities which these
heavenly bodies represented impressed their temperament or character
on the individuals who came under their influence. Thus he who was
subjected to the power of Jupiter or Jove was jovial; one under
Mercury was mercurial or excitable; one under Mars was martial or
The word spinster, often used in legal
documents to designate an unmarried woman, was originally applied to
the woman who did the spinning for the family. A few years ago some
unmarried women in England, who, in legal phrase were spinsters,
considering the term offensive, formed a club that they might use
their combined influence for the expunction of it from the language.
For equally good reason they might have objected to daughter which
originally meant a milkmaid.
But yet again! Look at this English
language of ours,—What a polyglot tongue it is, laying under tribute
all, or nearly all, the tongues of the world! These borrowed words
that make up a large part of our patchwork language, in their
old-time Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, French or what-not form,
served their own day in their native land; now, assuming new form,
they have been commandeered to serve in the great army of words used
by the English-speaking people. They form a large and goodly
company, adapted to all our thoughts. Let us use them lawfully and
righteously. Each has special adaptation for its own service, and we
should not try to force them to do work for which they have no
fitness or with which they have no fellowship.
The word awful, one of the most sacred
words in the English language, is set apart, as it were, to express
an idea which no other single word can fully do, combining a sense
of fear and dread mingled with profound reverence. It is well
employed in —"The awful majesty of Jehovah claims from man and angel
the deepest heartfelt recognition." But how often we hear it used so
lightly and with meaningless application, as—"The hat is awfully
pretty," "The cake is awfully nice." The man who debases the King's
coin by filing or clipping pieces from it, thus lessening its value,
makes himself liable to severe punishment. What should be done with
him who debases the King's English?
The present has grown largely out of the
past and what we are doing to-day is shaping the character of the
future. It should be our aim to "hold fast what is good and to
resist every appearance of evil," that we may leave the world better
than we found it. Things are ever changing for better or worse—very
gradually it may be, and if so, the more easily and stealthily do
the changes make their way.
In weighing the past and the present we
may well balance difference of poise by the thought that the two are
really parts of one great whole without border line of demarcation
between them. They shade into each other—the past ever foreshadowing
the next thing, and the present growing out of that which went
before it. It is cause and effect; or effect becoming cause for more
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