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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 warlike.

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 remote effect.

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