Our Five Part Series on Merrie Olde England
Blighty's history reporter, Morris Bell, has dug up some fascinating facts about the Elizabethans this week. This post concludes our five part series in which Blighty's Blog presents a vignette of life in Merrie England half a millenium ago.
Legends of Old England - Part Five: The Devil Made Me Do It
How did the Elizabethans tell the time? There were no clocks for the average person to check. A farm labourer could look up to see where the Sun was in the sky. He might know that he could stop for a meal when the Sun was above the village church. But how would he cope when the sky was overcast, as it often is in Cloudie Olde England?
In The Nick
Despite this, the Elizabethans had a concept of when something occurred "just in time" as we might say today. "Just in time for what?" you might ask. If they didn't know what time of day it was, how could something be "just in time".
Think of it like this. An action could be "just in time" at any time of day. For example, getting into church before the Devil takes your soul. Since they had no concept of the measurement of time in hours, minutes and seconds they defined "just in time" in terms that they understood.
A very small amount of time was compared to a small wound inflicted by a sharp knife - a "nick". So a fine division of time became "a nick". Elizabethans coined the expression "in the nick" meaning "just in time". Later the expression was expanded to "in the nick of time".
In modern English "Old Nick" is a term meaning the Devil. Is there a connection, do you think?
I Am Ever So Sorry!
The British are famously apologetic. Some claim that we must have an overly developed sense of guilt, since we seem obsessed with saying "I'm sorry" all the time. But it was the Elizabethans who started us off on our road of apology.
I am sorry for bringing this up and I apologize if you find this trite, but actually the meaning of the word "apology" has fundamentally changed since Good Queen Bess's days. In it's original sense the word "apology" meant a justification of one's position or faith.
One famous piece of writing called "Apology for the Devil", although written in the 20th Century, used the original Elizabethan meaning of the word. Only later did the concept of expressing regret and contrition become assigned to the same word.
What the Dickens?
I have always thought this expression was a modern one. Like many people, I suppose, I assumed it was a reference to the author Charles Dickens. Not so, the expression dates back to Elizabethan times and refers to the Devil.
Witchcraft, or at least the pursuit of witches, was rampant in England from the 16th until the 18th centuries. The Elizabethans lived in an age of darkness and ignorance. Their world was ruled by the Church and the Devil was thought to be behind every act of misfortune.
The End (justifies the means)
This concludes our five part look at the legends of old England. I would like to publish my apology for any deception perpetrated in this series. If I told a lie - the Devil made me do it! Believe it or not.
"Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited" - John Cleese
Author John Corby also writes as "Bulldogge" for the British Canadian newspaper.
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