Monthly Archives: September 2011

Assassins, Executioners and the War of the Currents

American actor Edwin Booth was one of the great Shakespearean performers of the nineteenth century. Waiting at a train station one day, he noticed a young man slip and fall in the space between the train and the platform’s edge. … Continue reading

Posted in History | Tagged , , , ,

The Jeffrey Dahmer of Insects

The emerald cockroach wasp is an amazing example of evolution’s power to create complex instinctive behaviour. While other animals build nests, spin webs or perform dances that encode the location of a source of nectar, the behaviour that evolution has … Continue reading

Posted in Nature | Tagged , ,

Morphine, Heroin and Grog

By the early nineteenth century, opium addiction was a minor but growing problem in the West. In 1827, the German drug company Merck began marketing a drug to treat opium addiction. The drug, derived from the opium poppy, was named … Continue reading

Posted in Etymology, History | Tagged , , , ,

Monks, Apes and Coffee

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, founded in 1520, was intended as a more pure following of St Francis’ teachings than that practiced by the Franciscans of the time. Monks were required to live austere lives, wear a beard and … Continue reading

Posted in Etymology | Tagged , ,

Vampyres, Volcanoes and Byron

The current spate of vampire fiction is a continuation of the almost unabated popularity of the genre over recent decades. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to Lord Byron and a volcanic eruption in Indonesia almost two … Continue reading

Posted in Art and Literature | Tagged , , , , ,

Gamut, Ampersand, Dollar, At

Gamut In a review of the play The Lake, Dorothy Parker once wrote: “Go to the Martin Beck Theatre and see Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Gamut, meaning a full range or scale, comes … Continue reading

Posted in Etymology | Tagged , , ,

Napoleon, Helena and the Iron Crown of Lombardy

In 1805, Napoleon was in the unusual position of being both an Emperor and a president. In late 1804, he had crowned himself Emperor of France, but he was also president of the Italian Republic. This was not the Italy … Continue reading

Posted in History, Religion | Tagged , ,