General Patton and the Shite Grave

On his daily lunchtime walks, Boyfriend has taken to unearthing tiny bits of the long-forgotten history of Oakland. They are made for one another in this regard, he and Oakland. A city that has only just started gentrifying, Oakland hosts several historically significant sites, handing Boyfriend a new treasure every week. From the evolution of the oldest business owned by an African-American woman to the fate of a Japanese grocery store in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Boyfriend has traced some very interesting stories on his recent afternoon strolls. So it didn’t entirely surprise me when the other day, as we were grabbing a snack in downtown Oakland, he glanced out of the window of the establishment and said, apropos of nothing, “You see that stairwell leading down to the train station? That was the exact location of Oakland’s first public restroom.”

"What did I say about appropriate meal-time conversation, Gustaf?"

“Now what did I say about appropriate meal-time conversation, Gustaf?” (Image source.)

This may not have been the most appropriate snack-time conversation, especially considering the fat piece of roasted potato I had just stuffed in my mouth. But it was a fascinating story. In August 1919, the City of Oakland allotted $10,000 of public funding to build Oakland’s first “comfort room,” on a site that hosted, at the time, a temporary hut for community service volunteers during WWI. The women’s section of this comfort room was provided with many more facilities than the men’s, including passageways that could accommodate baby carriages, and “rest rooms” (as opposed to “restrooms”) for the ladies to, well, rest.

Of course, with Boyfriend the conversation never stops at the end of one story. All that talk of toilets and WWI had led him to yet another tale, and before he could end the Great Comfort Room Saga with the dramatic flourish it deserved, he moved right on, without transition, to this:

“Did you know that the mayor of one of the French villages in which General Patton worked during the First World War mistakenly maintained a latrine pit under the assumption that it was the grave of a fallen American soldier?”

The first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name of General George S. Patton is his role in the Battle of Normandy. Not so well known is his role in WWI, during which he was stationed in France as Captain, and briefly as Colonel. Towards the end of WWI, Colonel Patton was given the responsibility of developing the Army’s Tank Corps. After a thorough recon of the area in 1917, he decided to establish the Tank Brigade Headquarters in a muddy little town by the name of Bourg — because what better place to learn how to man a tank than a large patch of earth slathered in mud.

George S. Patton in France in 1918. (Image source: Wikipedia)

George S. Patton in France in 1918. (Image source: Wikipedia)

But then the war ended, and for a short couple of decades, people moved on with their lives. The next time George S. Patton visited that region of France, he was a General and a hero to the people. For reasons that I imagine were both professionally and personally motivated, he traveled through some of the places he was stationed at during the last war. In Bourg, people remembered him from the last time he was there and welcomed him with a “procession of pitchforks, scythes, and rakes.” As he visited all the places that had been a part of his temporary home back in 1918, the General realized, with much amusement, that a particular “grave” by the name of “Abandoned Rear” was still being maintained by the town. Here’s the story of the grave in the General’s own words:

In 1917, the mayor, who lived in the “new house” at Bourg, bearing the date 1760, came to me, weeping copiously, to say that we had failed to tell him of the death of one of our soldiers. Being unaware of this sad fact, and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the “grave,” so we went together and found a newly closed latrine pit with the earth properly banked and a stick at one end to which was affixed crosswise a sign saying, “Abandoned Rear.” This the French had taken for a cross. I never told them the truth.

The only record of this incident is in the General’s autobiography (from which the above passage is taken), which was incomplete at the time of his death in 1945. I cannot imagine what kind of name the French mayor thought “Abandoned Rear” was, especially considering that the word “abandon” means the same in both French and English. Maybe he thought “Abandoned” was a rank in the US Army, like Captain or Major, and that “Rear” was the last name of said “Abandoned.” Or simply that whoever had gone through the effort of putting this soldier with the last name “Rear” in the ground, hadn’t then taken the time to leave a proper epitaph, instead leaving a quick note indicating the “abandoned” status of Private/Specialist/Corporal “Rear.” Whichever way this worked out, it’s not clear if George S. Patton kept the truth from the mayor simply because he didn’t have the heart to correct him, or because he had a great–if dark–sense of humor.

Personally, when I think of the young George S. Patton being walked to the site of “Abandoned Rear” by an earnest French mayor, I imagine him thinking to himself, “Dude, this is just total shit.”

“…yes, but are you one hundred percent sure?”

And yes, I do wonder if the “grave” of “Abandoned Rear” still stands in Bourg. It’s probably a long shot, but I’d be tempted to take a look if I find myself in that part of the world.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

English Vs. English: A Brief History of Cricket in the Olympics

Every four years, a certain sporting spectacle graces the world with its presence. Fans travel to this event from all over the world, wearing their team’s colors on their sleeves, their caps, their shoes, their faces, and even their refreshments. No, I’m not talking about the soccer World Cup: soccer is altogether too unsophisticated a sport to feature anywhere near this, the Gentleman’s Game.

Urgh. How terribly plebeian!

Urgh. How terribly plebeian!

Countries that rarely get to boast of sporting prowess are represented at this event, and some of them even break records. No, I’m not talking about the Olympics: the records at this event are made or broken over periods of about eight hours rather than eight seconds.

It's over? What do you mean it's over? I've barely even tasted the crumpets!

It’s over? What do you mean it’s over? I’ve barely tasted the crumpets!

To tell you the truth, this sport is not even followed all over the world. Great gift of the British colonial empire to the civilizations it overpowered, the game has a serious following in just a handful of countries, most of which, not entirely incidentally, are former British colonies or dominions. But don’t for a moment let that fool you into believing the game’s fans are small in number: among the countries that play it are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. If even just one third of the populations of each of those countries followed the game (and I suspect it’s a lot more than just one third), that’s already about fifty million people right there. I am from one of these countries, as you might know. I am one of those fifty million, and for a large part of my childhood I was the kind of person who pushed the pause button on the rest of her life when this particular sporting event was on:

The Cricket World Cup.

There’s nothing exceptional or extraordinary about this particular cricket World Cup, of course. But it’s the first time I’m watching this event with Boyfriend, and his attitude–curious interest combined with contrarian resistance–has made it doubly entertaining for me. My interest is unironic and unapologetic, mind you: I stay up late into the night to watch matches, and text constantly with my sister all the way on the south end of the Bay, my brother all the way on the east coast, and my parents all the way across the world. Boyfriend on the other hand, while interested in some aspects of the sport, can’t be bothered to give it eight hours of his day, or even just two. The statistics hold his fancy, but the jingoistic patriotism sends him running for the woods. Our household is split right down the middle during the World Cup, and even though Boyfriend sometimes gives me his begrudging company, the only way he can get through a match is by constantly dishing out obscure details about the history of the game.

Like this one last week, as we watched the Great Mother Country’s team being delivered a sound thrashing by New Zealand:

“Did you know that cricket was an official part of the 1900 Olympic Games, and that England beat England to win that event?”

In the context of the match we were watching at the time, “England beat England” seemed like an accurate thing to say, given how the English team was doing itself no favors. But this wasn’t about the match we were watching, and I was immediately curious. I realized upon looking it up that Boyfriend was (obviously) exaggerating when he said “England beat England,” but only slightly. Here’s how:

In the very first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, the organizers proposed including the game of cricket–renowned, I imagine, not only in its pedigree as the favorite pastime of British landed gentry but also in just how much of your day it ate up. But a total absence of entries meant that the plan was quietly extinguished. The plan was revived the next time the Olympic Games rolled around, in Paris in 1900, and this time there was more enthusiasm: England, France, Belgium and Holland, all came forward to play.

Except at the very last minute, Belgium and Holland pulled out. It was all up to England and France to uphold the glory of this great sport now. Did they get the best brains in their respective nations to pick invincible teams? Did they round up talented youngsters from the streets of every village to make sure they had the greatest possible pool? Did they offer hitherto-unheard-of monetary incentives to potential winners?

No, no, and no.

You see, the 1900 Olympic Games were officially put down in the record books as the Olympic Games only retroactively, in 1912. Back in 1900, the term “Olympic Games” was hardly even used. The events that took place as a part of it, spread haphazardly over a period of several months, were assumed by the authorities and players to be a part of the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. Neither England not France actually realized it was the Olympic Games they were competing in. The teams, therefore, were not even nationally selected.

Still, how did England end up playing England, right? Well, England already had a team set up to tour the Isle of Wight. Composed mostly of members of the Castle Cary Cricket Club and old boys from Blundells’s school, England fielded a team of “distinctly average club cricketers.” As for France, well, they pieced together the few cricket-playing members of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques. And unsurprisingly, almost every single one of these was a British expatriate. It was a match between a team of twelve players from Devon and Somerset counties and a team of twelve players from all over Britain, currently working in France as engineers, diplomats, and businessmen.

England Vs. England.

The result? England Won. But clearly, England also lost, as did France. With about twenty people and a few bemused gendarmes in the audience.

The winning team.

The winning team. (Image source.)

In the events that followed after the match, the English media declared that the French were far “too excitable to enjoy the game,” the driver of the winning team crashed the coach on the way back to the hotel, causing injury to a few players, and the Olympic committee, which had had about enough of this ridiculous song-and-dance, ended its relationship with the game of cricket with immediate effect. Cricket has never featured in the Olympics again. And even though several countries whose populations have been stereotyped as far more excitable than that of France have started to dominate the game of cricket, the French have since stayed clear of as if it were the wrong kind of cheese pairing for their wine.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

What’s Black, White, and Blue All Over: The Hierarchy of Colors in Linguistic Evolution

In recent times Boyfriend and I, along with our board-game buddies, have taken a break from Settlers of Catan, and decided to give Puerto Rico a shot instead. Like any other well-designed strategy game Puerto Rico is a lot of fun, but it also makes me profoundly uncomfortable. As the name suggests, it is set in some fictional version of Puerto Rico,  and the path to victory includes establishing plantations of crops like sugar, indigo, or tobacco. You get to either sell the harvest in the (presumably) European market, or ship it off to (presumably) Europe.

The game doesn’t say so explicitly, but if you’ve ever attended a high school history class, you will find it hard to miss the fact that we’re dealing with colonialism here. Of course, if you still don’t understand why this game makes me uncomfortable, allow me to present yet another detail. The plantations that you acquire need workers, right? Well, the game provides you with these workers. They are called “colonists,” they mysteriously appear on a “colonist ship,” and the “Mayor” of Puerto Rico gets to distribute them among various players. Here’s what they look like:

puerto-rico-board-game-introYeah. Those dark brown pegs? They’re the “colonists.” Now do you understand why this award-winning game makes me uncomfortable?

Obviously, I couldn’t help addressing this issue for the entire duration of the game. It didn’t stop me from being competitive, of course, and when I came in second to Boyfriend, who had invested heavily in indigo plantations, I may have said a thing or two about how the pursuit of indigo had essentially destroyed the world, and how I hoped he was looking forward to having all his clothes dyed in blue. Boyfriend had already completed his victory dance and moved onto other things at this point, and when I threatened to dye his clothes blue mentioned blue dye, his mind raced to this place:

“Did you know that in most languages blue is one of the last colors to be named?”

I looked this up. Not only is blue the very last basic color to be given a name in most languages, but most languages also follow the same pattern when it comes to the order in which other basic colors are named. As far back as 1969, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay posited that if you could could determine what stage of evolution a particular language was in, you could draw accurate conclusions about how many colors had been named in this language, and which ones they were. All languages, they claimed, had terms for black (dark/cold) and white (light/warm), because these two categories were named in Stage 1. When a language progressed to Stage 2 it had a name for red, and if it was in Stages 3 or 4, it had names for yellow or green, or both. The naming of the color blue, however, was an act that took place only when a language had reached a significantly advanced stage. As happens in academia, Berlin and Kay’s work was challenged on several grounds in the following years. But as recently as 2012, a paper published in PNAS confirmed the order of naming colors that they had originally proposed. Most languages, it appears, name basic colors in the following order:

1. Black/white, 2: Red, 3: Violet, 4: Green/Yellow, and 5: Blue.

There is an obvious question here: Why is this the case? There exists an abundance of research to prove that neither cultures nor languages are homogenous. The overwhelming similarity in the order in which basic colors are named, however, suggests that there is a fundamental commonality in human experience that dates as far back as the beginning of language.

No one has been able to lay out with any certainly what this fundamental experiential commonality is, but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who published a study in 1858 on the work of Homer, was particularly bothered by the great writer’s use of the term “wine-colored” or “wine-like” to describe turbulent oceans, stubborn oxen, and everything that lay in between. To Gladstone, neither the ocean nor oxen were even close to “wine-colored.” He concluded, therefore, that the ancient Greeks hadn’t developed the ocular distinction between various colors, and that to them, the world appeared mostly black and white with some shades of red.

This theory was later debunked, and it became clear that the question needed to be addressed from a linguistic perspective, not an optical one. In his book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher briefly deals with the color-naming hierarchy, and suggests that languages are universally late in arriving at a word for blue because the color rarely appears in nature.

Naturally occuring

Occurs in nature. (Image source.)

NOT naturally occurring

DOES NOT occur in nature.

The hypothesis does hold a certain amount of weight. Black and white are as basic as shutting your eyes and then opening them, or being able to tell the difference between night and day. Red, similarly, occurs widely in nature, in flowers, berries, some types of soil, birds, beetles, even the sunrise. Red is also one of the easiest dyes to make naturally, while blue is among the most difficult. Furthermore, as some people have proposed, red is a color that would have been familiar to human beings since the very beginning because it is the color of blood. Early humans didn’t eat meat, but between injuries in the wild, menstruation, and childbirth, they probably bled quite a bit themselves. Going further down the naming hierarchy, yellow is common to flowers, fruits, and animals, while even a little scrap of shrubbery would introduce you to green. Blue, however, is found only on rare insects, rare flowers, rare birds and reptiles, and a handful of berries.

Oh, and the sky. Yes, the sky appears blue. But that’s only some of the time, isn’t it? The sky also appears purple and magenta and orange and grey. And each of these colors was among the very last to be named, following after blue. Clearly, early humans weren’t big on staring into the sky. Or maybe they were just rabidly utilitarian: if the sky didn’t interfere with their daily lives, they didn’t feel the need to address it.

There are no certain answers on the subject. Each theory has holes in it. For instance, the ground is brown for most part, as are tree trunks, and the skin on a lot of early humans. So why didn’t the name for this color appear before red? We’ll probably never know. What we can draw conclusions about, though, is the connection between this linguistic phenomenon and the spread of European colonialism. (I know. I can’t help myself: a decade of Postcolonial Studies will do that to you. But bear with me.) Scholars like Deutscher have proposed that one of the reasons blue was among the last colors to be named is because blue dyes were very difficult to make. Now, the latter part of this claim is known to be true. Because blue was a very difficult dye to make, the color acquired luxury status across the ancient and medieval world. It became the color of royalty and of the upper classes. The ancient Egyptians dyed the cloth they used to mummify bodies blue, and Julius Caesar claimed that Celtic warriors painted their bodies blue. Because of the status this color enjoyed, indigo, when discovered, became something of a goldmine for European traders. It became a business that set the foundations for one of history’s biggest colonial empires.

I know, there’s no causation here. But I didn’t promise a relationship of causality, I just promised a connection. And the connection is undeniable, don’t you think? Just like the beauty of a blue planet seen from far, far away.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.