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It’s Carnival! Business Phrases From Medieval Times

February 12, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
I was watching the television series “Merlin” with my family that deals with the medieval times of King Arthur and was wondering if you business people out there do what I do.

Do you also check out similar businesses to yours no matter where you are? For example, if you are in the motel business and go on vacation, do you find yourself checking on how they clean or what marketing materials they use? Do you inordinately pay attention to their customer service approach or what key words they use to the point they think you are with Homeland Security?

If you are in the food business, do you check out menu layouts and find yourself appearing to wander in a confused state searching for the restrooms but are really checking out the kitchen operation?

If you are in the service industry, how many romantic restaurant dinner conversations have started out so nobly but the glaze in your eyes is from noticing the silverware has film on it?

Please tell me there are others out there who started a conversation with their 11 year old kid about their Facebook friends and suddenly found yourself posing 100 questions on if there is a potential market there for your business while he stares at you blankly?

So here am I watching Merlin, paying more attention to the medieval food market and the business terms they were using than the plot to the point I had no idea what the story line was. I noted some of the lines and catch phrases they used and wondered how many of these were truly medieval in origin.

Now being totally lost in what the merry plot was about, I decided to grab my lap-top and google “Medieval Phrases.” Of course I was really searching for a new business idea but don’t tell my family that. In doing so, I came across that had a list of “Medieval Origins of Common Phrases.” I was amazed to see a list of terms that according to this site had their origins in the Middle Ages.

Always believing that branding is vitally important for a community and business to use as a weapon so that your message can be heard above the din of the massive verbiage of the information age, it was interesting to see even medieval terms can be appropriate branding for certain events, communities and businesses. In the spirit of Carnival, here are a few business related phrases that have their origins in “medieval times.”

“Caught You Red-Handed” – This one many of us have heard of and according to this on-line site is derived from the “12th Century practice of dipping a thief’s hand in berry-dye.” Apparently this was not water based paint as it would “soak into the skin and stain the hand for several weeks.” The point of this being that where ever the perpetuator was, folks would know he was convicted of being a thief and it would be a symbol of embarrassment and humiliation. I wonder if there is a product idea here….

“Xerox” – Ha! Thought this was a new word coined for that famous copier didn’t you! But hold on, according to this site’s section on “Medieval Phrases in Use Today,” Xerox was actually a scribe who “copied” Norman and Saxon history by hand into the languages of English, German and Latin. His well known efforts of copying documents led to his name becoming the name of the company that designed the now world renown piece of equipment. Wow, what branding can do for you…

“Bouncer” – Bet you think it has something to do with those big guys trying to keep law and order in a bar. Well, you are not too far off. In the 13th Century it was “customary to pay a small fee (usually one brass or copper coin) to ensure against damages and to ensure that the customer did not sneak away without paying his fare.” That was a policy that the old west saloons could have used! But wait there is more to the “bouncer” term. In medieval times there was not a universal monetary system. In fact it was not until recently that European countries adopted the common currency known as the euro and look at how many problems that it is experiencing lately. With the common use of brass or copper (no, not gold for the common folk), the man at the door of these medieval taverns would “bounce” them off a wet piece of wood. If they “bounced” it meant they were genuine coins and “not counterfeits made of lead.” I wonder if we can do that at the door today with paper money or credit cards…okay maybe a bad branding idea…

“Baker’s Dozen” – Here is one for you foodies. In medieval times, raw materials for food were so precious that bakers, who were not often wealthy, would try to save on ingredients by not actually giving the customer 12 items. Apparently this became such a problem that laws came into fruition with harsh punishments. These penalties became so severe that bakers “began inserting a 13th loaf or cake to ensure they were within the law.” I often wondered why a baker’s dozen actually became associated with the number 13. Ouch, but how often do we appreciate it when a business goes that one extra step and for example puts in a stirring stick when you buy paint or a pencil when you buy drawing paper…

While we are in the spirit of things, here is one for Valentine’s:

“Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve” – For you emotional types out there you know this a phrase for openly showing your feelings. According to this site and author Tim Leonard, it actually is derived from 1255 when “knights would wear the symbol of their family crest or heraldry on their sleeves when they went into battle.” In the same vein of military patches today that indicates your country and battalion, this symbol “was an insignia of the love and devotion that encouraged the knights to defend their family’s honor.” By the 1300’s it became more analogous to today’s military uniform by also indicating valor or rank or, more appropriate for you Valentine’s Day participants, to “denote a lover.” Now there is an interesting idea to give to my wife this Valentine’s…

Happy Carnival and Valentine’s Day!


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