General information and resources for students and adult learners.


    Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. -Albert Einstein


    The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you go. - Dr. Seuss

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    Research means that you don't know, but are willing to find out.-Charles F. Kettering

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

One of the most popular idiomatic warnings is “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” – a caution to be on guard against people who seek to gain our favor by bestowing gifts upon us.  

Why? It’s not the gift itself but rather the motive behind the gift that should concern us.

This phrase dates back to the capture of Troy by the deception of the famous Trojan horse.  If you’re not familiar with the story, a gift was made to besieged city of Troy during the Trojan War – a large wooden horse. 

When the Trojan residents opened the city doors and wheeled in the horse, they were shocked to discover that in the horse’s wooden belly was a Greek army in hiding.  This led to the fall of Troy.

It is recorded in Virgil's Aeneid, Book 2, 19 BC when he said “Timeo danaos et dona ferentes” (I fear the Danaos (Greeks) and those bearing gifts).


Crocodile tears

Why sham tears or false displays of sorrow are called “crocodile tears”?

The story begins in ancient Egypt along the River Nile. One day, out in the wilderness, a group of Egyptian heard what they thought was a person crying.  Attracted by the cries, the group went to investigate.  They failed to return. The crying began again.  A few other Egyptians, more cautious than their former brethren, went to the spot where they heard the crying.

There they were attacked by a monstrous creature.  The Egyptians noticed that the reptile moaned and sighed like a human in deep distress. Moreover, the strange creature was the only animal they have ever encountered that could cover it’s eyes with a thin transparent membrane; when it did so, it created the illusion of blindness.  The Egyptians, on their guard killed the creature. The monster was later named the “crocodile.”

With the advance of civilization, crocodiles were discovered to inhabit other lands. Always the experience of the Egyptians was repeated.  Eventually humans learned that the crocodile’s moans and tears were affected in order to trap victims. 

Consequently, great precautions were taken to guard against “crocodile tears”.


Spill the beans

“To reveal a secret” is the most popular meaning of “spill the beans.” The phrase comes from the ancient Greeks, among whom beans were very important not only for food but also in the conduct of their local elections.

When a Greek voted, his ballot was cast by putting a bean in the helmet of the candidate of his choice whose helmet lay alongside those of the whole slate of candidates.  The candidate whose helmet had the greatest number of beans in it at the close of the election was declared the winner.The count was public and when the winner was announced, his helmet, with the beans in it, was returned to him. Then he would “spill the beans” out of the helmet and in the middle of the applause of the voters, put it on his head.  

This act symbolized his acceptance of the office in which he had been elected.  Because the helmet contained the outcome of the election,” spill the beans” became synonymous with disclosing a secret which is the way we use the phrase today.


When in Rome do as the Romans do

One of the first great men in history to recognize the social value of majority rule was St. Augustine.

When St. Augustine dispatched St. Ambrose from Milan to Rome, Ambrose was confused about the proper day on which to fast, for in Rome, it was then the custom to fast on Saturday.  

He asked St. Augustine which fast day to observe.  The learned Augustine remarked, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  Because these words of St Augustine were both wise and practical, they have become one of the world’s noblest maxims.     


Raining Cats and Dogs

It is safe to bet that nobody ever saw cats and dogs fall from the heavens during a rainstorm. Yet whenever there’s a heavy downpour, the common phrase we all use is “it’s raining cats and dogs.”  Little do we know that we’re taking a page out of ancient northern mythology.

In the myths of the Teutons, an ancient people of either Germanic or Celtic origin who occupied Jutland around 100 BC, the wind was envisioned as a huge dog that served as chief attendant to Odin, the Norse god of wisdom and war who was responsible for the cosmos. 

The Teutons believed that when it rained very hard, Odin’s dog (in the form of the wind) was chasing a cat (which took the form of the rain).  When it poured then, Odin was dropping “cats and dogs” from the sky. Science, of course, has dispelled the claims of mythology, but when we’re drenched with rain we still revert to the ancient Teutons and mutter, “it’s raining cats and dogs".   


Leave no stone unturned

When the boss wants the job well done, he will tack onto his orders the phrase “leave no stone unturned.” 

By this he means that no effort should be spared in completing the work.  This expression has been with us since the days of the Oracle at Delphi in Greek mythology. You will recall that the oracle knew the answers to everything, because its source of wisdom was its prophetic communication with the gods. 

The tale was told by Euripides that one day, when consulted about the whereabouts of a treasure hidden by a vanquished general who had fled, the Oracle counseled that the way to find the treasure was to “leave no stone unturned.


To eat humble pie

No one likes “to eat humble pie”. The phrase goes back to the early days of a very class-conscious society, though it actually does not mean what it appears to say. There was no humility in that pie.  Usually the uneducated are said  to drop their letter ‘h’s’ when pronouncing words.  But the case of the humble pie is a telling example in which the letter  ‘h’ was added out of ignorance.

‘Umbles’ was once a common description of offal the heart, the liver, and the stomach of an animal.  As umbles were not credited with much culinary merit, they were reserved to feed servants and the poor and made into a pie for them.  Very appropriately and logically, this was known as umbles’ pie.

When umbles became an obsolete term and people no longer knew what it meant , they began to speak of ’eating humble pie’, which has now become an expression relating to  humility.  


Passing on stairs

The belief that it is unlucky to pass anyone on the stairs going in the opposite direction, has a biblical foundation.  It goes back to Jacob’s dream of the ladder (related in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 28), on which he saw angels ascending and descending.

No one ever knows whether the apparent human passing on a stairway is not in reality a divine being ‘going up’ or ‘coming down’.  In any way to obstruct messenger from God would be disrespectful. One’s presence on the stairs might make him change direction and causing to delay his progress.  To avoid any such possibility with its awful consequences, it was best never to pass anyone on the stairs.


Closing Eyes When Making A Wish

The custom of closing one’s eyes when making a wish goes back to ancient sun worship. People asking for favor turned towards the sun which as the giver of warmth and light, they imagined to have occult power. 

Being unable to look into the sun because of its glare, they instinctively closed their eyes simply t prevent blindness.

Later generations forgot the original circumstances and the physiological reason. Without knowing why people assumed that the gesture had magic potency. They were thus convinced that unless they closed their eyes when making a wish, it would not come true.


Cross my heart

‘Cross my heart’, in fact, was an oath.  It combined a sacred symbol with a physiological misconception.  No one, at least no practicing Christian, would make the sign of the cross and tell a lie.

For thousands of years, the heart and not the brain was erroneously regarded as the seat of all knowledge and thought.  That is why the memorizing of a text or a poem is still referred to as learning it ‘by heart’.

All thought is formulated in words, even if these are only silently spoken.  Therefore, anything said comes ‘from the heart’ not emotionally but cerebrally, so to speak. To make the sign of the cross above the very source of one’s thoughts gave sanctity to one’s words and affirmed their truth.  


A knife as a present

Any sharp cutting or piercing instrument, like a knife, scissors or pins and needles can easily do damage, but their danger is multiplied if in occult belief they are empowered by black magic.  

How easily thus at the very least, a knife given as a present could cut friendship. To end any such potential evil, the recipient of the gift presents the giver with a small coin. This subtly changes a free gift into token purchase, thereby defusing a possibly aggressive weapon.


To cross one's fingers

Keeping one’s fingers crossed is believed to help in making a wish come true.To start with, what is now often merely a figure of speech was a solemn action expecting a twofold result. It would ward off evil forces and attract good luck. This would make certain the fulfillment of a wish. The two crossed fingers symbolized St Andrew’s cross.  A sacred sign, it protected not only the present but as it were, things to come, by keeping away the devil always so eager and ready to destroy hope.

There was magic in the gesture as well which, at the meeting point at the two crossed fingers, ’nailed’  good luck. Thus securely tightly, it could not escaped and thereby ensured that whatever was wanted would happen. 


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