Word(s) With a Past: Two Bits

One of the favorite cheers for my junior high school's football team went "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team stand up and holler." It made no sense to me, but neither did football. When the rest of the Trojan fans stood up and hollered, I stood up and hollered. When they said glumly in the stands, I sat. By high school, my best friends were all in marching band, I was therefore freed of my weekend football obligation, and I knew that "two bits" meant a quarter--I just didn't know why.

Turns out the phrase has its roots in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the river of silver that flowed from the mines of Potosí to the royal coffers in Madrid. *

In 1497, their Most Catholic Majesties** Ferdinand and Isabella introduced a new coin into the global economy as part of a general currency reform. The peso (literally "weight") was a heavy silver coin that was worth eight reales***. In Spanish it became known as a peso de ocho ****; in English it was a "piece of eight".

The peso quickly became a global currency. It was relatively pure silver, it was uniform in size and weight, and it had one special characteristic: it could be divided like a pie into eight reales. In English, those reales became known as "bits". Two bits were a quarter of a peso. After the new American Congress based the weight of the American dollar on the peso in 1792*****, "two bits" also referred to a quarter of a dollar.

Now I need to figure out what "Two in ten, let's do it again" means.

*And right back out again to pay for spices, textiles and other luxury goods in the India trade.

** Their phrase, not mine.

***The important word here is EIGHT, not reales. The story would be the same if it were eight goats, eight marbles, or eight football fans.

**** For those of you who never had to count to ten in Spanish, ocho means EIGHT.

***** Choosing to base American currency on the peso rather than the pound was a not-so-subtle way to spit in Great Britain's eye. The peso remained legal tender in the US until the 1850s.

England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty

NPG811. Artist unknown

As I may have mentioned before, I'm happily bopping around in the long eighteenth century*. In the process I'm stumbling across all kinds of stuff that makes my brain fizz with ideas. Some of it I'm hoarding. But some of it is just too good not to share

Today's case in point: Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820), military man, scientist, and adventurer.

Popham began his naval career in 1778, when he was only sixteen. He served in the American Revolution and surveyed the southwest coast of Africa. Unemployed and on half-pay in the brief period of peace between the American and French Revolutions, he took leave from the navy, bought a ship, and sailed to India, where he performed survey work for the British East India Company. Eventually, the EIC became suspicious about his trading activities. Popham's ship was seized and he was accused of violating the East India Company's trade monopoly, with hints that he might have been smuggling.

Once out of the Asian trade, Popham was reinstated in the navy. He rose quickly through the ranks during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, in the course of which he organized two important troop evacuations, drew up plans for the "sea fencibles" *** and for destroying the sea locks at Ostend, was named a knight of Malta by Tsar Paul of Russia, and experimented with Robert Fulton's "submarine bombs". Obviously, as one contemporary named him, "a damned cunning fellow."

Interesting as all that is, it doesn't make him markedly different from the other creative young officers who abounded in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars. **** A single achievement sets Popham apart from the pack: the creation of a code using signal flags that became the standard for British ships. Originally published in 1801 as Telegraphic Signals or Marine Vocabulary*****, Popham's system adapted traditional signal flags to a numeric code that allowed more detailed communication between ships. Its initial form provided roughly 1000 words; later improvements doubled that. Popham's code wasn't officially adopted by the British admiralty until 1812, but it was widely used by 1803. Admiral Horatio Nelson was an early adopter of the system, which he used to send his famous message of encouragement prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Quite frankly, it had never occurred to me that someone invented the code using naval signal flags. If I thought about them at all, I assumed that the system developed organically. Shows how much I know.



*Roughly 1688 to 1815, or 1832 depending on which historian you talk to. Sometimes centuries are an awkward time division when you're talking about historical events instead of the calendar. Of course, once you start playing with the concept of a "natural" historical division, you introduce new opportunities for disagreement. For instance, almost everyone agrees that the long nineteenth century ended in 1914 with the beginning of WWI, but different historians place the starting date anywhere between 1750 (an approximate date for the Industrial Revolution**) and 1789 (the French Revolution). The short twentieth century is a snap by comparison, 1914 to 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. But I digress. As usual. (See what I mean about the fizzing brain?)

** Talk about opportunities for historians to disagree!

*** A naval militia designed to protect the coast from invasion, and obviously the subject of another blog post

****Raising the question of how they turned into the dangerously stodgy officers who ran the Crimean War forty years later.

*****I don't know about you, but I assumed the word telegraph came into being in the mid-nineteenth system with Samuel Morse's electronic system. Wrong.

Déjà vu All Over Again: Fighting About Richard III

NPG 148; King Richard III by Unknown artist

Some stories never die. For years, those who think Richard III ordered the murder of his nephews (aka the Princes in the Tower) and those who believe he was the victim of a Tudor smear campaign* have continued a low-grade specialist pissing match. With the discovery and authentication of Richard's bones, the battle has moved from the journals and conventions aimed  at specialists and enthusiasts to mainstream venues.

Ricardians and their foes** are all over the media, traditional and web alike, drawing conclusions from the evidence of the dead king's bones with varying degrees of enthusiasm and civility.  Two points in particularly seem to be in contention.

  • Richard's remains clearly show that he had a badly curved spine as a result of scoliosis. So far I've seen arguments that this proves that he 1) did not have a hump or 2) definitely had a hump.

Image courtesy of the Richard III Society

  • This reconstruction of his head, made using forensic technology, is remarkably similar to the famous portrait in Britain's National Portrait Gallery (above)--without the expressiveness of the portrait. Dr. Phil Stone, writing on the Richard III Society website, says "…when I looked him in the eye, 'Good King Richard' seemed alive and about to speak". The website itself describes the reconstructed face as "young, earnest and rather serious". Dr. Sean Lang, in a snarky post in the History Today blog, takes the opposite position: "…my first thought on seeing the face was that I have never seen such ruthlessness in a human face in my life." ***

And so forth.

I will admit to a slight pro-Richard bias, thanks to Josephine Tey's classic novel The Daughter of Time.**** What about you?

* William Shakespeare was not only a great poet and playwright, he was a hell of a spin doctor. Modern politicians can only dream of having such a talented propagandist in their corners.

**I'm never quite sure whether those who believe Richard was a bad guy are actively pro-Tudor or simply anti-Richard. Either way, they are just as passionate about their beliefs as the Ricardians, though I don't believe they've formed a society to espouse their cause. If you know differently, please let me know.

***Personally, I think the reconstruction has the same vacant stare and lack of emotion common to all such reconstructions. The bones by themselves give us the shape of the face, not the shape of the mind or the soul.

**** Read it!  Then read the rest of Tey's novels.