The sandwich will have a birthday this week - well, not the meal itself, but the name. The man who ordered his servant to bring him some sliced beef between two pieces of toasted bread so that he could eat with one hand and continue gambling at cards with the other was, in fact, the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who was born on Nov. 3, 1718.
It is strange how language occasionally enshrines forever the names of disreputable and decadent figures in words that have wholly admirable meanings and applications. Such is the case with the Earl of Sandwich, whose private life was characterized by intemperance and debauchery, and whose years of public service as first lord of the admiralty (similar at that time to our secretary of defense) produced continual charges against him for graft, bribery, mismanagement and general incompetence. Yet here he lives today in the name of our most popular meal and in the former name of our 50th state.The Hawaiian Islands used to be known as the Sandwich Islands because back in 1778, when Capt. James Cook became the first European to explore the islands, he named them for the man who headed the British navy at that time, the Earl of Sandwich.
You have probably noticed over the course of these columns that word histories are a frequent feature of Family Learning. I focus on etymology (not ENtomology, which is the study of insects) for two reasons.
First, it is a subject that seems to become more interesting to people as they get older. There are countless adults today who are fascinated by word origins and histories but who, as children in school, displayed no similar interest whatsoever. Word histories require some knowledge of the world - some experience with the world - before they can provide us those entertaining and sometimes illuminating connections between what we thought were unconnected parts of that world. Word histories, then, are an example of why I call this column "Family Learning," for learning must be seen as an appropriate activity for every member of the family, not just for children.
Second, there are many opportunities in family life for the passing on of word origins and histories from parent to child. The simple act of making a sandwich can also include a little unobtrusive history and geography. Yet, how many sandwiches will be made this week in how many homes across the country, with the only result of that effort being the sandwich itself? And that's too bad because, as with every other subject or topic that is worth learning at all, parental interest in the origin of words will - sooner or later - show up in the knowledge and interest of their children.
No one has to be a master of Latin or Greek to be intrigued by the connections that these languages provide to the spelling and use of thousands of English words. Nor is it necessary to know the stories behind the names of every plant in the garden and every food on the table. But there are numerous adventures and illuminations for adults and children alike to be found in the word history section (Dewey number 422) of your local library.
I have always found that people who understand the workings of something and how that something was made, whether it is an automobile engine or a computer or an article of clothing, tend to take better care of it and are less sloppy about the way they put it to use. This applies to language, I think, as well.