When Brexit finally took place and Britain’s members of the European Parliament started to pack up, they were not only leaving Brussels but were also saying goodbye to their high salaries and first class lifestyles.
Among its many faults, the European Union is like a bottomless pit into which trillions of euros get poured year after year, much of it to cover the astronomic costs of providing the MEPs with their privileged way of life, which includes first class plane and train tickets when they have to move between Brussels, Strasburg and their respective capitals.
But it’s not just the cost of having members of the European Parliament, there are hundreds of cushy jobs in Brussels with salaries that are in the ‘gravy train’ category.
That word was first seen in America after the First World War when it was used to describe railroad workers who were highly paid for doing very little work — just like Eurocrats in Brussels.
The term quickly came to mean any source of easy financial benefits, especially those associated with Wall Street during the Twenties boom.
In more recent times it was applied to Eurocrats in Brussels with sinecure-like jobs that come with sky-high salaries and vast sums for travel and entertainment expenses.
Gravy is a word that owes its existence to a misprint. In purely culinary terms, ‘gravy’ entered the language in the 14th century when it was a sauce made of broth, milk of almonds, spices and wine or ale. It was served with rabbit or chicken, either boiled or roasted.
The ground almonds and the roughly crushed whole spices gave the sauce a grainy texture that was originally called ‘grané’ in Old French. But at some stage ‘grané’ was copied as ‘graué’ (with u for v) and later it became ‘gravé’ and then ‘gravy’.
That was in the 14th century, but 200 years later there was another culinary meaning for gravy: a sauce made with meat juices which consisted of the sediments that come out of a piece of roast beef or a chicken or turkey.
This juice from the meats is heavier than the hot fats, so it sinks to the bottom of the roasting tin. The British pour off most of the fat and the sediment is turned into gravy.
The French word for gravy is ‘jus’, so when we see ‘au jus’ on a French menu, the meat should be served in its own juices and not with a made-up gravy as in British cooking.
The word ‘greaves’, meaning the sediment that sinks to the bottom when tallow is melted for making candles, has the same root as gravy.
By the late 19th century, ‘gravy’ had taken on another meaning: it implied various kinds of extras in the form of money or goods. The First World War song, She Was Poor But She Was Honest, illustrated this with the lines:
It’s the same the whole world over,
It’s the poor what gets the blame,
It’s the rich what gets the gravy,
Ain’t it all a bleedin’ shame?
Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin made their first starring feature in 1950. It was At War With The Army and it made them internationally famous. Jerry sings in this film: “The Navy gets the gravy and the Army gets the beans.” The men in the Navy had a better life, better uniforms, better pay and better food. At least that’s what Army privates thought.
In the above text I’ve used the word ‘Eurocrats’ twice. Some say it was coined by the Norman Macrae , a giant among British journalists although most Bulletin readers will be unaware of his name.
That was because he wrote for The Economist, which has a tradition of keeping even its best writers in complete anonymity: they never get by-lines. And because writers on The Economist are nameless, no major British newspaper published an obituary when he died in 2010 at the age of 89 after almost 40 years on The Economist, 23 of them as deputy editor. The Economist gave him a three-page obit. Macrae was a superb journalist who coined words we all know — although few of us are aware he invented them. If you were reading newspapers in 1954, you most certainly came across ‘Butskellism’, a term he coined and which the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the adoption of economic policies broadly acceptable to both main political parties”.
The word is a combination of the surnames of R.A. Butler ((Conservative) and Hugh Gaitskell (Labour) who were Chancellors of the Exchequer in the early 1950s. He also coined ‘telecommuting’ and some say he was the first to use ‘privatisation’ and ‘Eurocrats’, although these two are disputed.
He was a great believer in the virtues of entrepreneurship and people working in small teams. He once wrote: “Jesus Christ tried 12 and that proved one too many.”
A friend wanted to know why we say ‘running hell for leather’. What’s the connection between hell and leather? The term goes back to feudal Germany and came into the English language because of a complete lack of knowledge about the German language.
Centuries ago a German worker was either a freeman who charged for his services, or he was a bondsman, or slave, who had to work for his master for nothing but food and keep.
The law said that any bondsman who escaped from his master and remained free for a year and a day, could become a freeman. Bondsmen who escaped were quickly pursued by their masters, but they could evade capture if they reached the sanctuary of a church and claimed ‘heil fur lafur’ — or ‘help for the runner’. And from that we get ‘running hell for leather’.
A horse’s teeth give us two sayings: ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’ and ‘long in the tooth’.
When a horse is for sale, a prospective buyer looks at its teeth because they give him an indication of its age. But in former times a horse was a valuable animal and one that was getting on in years was still a welcome gift, so one didn’t worry about its age.
The proverb came to mean that we should never question the quality of a worthwhile gift or anything that comes our way free of charge.
When someone is getting on in years we say he is becoming ‘long in the tooth’. This is another reference to a horse’s teeth — they get longer as the horse becomes older.
A workman who is dismissed by his employer is said to get the sack — because centuries ago that was what literally happened. In medieval times and later, workmen always went about with a sack in which they kept their tools.
But when they had a steady job they left their tools at their employer’s premises to avoid carrying them back and forth. When an employer no longer needed workman, or wanted to dismiss him because his work wasn’t up to standard, he would hand him his sack so he could pack up his tools and leave.