Alibaba and his Forty thieves. | tolo mercadal


Numbers are often used in idiomatic phrases in an apparently arbitrary way and not just in English but also in Spanish, Mallorquín and French. Spaniards say ‘cantar las cuarenta’ (literally, sing the forty) which means to tell someone in very blunt words what you really think of him (or her).

When Majorcans want to use an exclamatory phrase they sometimes say ‘requoranta llamps’, which means 40 (or more) rays of lightning. When the French say ‘les quarante’ they are referring to the 40 members of the French Academy.

There is a touch of the esoteric in the use of the word forty. It certainly keeps cropping up in the Bible: Jesus and Moses had 40-day periods of fasting and the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.

There are 22 references to 40 days in the King James Bible, but only seven instances of 30 days and three of 50 days.

In the Roman Catholic Church, ‘40 hours’ means the continuous exposition of the Host for 40 hours on occasions of special devotion. And Lent is the period of 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve devoted to fasting and penitence in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

English laws were also fond of the forty word. Legislators put a 40-day limit on the paying of a fine for manslaughter, and a widow was allowed to remain in her husband’s house for 40 days after he died. And English weather folklore has it that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (July 15) it will rain for another 40 days.

When we take a short nap we talk about having ‘40 winks’. The earliest known use of this term was by novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), who wrote about ‘having 40 winks on the sofa in the library’.

But the word ‘wink’ has a much longer pedigree and goes back to the 13th century. We now think of ‘wink’ as meaning the deliberate closure of one eye, but it used to mean the involuntary or deliberate closing of both eyes, what we would now call a ‘blink’. It also meant a brief spell of sleep, or a nap. One talked about ‘having a wink of sleep’. For today’s time and motion men (and women), a wink is a unit of time equivalent to a 2000th of a minute.

Writers used ‘forty’ centuries ago to designate a large but indefinite number, quantity or degree. Shakespeare wrote, “I could beat 40 of them” and he twice uses ‘forty thousand’, a highly exaggerated term favoured by Elizabethan dramatists.

In Shakespeare’s time 40 pence was the usual amount for a large wager, and in the Arabian Nights Entertainments we meet Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. When people spoke of ‘The Forties’ they weren’t always referring to a decade: it was also a gang of British thieves in the 1870s.

But the ‘Forty Thieves’ was a famous class of 74-gun ships designed by Sir H. Peake. It is claimed they were ruined by Admiralty interference and eventually became the worst ships in the British Navy. The early 20th century term ‘with 40 pounds of steam behind him’ was a naval phrase applied to those who received an immediate posting. There was a good reason for using 40 in this expression: the safety valves on Navy ships went off at 40 pounds pressure. When servicemen spoke of a ‘forty eight’, they were referring to a 48-hour pass or leave. In the mid-19th century, ‘forty-jawed’ meant excessively talkative, and ‘forty-lunged’ signified a person with a stentorian voice. Someone who was ‘forty-faced’, as in ‘forty-faced liar’ or ‘forty-faced flirt’, was given to arrant and shameless deception.

In the late 19th century, ‘forty-rod’ was one of the terms used for illicit whisky sent from Montana into Canada. In many cases, however, it was just coloured pure alcohol that was watered down by retail vendors. Bad beer was the original ‘rot gut’ and ‘red-eye’ was rum for soldiers in the First World War.

A common term still in use is ‘40 to the dozen’ which means something that is done very quickly. But when it concerns a person’s extremely fast way of talking, we usually say ’19 to the dozen’.

My first exposure to the world of magicians was when I was about 10 and went to matinee music hall shows with my father. In those days I called musical hall the ‘real people’ to differentiate from actors on the screen who weren’t really there. At the ‘real people’ there was always a magician’s act, but even the most elaborate tricks didn’t impress me: common sense told me the magician couldn’t possibly be sawing that lady in half.

These conjurors were fond of saying ‘abracadabra’ at the climax of their act, as if that word alone was responsible for the trick’s successful execution. But I knew it wasn’t, although at the time I wasn’t aware that ‘abracadabra’ has a long history in the world of magic and charms.

The term was originally used as a charm to rid a person of an illness. For it to work, ‘abracadabra’ had to be written across the top of an upturned piece of triangular parchment. On the line below, the word was repeated but without the final letter. Each following line had the word diminishing by one letter until in the bottom line, the point of the triangle, there was the single letter ‘A’.

This parchment had to be worn round the neck for a week, after which it was thrown into a river. Any illnesses were supposed to flow out of the body on to the parchment and they disappeared as the current of the river carried the parchment downstream.

Although we know this cabalistic word first appeared in a 2nd century poem by Quintus Severus Sammonicus, its etymological origins are more obscure. Some experts think it comes from the Hebrew, ‘abreq ad habra’, which literally means ‘send your fire to death’.

Other lexicographers opt for the Aramaic ‘ab’ (father), ‘be’n’ (son) and ‘ruach hakodesh’ (Holy Spirit), with the final section based on the Hebrew ‘davar’ (word).

But other experts say ‘abracadabra’ comes from Abraxus, the supreme deity of the Basilidians, the early Gnostic sect of Alexandria. Abraxus was also a charm consisting of the numerical value of the Greek letters, which is 365.

However, it almost certainly comes from the Chaldean (one of the ancient Semitic languages) ‘abbada ke dabra’ (perish, like the word).