Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Origins of Specie


Dunno why these things fascinate me. Maybe it's because I've spent so many years working. At work, any little inane detail is interesting if it's a distraction from the work.

Hey, I do my best to strengthen what I call "discipline". That means I try to focus on the work despite all the inane distractions. But it doesn't always happen. I often find myself (and I suppose you often find me) focused on the inane.

(Well, that makes at least one of us laugh.)

Anyway, I used the phrase "chew the fat" the other day. Then (a few days later) I thought I ought to look it up, to make sure I used it right.

Wikipedia gives me this:

Chew the fat

Although some sources attribute the phrase "chew the fat" to sailors, who during a period of resting and conversing, or while working together, would chew on salt-hardened fat, there are no reliable historical recordings of this practice. It has even been suggested that the phrase is derived from a practice by North American Indians or Inuit of chewing animal hides during their spare time, and even of British farmers chewing on smoked pork, but again, there remains to be no evidence supporting these claims, and would require accepting a great deal of uncertainty in connecting the phrase from nautical origins to its modern metaphorical use.

There are also claims that the phrase is synonymous with the action of chewing fat, or simply an allusion to the movement of the mouth during chewing. Noting that fried fat is appealing in taste, it was regarded as a treat that someone could chew on for as long as possible to gain the most out of it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Chew the fat" first appeared in 1885 in a book by J Brunlees Patterson called Life in the Ranks of the British Army in India. He implied it was a kind of general grumbling and bending of the ears of junior officers to stave off boredom, a typical part of army life. Patterson also uses "chew the rag" in the same sentence he used "chew the fat", but it is not the oldest occurrence. Prior to the adoption of metallic cartridges, most ammunition was composed of powder and a ball wrapped in paper or cloth soaked in animal fat, which was bitten open during musket drill. Soldiers were known to chew on these ends to pass the time and reduce nerves, and in some cases to stave off cravings for chewing tobacco. Though long-since replaced by 1885, the idea of biting or chewing on fat-soaked rag ends may well have entered military parlance in this fashion prior to Patterson's recording.

Yup, I used it right.

It's odd, though: We're talking about a phrase that is common today (and apparently of fairly recent origin) but nobody really knows where it came from. That's the main thing I got from the excerpt.

What I think? Probably all of those origins noted by Wikipedia, all of them contributed to making the phrase "chew the fat" part of the language. All of them. But none are relevant to what the phrase means today.


Now here's the thing. Here's why I quoted Wikipedia and told you what I thought of the quote: People sometimes talk about "what money is". And in order to define what money is, they go back to the "origin" of money. David Graeber maybe. Many people. And they draw conclusions from these stories.

But the origin of money is from a time way, way before "chew the fat". And we don't even know the origin of "chew the fat". So how can we possibly know about the origin of money in such fine detail and with such fine confidence? I don't think we can.

And even if we did know all the details about the origin of money, none would be relevant to "what money is" today.

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