Family dinner gatherings can be awkward, so fill those embarrassing silences and astound your disapproving in-laws with facts guaranteed to garner admiring glances and perhaps even a mention in their will.

Land Ahoy!
Of the earth’s seven continents, none has been ‘discovered’ as often as North America. Oddly enough, an eighth continent has recently revealed itself, but more about that later.

After the last Ice Age – about 12 000 years ago – communists from Russia strolled overland (where the Bering Strait is today) to Alaska for a braai. As the ice melted, the sea rose between the continents, and they were stuck, so Green Cards or not, they must therefore have been the first to ‘discover’ and inhabit North America.

In 800 BCE, the Phoenician navigator Hanno was reported to have sailed to a land ’thirty days westward from Gibraltar’. Recent research has revealed that five Chinese ships crossed the Pacific to California/Mexico in 459 CE. There’s also evidence that Irish monks, escaping the pagan Teutonic tribes invading Western Europe, landed near today’s Washington nearly 900 years before Columbus was born.

About 400 years later, Nordic explorers gave Greenland a swerve and carried on to Labrador where expedition leader Lief Ericson found wild grapes growing and called it Vinland. Only 200 years later (1170 CE), a Welsh prince, Madoc Gwynedd was exiled and sailed across the Atlantic to land near Mobile Bay, where the ruins of three medieval Welsh-style fortresses still stand today in Tennessee. Around then, The Knights Templar also left signs and treasures all over Nova Scotia and surrounds. Finally, in 1492 Columbus crossed the ocean and donned the ‘discoverer’s’ crown, which most Americans prefer. Bugger the facts.

Anyway, recently an eighth continent was discovered – Zealandia. When Pangaea’s outer crust split apart, a chunk twice the size of Greenland drifted off to the right of Australia, stretching from below New Zealand to opposite the Great Barrier Reef up north. After the Ice Age, the low-lying areas eventually became submerged and only the higher ground remains – the islands of New Zealand, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Geography books in Australasian schools are already updated to include Zealandia as the eighth continent.

The Origins of…
Berserk: Viking warriors used an extra weapon in their rampages across Northern Europe – loud, manic, uncontrollable rage. People fled in terror from these fur-clad hordes which they described as ‘berserkers’. The Norse for ‘clad in bear skin’ is berserk.

Checkmate: In chess, the winning move, checkmate, comes from the Persian phrase shah mat meaning ‘the king is dead’.

Booze: The Dutch word for being drunk was ‘buizen’. By the 1500s, buizing had been adopted into English and evolved into boozing/booze.

Hooligan: The Houlihans were an obnoxious Irish clan living in South London in the 1890s. They were renowned for their uncouth, raucous behaviour, and their name – mispronounced as the stories spread – became a noun and an adjective.

Jargon: Politicians and lawyers flaunting their presumptuous jargon might like to know that the word comes from the old French – gargon, meaning the ‘twittering/cacophony of bird noises’.

Tip: On leaving, customers at the 18th century English tea/coffee houses were invited to drop coins into a box for the staff, bearing the words, ‘To Insure Promptness’ – ergo TIP.

Crusaders
During ancient and medieval times, most Europeans didn’t have much to look forward to on the pudding trolley. Apart from berries and fruit, honey was the only available sweetener back then, but without enough bees to go around, only the well-healed could entertain a sweet tooth.

Around then, a slight disagreement with the folks in the Middle East resulted in convoys of Crusaders being dispatched to defend the Holy Land. When they returned, they brought back a couple of useful items they’d retrieved from the east.

Sugar was one, and in the 12th century it was first introduced in bulk to Western Europe. The other was the windmill which must have cheered up Don Quixote, because now he had something meaningful to rage against apart from those pesky dykes.

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