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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Poison in History and Literature

Historically speaking, Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) is reputed to have handled poison skilfully. It was easy for Lucrezia to seduce men since she looked very sweet. She is described as having heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour and a natural grace which made her appear to "walk on air":  these were the physical attributes that were highly appreciated in Italy during that period. She had three husbands, who were chosen by her father and brother. She was accused of murders of which there was never evidence. It was rumoured that Lucrezia was in possession of a hollow ring that she used frequently to poison drinks. Lucrezia was also said to employ a chef and a poisoner (two separate people) full time to take care of her guests in the family dining parties.
In the history of mankind there have been numerous examples of male serial killers. Those murderers simply killed their victims with no apparent reason, that is, for the sake of doing it. This has not been the case as regards women. It seems that in order to kill, women always need a reason. Call it passion, revenge or self-defence, the reason is always present
It also seems that when women kill they also do it in a very subtle way: they don't want their hands to get dirty so most of the times they use poison! Besides, poison has certain advantages for women: it is easy to get and no physical force or expert knowledge is needed to use it.
A strange case of "sexual poisoning" took place during the reign of Louis XIV in France. The king had a lover called Madame Vallière. Eager to get the king's exclusive atttention, another lady, Madame de Montespan, consulted the famous witch La Voisin (whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin). La Voisin gave Montespan some magic love powders with aphrodisiac effects. As a result of this "sexual poisoning", Montespan became the king's favourite and got rid of Vallière but at the same time Louis' sexual appetite increased and he had to get two new lovers to satisify his sexual needs. 
One of these new mistresses, Madame Fonatges, mysteriously appeared dead in 1681. It is believed she died as a consequence a a black magic spell cast by La Voisin at the request of Montespan. The affaire des poisons or Affair of the Poisons was a murder scandal in France which launched a period of hysterical pursuit of murder suspects, during which a number of prominent people and members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced for poisoning and witchcraft. La Voisin said that de Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain the king's favour. She had worked with a priest named Etienne Guibourg. There was no evidence beyond her confessions, but the bad reputation followed these people afterwards. Monvoisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake on February 22, 1680. Montespan, however, was banished from the palace and continued her life unmolested afterwards. 
Poison has always inspired artists. In fiction it is worth mentioning the poisoned apple that SnowWhite is given by her stepmother disguised as a witch. In his short story The Landlady, Roald Dahl portrays an innocent-looking lady who uses arsenic to kill her victims, all of them handsome young boys. The landlady has an unusual hobby and this is to stuff all her pets when they "pass away".
Many years later, during the First World War, Agatha Christie worked in a hospital, where she acquired the detailed knowledge about poison that was going to be so useful for her to write her detective novels. It is believed that the poison most frequently used by Agatha in her works was arsenic. Agatha married Archibald Christie in 1914. In 1926 came a great shock when Archie told her he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted to leave her. Instead of killing her husband by using poison, Agatha chose to disappear for some days, When she was found, she alleged having lost her memory but the truth about her disappearance was never discovered. Agatha later married archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, who was fourteen years younger than her. Their marriage was happy in the early years, and endured despite Mallowan's many affairs in later life, notably with Barbara Parker, whom he married in 1977, the year after Christie's death. 

Phrases from Victorian Times: Think of England

Close your eyes (or lie back) and think of England is a British mainly humorous expression. It means that if you close your eyes and think of England when you have sex with someone, you do not enjoy it, but do it because you think you should.
Just close your eyes and think of England. He'll never notice.
The phrase is believed to have been used by Victorian teachers and mothers when they advised young women what to do when their husbands had sex with them. The phrase is often used humorously now when something is happening to a person but they do not like it and have to accept it.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Agatha Christie's Murders by Poisoning

Murder by poisoning was the theme of more than half of Agatha Christie's novels, plays and short stories. She once said "Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime". Arsenic was her favourite poison. It is a semi-metallic element (or metalloid) with the atomic number 33 in the periodic table. Arsenic used to be easily obtained from fly papers and rat poison, thus it was a very popular choice for poisoners in the past. It is said to have been the favourite poison of the Borgias as well.

Agatha Christie learned a lot about poisons from her work as a dispenser in a hospital pharmacy during the First World War so naturally the plot of her first book involved murder by poison. The poison she employed in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was strychinine.
"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was published in 1920. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie wrote "since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected". Her first victim, Emily Inglethorpe, died a very painful death – "The convulsions were of a peculiar violence, Dr Wilkins...they were quite tetanic in character". Strychnine is a poisonous alkaloid obtained from the seeds of the nux vomica tree. The symptoms include agonising convulsions and death is usually due to asphyxiation resulting from continuous spasms of the respiratory muscles.

In "A Pocketful of Rye", Rex Fortescue died of taxine poisoning which was administered to him at breakfast in his marmalade. Taxine is a poisonous alkaloid found in the foliage and berries of the yew tree, which grows in England.
Rex Fortescue lived at Yewtree Lodge, a house with "large numbers of clipped yew hedges", the source of the poison. "… she didn’t mean to murder anybody, but she put the taxine in the marmalade. She didn’t think it was poison, of course" (Miss Marple).

Rex Fortescue wasn’t the only victim in "A Pocketful of Rye". His second wife, Adele, was also poisoned, not by taxine, but by another poison which can also be obtained from plants. The murderer slipped which cyanide into her tea.
"Mrs Fortescue was still sitting on the sofa, dead. Beside her was a tea cup a quarter full and in the dregs of it was potassium cyanide." Cyanide can be obtained from the seeds of certain stone fruits such as apricots and wild cherries and the seeds of fruits of some members of the apple family.

Ella Zielinsky, actress Marina Gregg's social secretary, in "The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side", died by inhalation of prussic acid.
Prussic acid is also known as hydrocyanic acid (a derivative of cyanide). Ella Zielinsky suffered from allergies and used a nasal spray for relief. "She inserted the nozzle into one nostril and squeezed. The warning came a second too late … her brain recognised the unfamiliar odour of bitter almonds … but not in time to paralyse the squeezing fingers …"

In "The Pale Horse", a very unusual form of poisoning (thallium) was employed. The symptoms of this type of metallic poisoning include nervous and gastrointestinal disorders and rapid loss of hair.
According to Dew’s Agatha Christie Mystery website, readers of "The Pale Horse" have subsequently recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning, resulting in the saving of at least two lives. In one case, a nurse recognised the symptoms in time to save the life of an infant. In another case, a man was prevented from trying to kill his wife. This website also cites the case of a detective who realised thallium was the cause of the mysterious deaths of six other men. He subsequently identified the murderer, who later confessed to the crimes.

Another unusual form of poisoning was used in "Death in the Air" (also known as "Death in the Clouds"). While on a short flight, Madame Giselle, a French moneylender, is murdered by a poisoned thorn. Madame Giselle (also known as Marie Angelique Morisot) was poisoned by a thorn dipped in the venom of the South African boomslang snake. The venom of the boomslang is more potent than that of the cobra and causes death by haemorrhage. "The woman’s head lolled over sideways. There was a minute puncture mark on the side of her throat".

It is possible that many readers cheered when the nasty, sadistic Mrs Boynton was poisoned in "Appointment with Death". She was poisoned with an overdose of the heart medication known as digitoxin.
Digitalis is a substance obtained from the dried leaves of the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and used as a drug that strengthens contractions of the heart muscle for patients suffering congestive heart failure. Digitoxin and digitalin are among the most commonly prescribed forms of digitalis. It must be prescribed and monitored with great care because there is not much leeway between the effective dose and a lethal dose. "And Mrs Boynton already suffered from heart trouble?" "Yes, as a matter of fact, she was actually taking a medicine containing digitalin." … "D'you mean … that her death might have been attributed to an overdose of her own medicine?"

In "Three Act Tragedy" (also known as "Murder in Three Acts"), Reverend Stephen Babbington, Sir Bartholomew Strange and Margaret De Rushbridger are all dispatched by a poisonous alkaloid derived from the leaf of a plant. The poison employed was nicotine.
Nicotine is found throughout the tobacco plant, particularly in the leaves. Depending upon the amount consumed, nicotine can cause nausea and vomiting, headache, stomach pains, convulsions, paralysis and death. "My goodness … I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoned cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me". "There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered", said Poirot … "it might have been ME".

Coco Courtenay’s death was caused by a fatal dose of the addictive cocaine in "The Affair at the Victory Ball".
Cocaine is a white, crystalline alkaloid that is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca). When taken in small amounts, cocaine produces feelings of well-being and euphoria, along with a decreased appetite and increased mental alertness. When taken in larger amounts, and with repeated use, it can produce anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia, chronic fatigue, mental confusion, paranoia, and convulsions that can cause death. "Her maid … admitted that Miss Courtenay was a confirmed taker of the drug and a verdict of accidental death was returned". Of course it wasn’t - but the murderer was not as clever as Poirot!

Literature: The Bloomsbury Group

The Bloomsbury group was the name given to a literary group that made the Bloomsbury area of London the centre of its activities from 1904 to World War II. It included Virginia Woolf , Leonard Woolf (Virginia’s husband), E. M. Forster , Vita Sackville-West (Virginia’s friend and lover), Roger Fry , Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister), Clive Bell (Virginia’s brother-in-law) , Adrian Stephen (Virginia as Vanessa’s brother) John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey, to name only a few. The “Bloomsberries”, as the members of the group were called, often met to talk about their own writing, other people’s writing, painting, love, politics… They also helped each other with their work.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British writer who was an important member of the Bloosmbury Group and is admired by feminists. Her novels, such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves, use the style called Stream of Consciousness, and she is regarded as one of the most important English writers of the 20th century.

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was a British writer who was a member of the Bloosmbury Group and is known especially for his book Eminent Victorians, which describes the lives of four famous 19th century country people in a humorous and not very respectful way.
It must be acknowledged that the Bloomsbury Group has often been more admired for non-literary reasons; indeed, the Bloomsberries shared the desire to challenge the strict Victorian social norms, and demonstrated a sexual freedom that was ahead of their time. Some members had bisexual tendencies, such as Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who were lovers.
The Bloomsbury Group was rather elitist and exclusive. It has been highly criticized for its snobbishness and selfishness. The group was also reproached with its pacifism during the First World War.
Despite the numerous critics that were aimed at it, the Bloomsbury Group has had a wide-ranging influence, both in art and in society, even though that influence remains highly controversial. The Bloomsberries did play a significant part in the advent of a new modern world.

Poppies: The Flowers of War

Poppies are plants that have brightly coloured flowers, especially red ones. For British people, the poppy represents the soldiers who died in the two World Wars, especially World War I, because these flowers grew in the fields of France, where many soldiers were killed in battle. People buy red poppies made of paper and wear them on their coats on Remembrance Day, which is often called Poppy Day, to show respect for all the people who died. The deep-red colour of poppies makes them a suitable symbol standing for the bloodshed caused by war.

Remembrance Day is the Sunday closest to November 11th, when each year people in the United Kingdom remember all the people who were killed in the two World Wars. In recent years the custom of observing two minutes silence on the 11th November has been revived. All over the country there are special church services and special ceremonies at war memorials. In London there is a ceremony in which the Queen and the leaders of the main political parties place a wreath (a circular arrangement of flowers) on the Cenotaph (a large war memorial). The money collected by selling red paper poppies on Remembrance Day is given to charity organizations that help people who suffered in the wars. There is a similar occasion in the US and Canada called "Veterans Day".

The Symbolic Significance of Poppies

The poppy stands for the power of sleep and forgetfulness which possesses humans after death and before rebirth. In Greek mythology the poppy is an attribute of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and identified with her symbolically.
In Russia a girl is said to be "as pretty as a poppy", while "to remain a poppy" is to remain an old maid.

Poppies in Art

Long before the Poppy became a symbol of war, many Impressionist painters used poppies as their inspiration. They depicted them in their plein-air (in the open air) landscape paintings.
The French painter Claude Monet painted things that were around him. He wasn't trying to 'say' anything. In his famous oil painting called Poppies Blooming, he was simply illustrating his wife and son walking in the blooming poppies of a field in Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb of Paris.

Spinach: Was Popeye Right?

Popeye the Sailorman is a character in a US cartoon strip and cartoon films. Popeye is a sailor who smokes a pipe, and when he eats cans of spinach, his muscles immediately grow much bigger and he becomes very strong. When Popeye underwent a muscle-busting transformation whenever he scented a whiff of spinach most people laughed at the artistic license, but it looks like the effect was based on fact, not fiction. A team at Rutgers University led by Ilya Raskin has found that spinach contains steroid-like compounds that boost the growth of muscle cells.
Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the team explain how they extracted chemicals called phytoecdysteroids from the plant and then treated muscle cells in the dish and even live rats with them. The muscle cells speeded up their growth by about 20%, and the rats became stronger.
Although a human would have to eat over a kilo of spinach each day to obtain enough of the chemical to achieve any kind of body-building effect, these plant-steroids are exciting for another reason: they seem to be able to exert their growth-promoting effects but without binding to the chemical docking stations normally exploited by anabolic steroids. This means that they could be able to achieve beneficial effects in the body but without the side effects associated with anabolic steroid use - including voice changes, acne, hairiness, mood disturbances and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Spinach isn't probably going to make you as strong as Popeye, but it does contain important vitamins and antioxidants that are beneficial to the body During studies during the 40s or 50s people discovered that spinach was significantly more rich in iron than any other vegetable, and from then on, the "Eat your spinach!!!" cliche was used. Little did they realize that there was actually a misplaced decimal point in the data, making the spinach seem more iron rich than it really was. That aside, spinach IS an iron rich food, but not nearly as much as people have seemed to think all this time.