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Why Do British Pubs Have Illustrated Signs Outside?

The traditional British pub is part of the landscape of British life. At a recent count, there are around 50,000 of them in the UK, some of which claim to trace their lineage back as far as the 5th and 6th centuries, through the oldest verified by Guinness—Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans—claims to have been established in 795 CE.

Because of their abundance, the names pubs take were designed to be memorable—but more than that, they were designed to be visual. Outside any traditional pub worthy of its title, you'll find a hanging signboard with a unique illustration that represents the name of the business. The practice is so entrenched that even new pubs copy it. But why do they exist at all?

The first British pub signs were created in the 12th century and were simple representations of tankards, hops and other brewing-related paraphernalia used to inform passersby that the establishments sold ale. This was Britain in the dark ages, when education—and in particular, literacy—was in short supply. Since most of the population were unable to read, pub signs were used to inform would-be customers that they could find a drink inside.

In 1393, King Richard II passed an act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to display his emblem, a White Hart, to identify them to the official ale taster, who would inspect the quality of the booze on sale. (Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, was one such inspector.) From that point on, pub signs diversified to reflect the names of their establishments, partly so people could distinguish them from similar drinking outfits in growing towns.

It's for this reason that the earliest uses of pub, inn and tavern names would reference the sign directly. People would arrange to meet "at the sign of the Eagle and Child" rather than "at the Eagle and Child." Patrons may not have been able to distinguish the phrase "Hart and Stag" from "Bear and Staff," but they could recognize a picture of these things whether they were a local or a passing traveler.

Or at least, they could most of the time. There are historical instances where signs were probably misinterpreted, resulting in an official change of name. An 18th century London pub known as "The Leg and Star" was probably supposed to be named for the prestigious Order of the Garter (whose emblem is a eight-pointed star) but was renamed by customers who looked at the sign and saw simply a leg (though it was clearly gartered) and a star.

As well as being a unique identifier of an establishment, a pub's sign was also an indicator of its license to operate. A law passed in 1431 said that if a pub owner didn't display a sign, their ale could be seized. Records also show that if a pub owner's license to sell ale was revoked, the pub's sign was removed as a form of sanction.

King Richard II wasn't the only monarch to put his stamp on the public house, either. When King Henry VIII split the UK away from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s to establish the monarch as head of the Church of England, pub names stopped favoring religious symbols and began featuring images of royal figures and iconography.

When King James I took the throne of both England and Scotland in 1603, he ordered that the heraldic red lion (one of Scotland's emblems) be added to all important buildings, including pubs. As a result of these actions, the two most common pub names in the UK are still "The Crown" and "The Red Lion".

Today the tradition remains intact largely out of respect for the past, but many pub signs do retain some functionality. Remote country pubs often use signboards to point the way to their doors from more trafficked paths. It's a part of British culture that's rapidly disappearing—more than 20,000 pubs have closed since 1980—but for now there are still more than enough around that you can take a moment to appreciate the history and symbolism behind a pub's sign the next time you see one.

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The Latest Way to Enjoy Pho in Vietnam: As a Cocktail
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images
James Duong, AFP/Getty Images

Pho is something of a national dish in Vietnam. The noodle soup, typically topped with beef or chicken, can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There’s even a version of it for happy hour, as Lonely Planet reports.

The pho cocktail, served at Nê Cocktail Bar in Hanoi, contains many of the herbs and spices found in pho, like cinnamon, star anise, cilantro, and cardamom. Without the broth or meat, its taste is refreshingly sweet.

The drink's uniqueness makes it a popular choice among patrons, as does the dramatic way it's prepared. The bartender pours gin and triple sec through the top of a tall metal apparatus that contains three saucers holding the spices. He then lights the saucers on fire with a hand torch as the liquid flows through, allowing the flavors to infuse with the alcohol as the drink is filtered into a pitcher below.

The pho cocktail
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Pham Tien Tiep, who was named Vietnam’s best bartender at the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition in 2012, created the cocktail six years ago while working at the famous French Colonial-era hotel the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, according to AFP. He has since brought his signature drink to several of the stylish bars he owns in Vietnam’s capital, including Nê Cocktail Bar.

Initially, he set out to create a drink that would represent Vietnam’s culture and history. “I created the pho cocktail at the Metropole Hotel, just above the war bunkers where the American musician Joan Baez sang to the staff and guests in December 1972 as bombs fell on the city,” Tiep told Word Vietnam magazine. “The alcohol in the cocktail is lit on fire to represent the bombs, while spices, such as chili and cinnamon, reflect the warmness of her voice.”

Tiep has a reputation for infusing his drinks with unusual local ingredients. He has also created a cocktail that features fish sauce, a popular condiment in Vietnam, and another that contains capsicum, chili, and lemongrass in an ode to the bo luc lac (shaking beef) dish, according to CNN.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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Just 5 Alcoholic Drinks a Week Could Shorten Your Lifespan
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Wine lovers were elated when a scientific study last year suggested that drinking a glass of wine a day could help them live longer. Now a new study, published in The Lancet, finds that having more than 100 grams of alcohol a week (the amount in about five glasses of wine or pints of beer) could be detrimental to your health.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation studied the health data of nearly 600,000 drinkers in 19 countries and found that five to 10 alcoholic drinks a week (yes, red wine included) could shave six months off the life of a 40-year-old.

The penalty is even more severe for those who have 10 to 15 drinks a week (shortening a person’s life by one to two years), and those who imbibe more than 18 drinks a week could lose four to five years of their lives. In other words, your lifespan could be shortened by half an hour for every drink over the daily recommended limit, according to The Guardian, making it just as risky as smoking.

"The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines [the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night] has roughly two years' lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life," David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study, tells The Guardian. "This works out at about an hour per day. So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette."

[h/t The Guardian]

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