What's the Difference Between a Coffin and a Casket?

Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images

“Caskets! A vile modern phrase, which compels a person of sense and good taste to shrink more disgustfully than ever before from the idea of being buried at all.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home

Though casket and coffin—the two terms for burial boxes—are used interchangeably by the American public at large, funeral industry insiders know that there is a difference between the two, and (to paraphrase Neil LaBute) it’s all in the shape of the things.

The word coffin evolved from the Old French word cofin, which originally meant “basket” but was later used to describe a sarcophagus. In North America today, a coffin refers specifically to a hexagonal funerary box that is somewhat tapered to fit the human body: wider at shoulder level and narrower down by the feet.

The word casket, on the other hand, was originally coined to describe an ornamental box used to hold jewelry or other precious items. By the mid-19th century in the U.S., however, the person who was once the local undertaker (who quietly buried the deceased without much fanfare) was now a funeral director, and as embalming technology progressed, so too did the business side of mourning. Every possible measure was taken to consider the sensibilities of the grieving family members and assuage their pain as much as possible. Thus, the traditional form-fitting coffin was deemed too morose for viewing purposes and was replaced by the four-sided, hinged-lidded, box-shaped burial vessel that we refer to as a casket.

The word casket didn’t have the negative connotation that was associated with coffin, or so went the thinking at the time. And once closed, the rectangular shape was found to be more comforting to mourners than a container shaped like a human body. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for this new sense of casket shows the changing viewpoint: “The casket, which held this jewel, was worthy of it.” The jewel being a loved one.

Additional source: The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Milford

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi

HBO
HBO

While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]

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