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15 Forgotten Niceties We Should Bring Back

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Daily life in the 21st century is a lot more casual than it was in our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ day. We’ve traded suits and ties for t-shirts and jeans, ornate calligraphy-inscribed invitations for casual emails, and hand-written letters for emoji-filled texts. But while some of the niceties of days past may feel outdated and unnecessary, others might just be worth bringing back. 

1. HAT TIPPING

Nowadays, we greet each other with a quick hello, or if we’re feeling particularly formal, a handshake. But the seemingly outdated tip of the hat—which originated as a way for knights to display friendliness—is a fun, formal way to show respect. Plus, if you’re feeling a cold coming on, a quick tip of the hat in lieu of a handshake is a good way to avoid spreading germs.

2. WAITING TO SPEAK

When we’re excited about a conversation topic, or feel like we have something important to add, it’s easy to get carried away and interrupt the person who’s speaking. But back in 1918, one etiquette guide warned, “Interruption of the speech of others is a great sin against good breeding.” Today, interruptions aren’t an unforgivable social faux pas—and to some degree, they’re considered a normal part of lively conversation. But it’s a good idea to do your best to wait your turn to speak, since interrupting can give the impression you’re not listening closely, and may even be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

3. SOCIAL CALLS

Feeling overwhelmed by your social obligations? Back in the Victorian era, people had a pretty great solution: social calls. Between 3 and 5 p.m., women would schedule “morning calls,” allowing friends (and often suitors) to drop in for a chat. Much like a professor’s office hours today, these social calls would let people casually stop by at their convenience and allow women to relax at home between engagements. Of course, the gender dynamics of social calls could use a little 21st century updating, but imagine how easy it would be if, instead of rushing from place to place, you encouraged friends to drop by during set hours?

4. GREETING THE HOST OR HOSTESS

“On entering a crowded room, a well-mannered man seeks first the hostess,” suggests an advice book from 1869, “He endeavors to be blind and deaf to all familiar faces and voices until he has presented himself to the lady of the house—he then bows.” Nowadays, you might skip the bow—unless you’re feeling fancy—but you can still express your gratitude for the invite by greeting your host or hostess at the start of a party and making it a point to thank them for their hospitality.

5. FLOWERS AT THE DINNER TABLE

In 1891, an upscale New York City restaurant published an advice column on how to properly set a table for a dinner gathering. While much of their advice was presented as general guidelines, not strict rules, they were adamant about one thing: “Flowers should never be absent from the dinner table.” Their advice makes sense—after all, flowers are a cheap and easy way to spruce up your table for a dinner party. Or, as the restaurant explained, “No matter how homely, they add to the picturesqueness of the feast.”

6. SENDING AN RSVP

In the era of social media invites, the RSVP has fallen out of style for everything but the most formal occasions. But one 1915 etiquette book shares a piece of good advice: “All invitations that are plainly limited to a certain number of guests ... should be answered at once, in order that vacancies may be filled,” the book explains. “Whether the invitation is accompanied with the request for a reply or not, all thoughtful people will recognize the propriety.” While there’s no need to RSVP for a large or informal party, any smaller occasion like a dinner or intimate gathering—even if the invite is delivered online—deserves an RSVP.

7. HANDWRITTEN THANK-YOU CARDS …

Show your gratitude for anything from a birthday party to a job interview with a handwritten note. Sending a card via snail mail might feel old fashioned, but it’s a gesture that won’t soon be forgotten. Unlike a text or email, the classic thank-you card is unlikely to be buried by other messages—plus, it’s an easy way to show how much of an impression someone’s act of kindness made on you.

8. … AND LETTERS, IN GENERAL

Though we have other means of communication, a letter, written by hand, remains an excellent way to let someone know you’re thinking of them. One 1904 book on the etiquette of correspondence recommends writing in black ink on paper in “shades of pale lavender, green, blue, buff, and pearl gray.”

9. SPEAKING CLEARLY ON THE PHONE

In the cell phone era, we’re just as likely to make an important phone call on a noisy public street as we are from the quiet solitude of a home or office. But we really should pay a little more attention to what the person on the other end of the line might be hearing. In the past, when telephone reception was a little fuzzier, phone companies and advice books recommended everything from keeping the phone exactly one and a half inches from your face, to making sure to move your mustache hairs away from the phone receiver while speaking. While neither of those recommendations are likely to help much today, the sentiment of the advice still applies: Make sure you’re speaking clearly when you talk on the phone, and do your best to call from a quiet location to ensure your voice is heard.

10. PUNCTUALITY

When it comes to attending a dinner party, there’s no such thing as “fashionably late.” As one old etiquette book explains, “It is proper to arrive from five to fifteen minutes before the hour mentioned in the invitation, allowing time to pay respects to the host and hostess, without haste of manner, before the dinner is announced.” Take a note from 1915 and arrive at dinners a little bit early to keep everything moving at a leisurely pace.

11. CLASSY CONVERSATION

“It is said that one can tell during a conversation that lasts not longer than a summer shower whether or not a man is cultivated,” explains one 1921 book of etiquette. “Often it does not take even so long, for a raucous tone of voice and grossly ungrammatical or vulgar expressions brand a man at once as beyond the pale of polite society.” While you probably won’t offend anyone with a grammatical slip-up these days, it’s still a good idea to keep conversations free of bad language or an overly raucous tone—especially if you’re in a professional setting.

12. TIPPING HOTEL EMPLOYEES

While it’s common practice to tip the porter who carries your bag, or the employee who cleans your room, one 1921 etiquette guide recommends tipping anyone who assists you during your stay at a hotel. After all, it makes sense to show gratitude for good service wherever it occurs. “At a hotel … remember the hall-boy, the chamber-maid, the porter, and the waiter in the dining room,” the book recommends, concluding that hotel visitors should tip those who “serve [them] in any way.”

13. BOWING TO PARENTS

Bringing back bowing as a formal greeting would undoubtedly help us all feel like sophisticated ladies and gentlemen. And encouraging little kids to bow to their parents just sounds plain adorable. That’s exactly what one 1856 children’s etiquette book recommended, telling their young readers, “If you pass by your parents at any place, where you see them, either by themselves or with company, always bow to them.”

14. OFFERING GUESTS A BATH

While we’ve focused primarily on the forgotten niceties of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this one comes to us across the millennia: In Ancient Greece it was considered rude not to offer guests a bath and clean clothes as soon as they arrived for a visit. Today, that rule makes little sense for a friend who’s just come to visit from down the street, but it’s a nice custom for friends or family visiting from afar.

15. GIFT-GIVING

Nowadays, we usually only give gifts on birthdays and holidays—but back in the day, gift-giving was much more common. One 1921 book of etiquette recommended sending a small gift after any party or gathering hosted at someone’s home. “After the visit the guest may send some little gift in appreciation of the hospitality enjoyed,” the book explains. “A bit of household linen, a book, flowers, or candy are most appropriate.”

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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15 Facts About the Summer Solstice
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It's the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so soak up some of those direct sunrays (safely, of course) and celebrate the start of summer with these solstice facts.

1. THIS YEAR IT'S JUNE 21.

June 21 date against a yellow background
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The summer solstice always occurs between June 20 and June 22, but because the calendar doesn't exactly reflect the Earth's rotation, the precise time shifts slightly each year. For 2018, the sun will reach its greatest height in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere on June 21 at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time.

2. THE SUN WILL BE DIRECTLY OVERHEAD AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER.

A vintage mapped globe showing the Tropic of Cancer
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While the entire Northern Hemisphere will see its longest day of the year on the summer solstice, the sun is only directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude).

3. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT THE SUN APPEARS TO STAND STILL.

Stonehenge at sunrise.
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The term "solstice" is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun's relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth's tilt on its axis—roughly 23.5 degrees—causes the sun's path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.

4. THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BONFIRE WAS PART OF A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION.

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Celebrations have been held in conjunction with the solstice in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Among these is Sankthans, or "Midsummer," which is celebrated on June 24 in Scandinavian countries. In 2016, the people of Ålesund, Norway, set a world record for the tallest bonfire with their 155.5-foot celebratory bonfire.

5. THE HOT WEATHER FOLLOWS THE SUN BY A FEW WEEKS.

Colorful picture of the sun hitting ocean waves.
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You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year—and thus gets the most sunlight—the temperature usually doesn't reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It's because water, which makes up most of the Earth's surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth's temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.

6. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT STONEHENGE TO CELEBRATE.

Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
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People have long believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there's no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.

7. PAGANS CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE WITH SYMBOLS OF FIRE AND WATER.

Arty image of fire and water colliding.
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In Paganism and Wicca, Midsummer is celebrated with a festival known as Litha. In ancient Europe, the festival involved rolling giant wheels lit on fire into bodies of water to symbolize the balance between fire and water.

8. IN ANCIENT EGYPT, THE SOLSTICE HERALDED THE NEW YEAR.

Stars in the night sky.
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In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice preceded the appearance of the Sirius star, which the Egyptians believed was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile that they relied upon for agriculture. Because of this, the Egyptian calendar was set so that the start of the year coincided with the appearance of Sirius, just after the solstice.

9. THE ANCIENT CHINESE HONORED THE YIN ON THE SOLSTICE.

Yin and yang symbol on textured sand.
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In ancient China, the summer solstice was the yin to the winter solstice's yang—literally. Throughout the year, the Chinese believed, the powers of yin and yang waxed and waned in reverse proportion to each other. At the summer solstice, the influence of yang was at its height, but the celebration centered on the impending switch to yin. At the winter solstice, the opposite switch was honored.

10. IN ALASKA, THE SOLSTICE IS CELEBRATED WITH A MIDNIGHT BASEBALL GAME.

Silhouette of a baseball player.
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Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 p.m. and stretches well into the following morning—without the need for artificial light—known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.

11. THE EARTH IS ACTUALLY AT ITS FARTHEST FROM THE SUN DURING THE SOLSTICE.

The Earth tilted on its axis.
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You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth's axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time. 

12. IRONICALLY, THE SOLSTICE MARKS A DARK TIME IN SCIENCE HISTORY.

Galileo working on a book.
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Legend has it that it was on the summer solstice in 1633 that Galileo was forced to recant his declaration that the Earth revolves around the Sun; even with doing so, he still spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. AN ALTERNATIVE CALENDAR HAD AN EXTRA MONTH NAMED AFTER THE SOLSTICE.

Pages of a calendar
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In 1902, a British railway system employee named Moses B. Cotsworth attempted to institute a new calendar system that would standardize the months into even four-week segments. To do so, he needed to add an extra month to the year. The additional month was inserted between June and July and named Sol because the summer solstice would always fall during this time. Despite Cotsworth's traveling campaign to promote his new calendar, it failed to catch on.

14. IN ANCIENT GREECE, THE SOLSTICE FESTIVAL MARKED A TIME OF SOCIAL EQUALITY.

Ancient Greek sculpture in stone.
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The Greek festival of Kronia, which honored Cronus, the god of agriculture, coincided with the solstice. The festival was distinguished from other annual feasts and celebrations in that slaves and freemen participated in the festivities as equals.

15. ANCIENT ROME HONORED THE GODDESS VESTA ON THE SOLSTICE.

Roman statue of a vestal virgin
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In Rome, midsummer coincided with the festival of Vestalia, which honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity and was considered the patron of the domestic sphere. On the first day of this festival, married women were allowed to enter the temple of the Vestal virgins, from which they were barred the rest of the year.

A version of this list originally ran in 2015.

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