3 Everyday Concepts with a Disturbing History
By David Swift
So many of the everyday items we use and the language we speak come with a surprising amount of baggage. Some of it is utterly terrifying. Some of it is simply baffling.
Below we'll cover a few everyday concepts and their extremely odd histories.
1. The Chainsaw
A chainsaw is a handy tool typically used to cut through wood. Professional loggers use it to fell trees and chop up firewood. Its petroleum engine makes it far neater, easier, and more effective than an ax (although using an ax always feels satisfyingly primitive).
But why were chainsaws invented? Surprisingly, it wasn't because of some bright logger trying to develop more efficient logging methods. The utterly horrific ancestor of the chainsaw was a tool used in childbirth.
Yep! Doctors sure love thinking up creative techniques to avoid asking women what they think might help! Enter the original chainsaw, devised in 18th Century Scotland for sawing through pelvic bone to ‘widen' the area for the child.
If you've never spent a few minutes wondering about the horrors of 18th-century medicine, now's that time.
Fun fact: it's still one use for this household tool in some parts of the world today and occurred in the U.S. as recently as the 1980s.
Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland once wrote in his novel Microserfs (1995) something to the effect that when archeologists dug up the remains of 1990s California, they would find all the horrific-looking gym equipment and deduce that this was a society obsessed with torture.
Not so far from the truth, as it turns out. The treadmill was originally a torture instrument for prisoners. British prisons in the 18th and 19th centuries were hotbeds for truly awful ideas, with Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon being another insidious idea of the time, paving the way for the idea of the surveillance state. And this guy helped to found Utilitarianism, so remember that whenever you start quoting ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’
The treadmill forced prisoners to walk for six hours per day to help build moral character. If you've got a personal trainer, and they insist that you go on a faster setting, wonder who they would've been 200 years ago!
3. Two-Fingered Swearing
If you have any British friends, you may have noticed that:
1. They swear a lot, and
2. They sometimes swear at you by sticking two fingers up rather than one.
Why isn't it enough for these people to flip someone the bird? It turns out it's due to one of their many drawn-out and wholly unnecessary wars with the French.
British archers were one of the most lethal military components, and when the French captured one, they'd cut off the first two fingers of the dominant hand to prevent the soldier from firing a bow properly. British soldiers used to wave these fingers at their French counterparts to show that they could fire their bow (and thus fight).
The habit persists to this day, so if your British friend ever makes this odd gesture at you, just gently remind them that they don't even own a bow and arrow with no further elaboration. It'll likely confuse the heck out of them because this isn't a very well-known fact even in the UK.
Of course, horror in history sometimes engenders practical and even beautiful ideas. We shouldn't dismiss the present based on its foundations, but we should learn them and appreciate the historical significance of our modern comforts and habits. It's good practice to avoid taking our world for granted. In so many cases, somebody has suffered for what we assume is ‘just a thing.’