Two Great American – and Four Great Freedoms

On January 6, 1941, with an eye towards the London blitz and German air raids, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a powerful speech in which he articulated his vision for a postwar world founded on four basic human freedoms. The speech was to encourage America to end its isolationism policy and join World War II. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was inspired by these words and visualized these freedoms in his own unique small-town neighborly way.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. “

“The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

“The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, 1943

“The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943.

Two much loved, admired, and respected Americans – what an enduring legacy they have left for us to reflect upon.

Bread and Circus

The phrase beautifully describes how leaders in ancient Rome placated the masses with free food and entertainment – with these two things in plentiful, politicians managed to keep an overpopulated, hungry, and often angry citizenry pacified and unquestioning.

Bread and Circus was not provided for the benefit of the citizens or their overall well-being – rather it was a pragmatic solution to keep politicians in power. A well fed, well entertained population is unlikely to become a revolutionary force of any kind!!

2nd Century Roman poet and satirist Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis  (known as Juvenal in English) wrote this phrase in Satira X:

Nam qui dabat olim 
Imperium, fasces, legions, omnia, nunc se
Continet, atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
Panem et circenses
      For that sovereign people that once gave away
Military command, consulships, legions, and every thing,
  Now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only
bread and circuses

Here are some other gems that this little-known Roman satire genius wrote :

Orandum es tut sit mens sana incopore sano
Rather than for wealth, power or children, men should pray for a sound mind in a sound body 

Rara avis in terries nigroque simillima cycno 
A truly good person is a rare bird (like a black swan)
Quis custodiet Ipsos custode
Who will guard the guards?
Ques Custodiet Ipsos custodes?… found in Hongkong

Interesting how sometimes things stay relevant for centuries.

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy –


Where did this powerful term, this hashtag that has galvanized a nation, and become the rallying cry for a generation – where did it come from?

Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors

The year was 2013, and George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Alicia Garza was shocked, saddened, and frustrated to hear the verdict, and immediately wrote a series of Facebook posts – what she later called a Love Letter to all Black People, “stop saying we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Followed by another simple, yet powerful message,“black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

The Facebook messages were then shared by her friend and activist Patrisse Cullors who used her message to form the powerful hashtag, “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely. #blacklivesmatter.”

This was followed by another Facebook post that was a call to action, and was the first time the hashtag was characterized as a movement,

“Alicia Garza myself, and hopefully more black people than we can imagine are embarking on a project. we are calling it BLACKLIVESMATTER”

“#blacklivesmatter is a movement attempting to visiblize what it means to be black in this country. Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation. Rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”

Another civil rights activist Opal Tometi recognized the potential of the hashtag and the three of them created an online space for this movement to grow – somewhere where others could join and spread awareness.

Colin Kaepernick & #blacklivesmatter – he refused to stand for the national anthem

For most of 2013, the hashtag gained traction on social media as a rallying cry for a civil rights movement, but remained within the confines of social media. It was not until 2014, when Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island by a police chokehold, followed by the August 2014 killing of teenager Michael Brown by a police office in Ferguson, Missouri, and race relations came to a boiling point with demonstrations and protests continuing for weeks that #blacklivesmatter came to be used both offline and online for a movement.

According to the Pew Research Group, #blacklivesmatter appeared on Twitter a total of 11.8 million times between July 2013 and March 2016. I am sure when the word is analyzed for 2020 it will easily cross the billion mark.

With its civil rights roots, its longevity in this short attention span world, and its phenomenal spread across the world, it is clear that this powerful and meaninful term is not just the rallying cry of 2020, but of an entire generation unwilling to accept racial inequality. The hashtag has created a new mechanism for confronting this racial inequality and has become synonymous with the fight against systematic and structural racism.

June 6, 1944 – D-Day

The operation that turned the tide against Nazi Germany in World War II began at dawn on June 6, 1944. Codenamed Operation Overlord, it was the largest amphibious invasion in history – in which US, British, and Canadian troops landed on 5 separate beachheads in Normandy, France, with the purpose of liberating France and Western Europe from the Nazis.

General Eisenhower’s speech June 6, 1944
General Eisenhower speaking to soldiers on the evening of June 5, 1944
New York Times coverage of Operation Overlord.

The German Occupation of France started on May 10, 1940. On June 18, 1940 General Charles de Gaulle gave a speech in which he almost predicted the Allied invasion of Normandy to liberate France from the Nazis.

Roman Aqueducts

Of all the things the Ancient Romans did, what fascinates me the most are the Roman Aqueducts. These bridge-like structures supported by multiple levels of Roman arches can be seen spanning across valleys in many countries across Europe and North Africa – territories that were part of the Roman Empire.  The aqueducts carried fresh water into Rome’s homes, baths, and fountains. In fact, even today the famous Trevi fountain in Rome is fed by water from an aqueduct that was built in 19 BCE.

The Romans built the aqueducts from 312 BCE to 226 CE, under the rules of Augustus, Caligula, and Trajan. While the parts above ground are the most recognizable, a majority of the aqueducts were laid below ground – and are made up of underground tunnels, pipes, and canals. Of a total of 420 kms of aqueducts, only 50 kms are above ground.

The water flowed from dams, reservoirs, and other sources towards Rome because of gravity. The entire aqueduct system had to have just the right gradient – too much and the water would flow too fast particularly into Rome and burst the pipes, too low and the water would stop flowing. The Romans used rivers and riverbeds to learn about gradient technology to allow water to flow at the correct speed. The engineering knowledge the ancient Romans must have possessed to achieve this feat is remarkable.

Ancient Roman Aqueduct

Once the water arrived in Rome, it went into a large storage reservoir called the main castellum. From the castellum, the water traveled to different parts of Rome in smaller channels, and entered a secondary castellum, from where it further branched until it reached its final destination like the Trevi fountain.

The ancient Romans built 11 aqueducts in all. Some of the Roman aqueducts are Aqua Claudia, Aqua Appia (oldest), Aqua Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia (could take water up to Palatine hill), Aqua Alexandina (last one built), and Aqua Traiana.

Pont du Gard, Nemes, France

Trentino or Quarantino

It almost sounds like I’m going to write about the movie director Quentin Tarantino – but I’m not – not that it’s not the most fascinating name – but I’m actually  writing about something that’s been on everyone’s mind a lot lately – Quarantine.

Quarantine comes from the Italian word Quarantino, which comes from the Latin word quaranta giorni – which translates to “space of forty days.” The policy of quarantine was first enforced during the bubonic plague in 1348 in Venice. Ships carrying sailors and cargo had to stay on the ship in Venetian lagoons for 40 days before they could enter Venice.

Medieval Dubrovnik

Even before the Venetian quarantine the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia became the first to pass laws requiring a mandatory order for all inbound ships and sailors to stay away from the city for a period of 30 days for fear of carrying infection into the city. The sailors were sent to an uninhabited rock island for 30 days – and this was called trentino. This is the first known evidence of isolation and is remarkable that the officials of Dubrovnik had this much understanding of diseases and incubation.

Biblical importance of 40 days

The 30 days was later changed by Italians to 40 days – and this makes us question – why 40 days? The period of 40 days has numerous biblical references – and may have been picked for that reason. According to the bible when God flooded the earth it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Even today, in many countries, women have to rest for 40 days after childbirth.  

Another interesting and related term is Lazaretto – which is the place where the quarantine took place, or a place where people with diseases, especially lepers, stayed. The term traces its origin to the biblical Lazarus who was covered in sores. So for instance the rocky island near Dubrovnik where the quarantined (or should I say trentined) people were sent would be a lazaretto.

Dubrovnik Lazaretto

“the German War is at an end”

This is how Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the end of World War II 75 years ago today. On May 8, 1945, after six years at war in which millions of young lives were lost, the guns finally fell silent over Europe. The Allies defeated Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and the day became known as VE – Victory in Europe – day.

75 years later the generation that fought this war remains undoubtedly the greatest generation. The sacrifices made by the young men and women of this generation defy understanding, and we owe them an unpayable debt of gratitude for the freedoms we all take for granted. The men that fought this war, those that are still alive, continue to inspire and amaze us to this day. One such hero is World War II veteran captain Tom Moore who turned 100 years old on April 30th.

Captain Tom celebrating his 100th birthday

War veterans like Captain Tom know how to inspire – they have seen the worst of humanity, they have lived to tell about it, they choose to see the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. Captain Tom has singlehandedly brought the UK – perhaps even the world – together at this time – across generations and across all financial and racial boundaries. Captain Tom, a lifelong fan of Britain’s Health system (NHS) decided to walk a 100 laps of his garden by his 100th birthday to raise $1200 for the NHS.

Captain Tom completing his 100th lap for charity
Captain Tom as a young man in the army.

A world dealing with a pandemic found its hero – and Captain Tom raised $40 million. He received 125,000 cards on his birthday, a Royal Air Force flypast, and a possible knighthood. And like all people of his generation, Captain Tom told the world to remain positive and hopeful: “For all those finding it difficult: the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.” What an amazing man!!

As the world battles with an enemy of a different sort, on this day when six years of darkness ended, we should pause and remember the heroes of World War II that sacrificed so much, and learn to live life with the same grace that they showed during and after the war, and continue to show to this day.

It’s May Day!!

There’s Mayday and there’s May Day – the 1st day of the month of May which falls right in between spring equinox and the summer solstice.

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!!

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday !!– interestingly has nothing to do with the lovely month of May. It’s the international signal for a distress call over the radio – and it has to be used only when the distress is real, life-threateningly real. And it has to be said three times so there is no confusion over static radio signals as to what the caller is saying.

Mayday as a distress signal started in 1923, when a radio officer at the Croydon Airport in London came up with this term – primarily because it sounded like the French word for help me m’aider. Also it had no ‘s’ or other sounds which tend to get lost over radio signals. For non-life-threatening issues the signal is pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan which is a derivation of another French word “penne,’ which means breakdown.

May Day on the other hand is a word that relates to this day which traditionally is celebrated with May flowers in baskets and dancing around maypoles. All across Europe, the seeds sown in springtime had started to sprout and this was cause for celebration – cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and people decorated their front doors and filled baskets with May flowers. Many of these festivities were shunned by the Puritans, and traditional May Day celebrations never really took hold in the US.

Starting with the 19th Century May Day took on a new significance – it became the International Workers’ Day –  a day that celebrates the struggles and gains made by the labor movement such as the fight for an 8 hour work day in the US. May 1 was chosen as Workers’ Rights Day in 1889 as an homage to the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago. The communist states embraced this day and used it unite workers against capitalism. It became famous for the spectacular annual May Day parade in the Red Square in Moscow. After the decline of communism, the importance of this day diminished in the communist countries.

(Images courtesy Old Farmer’s Almanac).