In the April 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine, Nick Rennison writes that pineapples were such elite fruits in the 18th century that they cost “about the same price as a new coach.” And that you could rent one to display on your table. (Like potatoes, tobacco and chocolate, they came from the New World, hence their exoticism.)

“Confectioners were able to rent out a single fruit for weeks to a succession of different customers eager to demonstrate their wealth and social status,” Rennison writes. As it got passed from customer to customer, the fruit naturally started to rot. “No one could eat it…and it grew more rotten each time…but its presence on the dinner table was enough.”

This story illustrates what I love about history. That some spiky fruit I’ve always taken for granted once meant everything to the upper classes of Europe. If that doesn’t change the way you look at present day status symbols-Louis Vuitton handbags for example-I don’t know what would. (If LV products are still around 200 years from now I can only imagine how people will view 21st century people’s obsession with handbags.)

I’ll remember this story every time I drink a cold slushy concoction from a pineapple. Unless that is, I go senile, in which case, I’ll have forgotten its storied past, and that will be quite a shame.

[A 17th century painting by Hendrik Danckerts. Charles II receives a pineapple from his gardener.]

The Great Vowel Shift

Here’s something interesting I read the other night in a book called The Celebrated Pedestrian. This thin “toilet read” is a compilation of questions posed by readers of BBC History Magazine. (I prefer to read it in bed not on the potty, just in case you were wondering.)

In the chapter on language, one of the questions was, “how far back in history could we [English speakers] go and still be understood?” Great question.

The answer is a bit complicated and there’s still some debate going on about it, but one of the authors focuses on a very significant change that occurred in England sometime between 1390 and 1420. This change was called the “Great Vowel Shift,” and it came about after “the abandonment of French as the language at court.” (You see, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, they naturally brought their language along with them, and in doing so demoted the local Saxon tongue to second class status. Some Brits have argued that this is where their obsession with hierarchy started.) When the French language left court, it changed the way people pronounced their vowels. For example, the word mouse had once been pronounced moose.

Moose trap anyone?

Factoring in the vowel shift with a loss of inflection (before 1100 English was an inflected language like German), the author states that present-day English speakers “would seriously struggle to understand the spoken word around 1300.” Or rather, Fectoing in da voowel shiift…well, you get the picture and I don’t want to try to write like that for one second more.

Did this vowel shift occur only once? Hardly. In fact, it’s happening right now…in America.