off the cuff

Raising three cheers to inflation

Slip a little of something highly toxic into a general’s cup and a Caesar of today would be a dead Caesar tomorrow

Kevin Martin,Special to Gulf News
16:48 September 13, 2017

Inflation. A word that’s mentioned a lot these days. A word that brings to mind prices and how balloon-like they can seem, blowing out until in some cases certain items become unattainable.

Inflation is that index that reminds us, with the jauntiness of rhyme, that ‘soon things may come to pass/when everyone’s food will consist of grass’.

Check every dictionary and this is the primary definition of the word.

‘It’s all about the money/it’s all about the dum dum da da dum dum’ as Swedish singer Meja sang in a 1998 song.

Inflation, we believe, is a more recent word. Right? Wrong! Inflation harks back to the first century BC, believe it or not. Only, back then the word meant something different.

These were times when things were being invented. Man was discovering what he could do with simple resources at his disposal. Like sand in the form of silica, for example, and how it could be mixed with soda ash and limestone to form something incredibly amazing and beautiful when melted in a furnace at around 1,700 degrees Celsius.

Glass, of course.

I’ve come to the conclusion that either people didn’t have much to do with their free time back in 1 BC and therefore playfully set about experimenting with things — either that, or, the first glassblowers, or gaffers, must have been men of immense courage, because it calls for a form of irrational bravery to place a blow pipe to something that’s been liquefied to such a high degree and then proceed to shape the liquid into aesthetic shapes.

No doubt, the perspicacious reader has made the leap — and arrived at the correct conclusion — that, yes, this early technique of blowing into molten glass and shaping it was called inflation. That was the original meaning of the word. No doubt, also back in the day, glass must have cost a fair bit of whatever the currency was going around at that time. Anyhow, it’s probably fair to assume that small drinking glasses were among the first items produced with this new ‘commodity’. Soon, of course, early man was introducing into his lifestyle a certain degree of sophistication. Drinking out of glass.

Transparent, for everyone to see.

Really? Not quite, evidently. Because history also tells us that these were times when power games were being played out (nothing different from today), when land was being conquered and territories expanded.

The Romans, the Greeks, the Huns, the Goths, all have a place and copious mentions in the history of those times as their armies ranged back and forth, conquering land, ceding land. And amongst all this toing-and-froing in barges, on horseback, setting up camps, someone somewhere invented glass. Which ought to have made things a lot easier for any conquering army sitting down to dinner with some good wine to quaff before tucking into the roast meat and veggies.

Right? Wrong.

Suspicion, like a hooded cobra, ranged freely among the people of the day because everybody was aware that a popular way of doing away with someone was through poison. Slip a little of something highly toxic into a general’s cup and a Caesar of today would be a dead Caesar tomorrow.

Which is how, I’m told, the act of offering ‘cheers’ or ‘salut’ or ‘clinking glasses’ apparently came about. Even though the glasses were transparent, two people drinking were expected to knock their glasses together (not with the intention of shattering or testing the glasses for strength) but actually to allow a little of the contents of one’s cup to jump over the rim into the glass of the other man. An exchange of beverages, if you wish. In this way, if one glass contained something highly toxic it soon contaminated the other drink as well.

History doesn’t record it but I’m sure a good few generals died with ‘Cheers’ on their lips before this trick of glass clinking was introduced.

It’s a gesture that survives to this day, despite or perhaps because of inflation.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.