How Does One Become A Knight?

Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? Inquiring minds want to know, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of your most pressing knighthood-related questions.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A KNIGHTHOOD?

Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which just recently welcomed Beatle Ringo Starr into its ranks. Although the Order, which was established by King George V, was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior in wartime, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight and Dame Commander (KBE and DBE, respectively), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). Achieving one of the first two ranks earns a person a slot in the knighthood, which means they can add "Sir" or "Dame" to their names, i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Judi Dench. All members of the Order of the British Empire can add the initials of their rank to the end of their names, though, which is why you sometimes read about celebrities with ranks following their names, like "Roger Daltrey CBE."

CAN NON-BRITISH CITIZENS BE KNIGHTED?

Sort of. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for honorary knighthood, meaning they aren’t allowed to add “Sir” or "Dame" to their names. They do, however get to append the suffix “KBE” to their monikers if they so desire. Bono, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Bloomberg are all technically “KBEs.” If any of them later become citizens of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive and they are “bumped up” into real knighthood. In 2005, Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood, and when he became a British citizen later that year, he could start making people call him Sir Terry Wogan.

WHO DECIDES WHO GETS TO BE A KNIGHT?

Technically, the reigning monarch is the sovereign of the Order and is in charge of making all appointments. On a more practical level, though, the monarch receives counsel and recommendations from the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese (1894 - 1978) of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy, 26th July 1944
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy in 1944.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Membership in the Order of the British Empire is available for all sorts of reasons, from superlative civil or military service to artistic achievement to charity work.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO GET A KNIGHTHOOD?

While lots of notable figures are offered the honor of joining the Order of the British Empire, only a few heavy-hitters get to become knights and dames commander. Simply put, these higher honors go to the bigger names. For example, current Dames Commander include Judi Dench, Jane Goodall, and Helen Mirren. Generally, it's a good idea to make a pretty substantial service and cultural contribution to the British realm.

A few members of the Order of the British Empire aren't technically knights within the organization's hierarchy, but they're allowed to call themselves "Sir." These guys have been knighted by the monarchy, but not as part of an order of chivalry like the Order of the British Empire. They can call themselves "Sir," but don’t have any additional letters added to their names. Elton John, Paul McCartney, and some other famous "Sirs" have this type of knighthood.

DO YOU HAVE TO BE A KNIGHT IF IT'S OFFERED TO YOU?

Nope. In fact, a number of people have turned down the honor due to uneasiness with its militaristic or imperialist overtones. According to an AP story, approximately two percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

A photo of David Bowie circa 1970
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

David Bowie supposedly twice declined offers to join, including an offer of knighthood in 2003, because he felt the whole business was a waste of time. John Cleese rejected a CBE and said he felt much more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a lemur after him in 2005. Vanessa Redgrave became a Commander of the British Empire in 1967, but she turned down an offer of damehood in 1999. When asked about the decision to just say no in 2002, Redgrave told The Independent, "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honored as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light."

Keith Richards turned down a spot as Commander of the British Empire and viciously mocked bandmate Mick Jagger for taking a knighthood, which he called a "f***ing paltry honour."

Generally, when a person declines an honor, they don't crow to the media about it. Rather, they discreetly tell the tale after some time has passed.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BEING A KNIGHT?

You don't get to joust or wear armor, but you do pick up a few unusual garments. Knights and Dames Grand Cross get to wear special gear to formal events like coronations. This getup includes a pink-with-gray-edges satin mantle and a collar of six gold medallions.

 Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams upon his appointment as Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda during an audience at Windsor Castle on December 5, 2014 in Windsor, United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams in 2014.
Jonathan Brady, WPA Pool/Getty Images

All members of the Order are allowed to wear the group's badge. The badge is basically a cross hanging from a pink ribbon with gray edges, although various ranks wear their badges in unique ways. Members and Officers simply wear their badges like military medals pinned to their chests, while higher-ups wear theirs on sashes or around their necks.

Other benefits include getting a spot in the British order of precedence, the arcane system that develops the hierarchy of ceremonial importance for things like state dinners. Furthermore, knights win their wives the right to be called "Lady," and Knights and Dames Grand Cross can modify their coats of arms to reflect the honor.

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An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2009.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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