National Etiquette Week: From poison to throat slitting, the evolution of etiquette

Celebratory drinkIt’s National Etiquette Week; a recognition of the importance of etiquette and protocol in all aspects of our lives. Today’s post is about how the word and emphasis on etiquette began and some etiquette practices that have evolved from centuries ago.

It is believed that during King Henry XIV’s reign etiquettes (little cards) were created to keep the unruly courtiers under control. These little cards or tickets were distributed to the members of the court with specific rules – where to stand, sit, when to speak, reminders to keep off the grass, etc.

Through the centuries, etiquette evolved to apply to all people, not just royalty and the upper class and more people became interested in it.

Here are some etiquette practices that have evolved.

Many people clink wine glasses when toasting. While today, we don’t need to clink glasses, it comes from medieval times where people heartily clanked their pewter mugs together to distribute any poison that was in one mug into the others. This was meant to discourage anyone from trying to poison others. Later, people clinked their glasses to dispel evil spirits.

When setting the table, the dinner knife is set with the blade pointing towards the plate. When we place the knife down on the plate when eating, we keep the blade pointed in towards us. This was started as a way to keep murderous people in the dark ages from picking up their knife and easily slicing the throat of their neighbor to the right.

I have mentioned this before, but it’s always a fun one to share. The practice of shaking hands comes from the middle ages when we did it to show we didn’t have a weapon in our hand. It’s believed that the pumping action was started to shake lose any weapons up someone’s sleeve. We still shake hands today as a gesture of goodwill.

According to the book From Hand to Mouth: Or How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons and Chopsticks & The Table Manners To Go With Them, since ancient times, the Chinese believed silver was a protection against poison. So, upper class families would eat with ivory chopsticks tipped with silver. It was believed that if the tips came into contact with food that was poisoned they would turn black. I haven’t seen any ivory chopsticks tipped with silver, so I don’t think that is a practice today.

That’s today’s etiquette history lesson. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.





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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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