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Bucket-shops & Cuckoo-land

GAMBLING has now become part and parcel of our once-sheltered South African existence. We can back horses, cross the border to play so-called legal casinos, stay nearer home and patronise private gambling joints, invest in scratch cards, or have a flutter on the Durban lottery.

So far the sky has not fallen in as a result of such unbridled licentiousness, but our political and spiritual leaders are ever-watchful to protect us against the consequences of our own folly.

There must be control, they say. The public must not be exposed to bucket-shop operations. And if bucket-shop operators think they can go on their way unhindered, they must be living in cloud-cuckoo land.

Are bucket-shops and cloud-cuckoo land really so reprehensible? Etymologically, at least, they are free of moral threat but full of fascination.

The bucket-shop had its origins in Chicago, where in the late 1800s the Board of Trade would not allow dealings in less than 5,000 bushels of grain.

But to attract speculators of small means, an Open Board of Trade was set up in an alley under the room of the main board. If business was slack on the main trading floor, a member would send down for a bucketful from the speculators in the alley.

Hence the term bucket-shop came to be applied to any informal grain speculation. In time, it has come to mean any form of unregulated gambling or unauthorised trading – such as travel agencies specialising in cut-price tickets.

Cloud-cuckoo land has an older history, dating back to ancient Greece. The Birds, a satirical play by Aristophanes, was first performed in 414 BC. It concerns an Athenian who persuaded the birds to build themselves a city in the clouds, besieging the gods and compelling them to accept humiliating terms of settlement.

Cloud-cuckoo land – or nephelococcygia as the Greeks called it – was shown to be a better place than either Athens or heaven. Politicians were refused entry, with the result that good counsels prevailed, happy laws were enacted, and common sense was the order of the day, along with other blessings which were fast-disappearing from 5th century Athens.

The abuse of cloud-cuckoo land as a derogatory terms is comparatively recent, being first noted in 1899. Perhaps the cuckoo component has induced English speakers to invest the place with craziness, although Aristophanes’ cloud-cuckoo land was far more logical than either the real or heavenly worlds.

If politicians want a metaphor to describe irrationality, they should look nearer to home rather than pervert Aristophanes.

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