By the early seventeenth century, the archery and arm-wrestling competitions that once followed medieval feasts had evolved into another sort of mighty contest: the custom of boldly plunging one’s ruffled arm into the chicken carcase, skilfully extricating—like Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone—the furcula of the bird, and blithely challenging a fellow dinner guest to tug till it broke in two. Eventually it was noticed that this sport made poor drama—a tiny snap followed by each competitor examining his splinter of bone—and so mystery was added: the victor would be granted a wish so long as he never revealed it. The w-shaped bone at the centre of these contests was not, however, originally called a wishbone: it was called a merry thought, a gentle reminder that the contestants should use the power of the bone to wish for something good, not evil. In the mid nineteenth century, two hundred and fifty years after the name merry thought appeared, the synonym wishbone arose, as did the anatomical term, furculu. Of these three names, furcula is the most visually accurate as it derives from the Latin furca, meaning fork. Wish and bone derive from two Indo-European words meaning, not surprisingly, wish and bone. Merry and thought are more interesting: the Indo-European source of merry was a word meaning short, the idea being that a merry occasion made the time seem short; even more surprising is that the Indo-European source of thought was also the source of thanks—when you thank your hosts, you are literally giving them your thoughts.


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