Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Where Did That Come From? by Victoria Chatham



             One of the joys of writing, for me, is doing research. I know some writers hate it and others view it as a form of procrastination but I love delving into history. Apart from the facts I do want to confirm, I frequently come up with oddities that just fascinate me. Some may be questionable, other folks may have a different version of where or why a saying evolved. The following list mostly derives from English history and the terms and sayings have been transported around the world as Britain expanded her trade and borders.

Bringing home the bacon. Having a pig to raise, or the man of the family bringing home some pork, was a sign of wealth. The pork was usually hung in the rafters of the home, close to the chimney, so it was handy for the housewife to cut slices from and to show off to visitors.

Chewing the fat. A term we think of today as people gathering around to have a pleasant conversation and that’s not far from the possible origin of this term. With visitors admiring the ‘flitch’ or uncut side of bacon hanging in the rafters, the householder would cut off a little of the fat to offer his guests so they would sit around and ‘chew the fat’. In addition, a flitch of bacon could be awarded to married couples who could swear to not having regretted their marriage for a year and a day. This old tradition purportedly still survives in some pockets in England.

Dirt poor. While wealthy people may have had slate or stone floors, poor people didn’t. Mostly the floors of their homes consisted of leveled dirt which gives us the saying ‘dirt poor’ to denote someone who really does not have very much of anything.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Do we really appreciate the luxury of the baths and showers we have today? Imagine living in a household where having a bath consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water could be so dirty you might lose someone in it. Hence the saying, ‘Don't throw the baby out with the bath water’ meaning not to lose something of value.

Four poster bed.  With only a thick straw thatch above you, there was nothing to stop bugs and other droppings falling into the house and messing up a nice clean bed. So beds with a post at each corner and a sheet hung over the top offered some protection. Over time the sheets became more elaborate canopies, including curtains surrounding the bed which could be closed to keep out drafts and afford privacy.

June Bride. Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May so still smelt pretty good in June. But, because many were already beginning to smell again, brides starting carrying bouquets of sweet smelling flowers to hide their body odor.

Pay on the nail. Outside the Corn Exchange in Bristol, England, are four brass tables or ‘nails’. They have flat tops with raised edges to stop coins rolling off. The four nails were made at different times, probably modeled after the portable tables used in fairs and markets, but the oldest nail dates from the Elizabethan period.  So, if you ‘pay on the nail’, you pay in cash and on time.

Peas porridge. You may be familiar with the old rhyme ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old’. This refers to a time when everything was cooked in the same pot over the fire. What wasn’t eaten would be left to get cold. Meat was not readily available to the average family, so when the fire was lit on the following day it was mostly vegetables that were added to the pot.

Piss Poor. To dispose of the overnight waste from chamber pots, many families sold this commodity to collectors who took it the local tannery or woolen mill. The ammonia in stale urine was used to tan animal skins and to set dye in cloth. If you had to do this to survive you were ‘piss poor’, but the really poor people couldn’t even afford to buy a chamber pot so didn’t 'have a pot to piss in’.

Raining cats and dogs.  In an era when houses had thick, straw thatched roofs with no wood underneath, it was often the only place that animals could get warm. Cats, mice, bugs, all lived in the roof, but when it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, so if it was raining really hard, it might be ‘raining cats and dogs’.

Upper crust.  Picture a beautiful, aromatic loaf of bread fresh from the oven. Guests would get the top, or upper crust, the family would get the middle section and servants and workers would get the sometimes burnt bottom of the loaf. Therefore, someone who is ‘upper crust’, would be considered special or of having some elevated social status.

Salute.  Who is not familiar with this sign of respect used by the military and most uniformed organizations? Especially poignant is the iconic photograph of a young John Kennedy saluting his father’s flag draped casket as it was carried from St Matthew’s Cathedral. The salute evolved from medieval times, when knights in armor raised their visors to reveal their identity.

Saved by the bell.  Today we use this term to indicate a situation being saved or solved at the very last moment, but it has a rather gruesome origin. Being a small country, when English parishioners began to run out of space for burials, they would open graves and coffins to reuse them. It was found that 1 out of every 25 coffins opened had fingernail scratch marks on the inside of the lid, and it was realized that people had been buried alive. A string was then tied around the corpse’s wrist and fed through a hole in the coffin lid, up through the ground and tied to a bell. Someone sat by the grave (hence the term graveyard shift for a night worker) so that if the bell was rung the coffin would be immediately opened to save whoever was inside it.

Threshold.  Wealthy people had slate or stone floors in their homes that, when wet and especially during the winter, could get very slippery. To avoid this they spread straw, called thresh, on the floor to keep their footing. Throughout the winter more thresh was added until, when you opened the door, it started to slip outside or was carried out on peoples’ feet. A thick piece of wood was placed across the door way to keep the thresh inside and became known as a ‘thresh hold’.

Wake.  Our ancestors’ table ware was often hazardous to their health. Plates were made of pewter and any food with a high acid content could cause lead to leach into the food causing death by lead poisoning. Tomatoes have a high acid content, so for 400 years or so tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Ale and whisky were served in lead cups and the combination often knocked the imbibers out for days. Anyone walking along a road could take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. This was the origin of bringing food and drink for guests to partake of after a funeral.

So now you know. Do you have  any explanations for sayings in common use today? 

You can find Victoria on:

www.bookswelove.com/chatham.php

and on her blog at www.victoriachatham.webs.com








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