the sources of some phrases....

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Apr 4 18:28:01 UTC 2000

At 10:52 PM -0500 4/3/00, Bradley, Beth M wrote:
>        This is a bit long, and I apologize for that, but for those of you
>with enough time to read it, it's pretty interesting, and I'm curious if
>anyone knows if any of it is true.
>        -Beth Bradley

So far every derivation I've been able to check (in the OED) can be
dismissed.  These are cute stories but I suspect they're all either
invented off the cuff or transmitted as urban legends.  "Dead ringer", for
example, doesn't come from "old and small" England, but from the U.S.
(first cite, 1891).  "Upper crust" in the relevant meaning seems also to be
a 19th century (mid-19th, this time) U.S. innovation, not 16th century
British.  A wake was a vigil or a night spent in devout watchfulness for
centuries before it narrowed (in the fifteenth century) to a wake for the
dead.  "Bring home the bacon" isn't cited before 1926 (Wodehouse), and I
suspect that even if the OED missed a hit or two it doesn't go back to the
16th c.  "Threshold" is early 11th century, not 16th, and the early uses
don't involve the slate floors of the wealthy.  As noted earlier, "trench
mouth", like "trench foot", "trench fever", etc., originated in World War
I; an indicative cite is the following:

1918 Evening Mail 1 May 3/4 We have trench mouth, just as we have trench
feet. Otherwise known as ulcero-membranous stomatitis, or Vincent's disease.

I wouldn't be surprised if none of these items have the sources advanced
for them.  But this brings up a question:  in the absence of an OED Phrase
Dictionary, can anyone point us to a REPUTABLE dictionary of phrase
origins, giving first cite and derivations for e.g. raining cats and dogs,
throwing out the baby with the bath water, and so on?


>> LIFE IN THE 1500'S
>> Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May
>> and were still smelling pretty good by June. However, they were starting
>> to
>> smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the b.o.
>> Baths equaled 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
>> was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.  Hence the saying,
>> "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water".
>> Houses had thatched roofs.  Thick straw, piled high, with no wood
>> underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets
>> (dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs) lived in the roof.
>> When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip
>> and fall off the roof.  Hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs."
>> There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a
>> real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really
>> mess
>> up your nice clean bed.  So, they found if they made beds with big posts
>> and
>> hung a sheet over the top, it addressed that problem.  Hence
>> those beautiful big 4 poster beds with canopies.  I wonder if this is
>> where
>> we get the saying Good night and don't let the bed bugs bite........
>> The floor was dirt.  Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence
>> the saying "dirt poor."  The wealthy had slate floors which would get
>> slippery in the winter when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to
>> help
>> keep their footing. As the winter wore on they kept adding more thresh
>> until
>> when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside.  A piece of
>> wood was placed at the entry way, hence a "thresh hold".
>> They cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle that always hung over the fire.
>> Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot.  They mostly ate
>> vegetables and didn't get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner
>> leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start
>> over the next day.  Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been in
>> there
>> for a month. Hence the rhyme:  peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas
>> porridge in the pot nine days old."
>> Sometimes they could obtain pork and would feel really special when that
>> happened. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang
>> it to show it off.  It was a sign of wealth and that a man "could really
>> bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests
>> and
>> would all sit around and "chew the fat."
>> Those with money had plates made of pewter.  Food with a high acid content
>> caused some of the lead to leach onto the food. This happened most often
>> with tomatoes, so they stopped eating tomatoes... for 400 years.
>> Most people didn't have pewter plates, but had trenchers - a piece of wood
>> with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and a
>> lot of times worms got into the wood.  After eating off wormy trenchers,
>> they would get "trench mouth."
>> Bread was divided according to status.  Workers got the burnt bottom of
>> the
>> loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the "upper
>> crust".
>> Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey.  The combination would
>> sometimes knock them out for a couple of days.  Someone walking along the
>> road would 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 and see if they would wake up.  Hence
>> the
>> custom of holding a "wake".
>> England is old and small, and they started running out of places to bury
>> people.  So, they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a
>> house
>> and re-use the grave.  In reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins
>> were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had
>> been burying people alive.  So they thought they would tie a string on
>> their
>> wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it
>> to
>> a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen
>> for the bell.  Hence on the  "graveyard shift" they would know that
>> someone
>> was "saved by the bell" or he was a "dead ringer".

More information about the Ads-l mailing list