The Celtic Sage has a certain interest in etymology so here is the first of an occasional series on word origins – the next one will be on the 694 sayings of John Milton which have entered the English language – three times more than the sayings attributed to William Shakespeare!
However let us start with the Bard. Anne Hathaway was the wife of William Shakespeare. She married at the age of 26 which was really unusual for the time. Most people married young, at the age of 11 or 12. However life in England in the 1500’s was not as romantic as we may picture it. Here are some examples:
Anne Hathaway’s home was a 3 bedroom house with a small parlour, which was seldom used (only for company), kitchen, and no bathroom. Mother and Father shared a bedroom. Anne had a queen sized bed, but did not sleep alone. She also had 2 other sisters and they shared the bed also with 6 servant girls. (This is before she married) They didn’t sleep like we do lengthwise but all laid on the bed crosswise. At least they had a bed. The other bedroom was shared by her 6 brothers and 30 field workers. They didn’t have a bed. Everyone just wrapped up in their blanket and slept on the floor. They had no indoor heating so all the extra bodies kept them warm. They were also small people, the men only grew to be about 5’6″ and the women were 4’8″. In their house they had 27 people living.
Most people got married in June. Why? They took their yearly bath in May, so they were till smelling pretty good by June, although they were starting to smell, so the brides would carry a bouquet of flowers to hide their B.O. Like I said, they took their yearly bath in May, but it was just a big tub that they would fill with hot water. The man of the house would get the privilege of the nice clean water. Then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all to have a bath were the babies. By then the water was pretty thick. Thus, the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” it was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.
Let’s describe their houses a little. You’ve heard of thatch roofs, well that’s all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. They were the only place for the little animals to get warm. So all the pets; dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Since there was nothing to stop things from falling into the house they would just try to clean up a lot. But this posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings from animals could really mess up your nice clean bed, so they found if they would make beds with big posts and hang a sheet over the top it would prevent that problem. That’s where those traditionall big 4 poster beds with canopies came from.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was compacted dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate or stone floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread straw thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”. In the kitchen they would cook over the fire, they had a fireplace in the kitchen/parlour, that was seldom used and sometimes in the master bedroom. They had a big kettle that always hung over the fire and every day they would light the fire and start adding things to the pot. Mostly they ate vegetables, as they didn’t get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner then leave the leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew would have food in it that had been in there for a month! Thus the rhyme: “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”
Sometimes they could get a hold of some pork. They really felt special when that happened and when company came over they even had a rack in the parlour where they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. That 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 they would all sit around and “chew the fat.”
If you had money your plates were made out of pewter. Sometimes some of their food had a high acid content and some of the lead would leach out into the food. They really noticed it happened with tomatoes. So they stopped eating tomatoes, for 400 years. Most people didn’t have pewter plates though; they all had trenchers, which were a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. They never washed their boards and a lot of times worms would get into the wood. After eating off the trencher with worms they would get “trench mouth.” It also gives us the English word “Trencherman” for somebody who likes their food.If you were going travelling and wanted to stay at an Inn they usually provided the bed but not the board. The bread was divided according to status. The workers would get the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family would get the middle and guests would get the top, or the “upper crust”. They also had lead cups and when they would drink their ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days.
They would be walking along the road and here would be someone knocked out and they thought they were dead. So they would pick them up and take them home and get them ready to bury. They realised if they were too slow about it, the person would wake up. Also, maybe not all of the people they were burying were dead. So they would lay them out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. That’s where the custom of holding a “wake” came from. Since England is so old and small they started running out of places to bury people. So they started digging up some coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave. They started opening these coffins and found some had scratch marks on the inside. One out of 25 coffins were that way and they realised they had still 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. That is how the saying “graveyard shift” was made. If the bell would ring they would know that someone was “saved by the bell” or he was a “dead ringer”.
Then there were baby’s high chair (with holes in the seat (a.k.a. “drainage chair”) -During the winter months, young babies were strapped into their chairs and were never allowed to crawl around in the hay on the stone-cold floor. They didn’t wear any diapers of any sort. They sat in that chair all day… and you know why there were holes in their chair!
“To beat around the bush” – Game birds were scared out of their hiding places under bushes and then killed. “The bee’s knees” – the very best, the most desirable. Example: “Everyone agreed that Harry’s diamond studded cufflinks were just the bee’s knees.” This strange expression is one of many that emerged during the 1920s “flapper” period, when anything excellent was likely to receive a catchphrase having something to do with an animal part. There were “monkey’s eyebrows,” “gnat’s elbows,” “bullfrog’s beard,” “elephant’s adenoids,” “cat’s pyjamas,” and many more. “The bitter end” – If you hang on to the bitter end, you are extending your efforts without giving up, even if it means you keep trying until you ultimately fail. Example: “Although he was limping on a sprained ankle and last in the race, Hugh kept running right to the bitter end.” Although the end of one’s efforts may be bitter, the original phrase was a nautical expression that had nothing to do with bitterness. On a ship, the bollards (posts) on which cables are wound are called bitts, a bitter is one turn of the cable around the bitt, and the bitter end is the last loop of cable. If a cable is let out to the bitter end, then there is no more slack, and the ship could be damaged by a large swell or rough weather. On a ship, it’s best not to go to the bitter end.
Black market – In medieval England there were nomadic mercenaries who wandered the country side and would sell their services to the highest bidder. These were hardened fighters who lived solitary lives in the wilderness. They did not have the luxury of servants to polish their armour and it would oxidize to a blackish hue, and they came to be known as black knights. At local town festivals they would have exhibition jousting matches in which the winner of the fight would win the loser’s weapons and armour. The local gentry, softened by the good life, would lose to these black knights. The nomadic knights didn’t have much use for an extra set of armour and would sell it back to them immediately after the fight. The losing nobility would be forced to buy back their armour and this after market came to be known as the “Black Market.” Bombed – A bombard is a leather jug which holds 8 pints or 4 quarts. A full bombard of ale would make you drunk. Bonfire – The discarded “bones” from winter meals were piled outside and bonfires would be set to get rid of them.
Bucket shop – a dishonest brokerage firm; especially one that formerly failed to execute customers’ margin orders in expectation of making a profit from market fluctuations adverse to the customers’ interests. In the 1870s, a bucket shop was a lowly saloon that sold beer and other cheap hooch in buckets. How did the term make the jump from watering hole to Wall Street? No one is really sure. Some speculate that it may have been because of the small-time gambling that took place at the original bucket shops, while others claim it derives from the bucket elevator used to transport things between the Chicago Board of Trade and a market for small investors housed directly below it. By the 1880s, “bucket shop” was being used for pseudo “investment houses” where gamblers bid on the rise and fall of stock prices. These days the term is used for any business that sells cut-price goods, especially airline tickets.
Bum’s rush – A short rush, which would burn for a short time, would be used when company came over rather late; when it burnt out, you would want to see the hind end of your guests out the door. Burning the candle at both ends – If they REALLY didn’t want you to stay very long, they would light “both ends” at the same time! Bus – is a long passenger vehicle with a central aisle and seats along the sides. It can also be a cart for carrying dishes in a restaurant, a metal bar that distributes electricity to many different devices, or a group of electrical lines that carries data signals. Strangely, all these meanings are closely related. In France in 1828, a new kind of conveyance was invented. It was called a “voiture omnibus,” where the first word was French for “carriage” and the second was Latin for “for all.” The new kind of carriage caught on quickly in England, where it was simply called the omnibus. In a strange twist of linguistics, the name was shortened to bus, leaving only the suffix of the original Latin word without the root. Since a bus carried a collection of diverse people, the same word became applied to other things having to do with diverse collections, such as the cart for dishes and the electrical cables for power and data distribution.
“Clean your plate before you have dessert” – The square plate (above) was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is). Clink -The name of the Bishop of Southwark’s prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London. Cold shoulder – When a guests would over stay their welcome as house guests, the hosts would (instead of feeding them good, warm meals) give their too-long staying guests the worst part of the animal, not warmed, but the COLD SHOULDER. Cut through the red tape – Solicitors kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.
Davy Jones’s locker – the bottom of the ocean. Was there a real Davy Jones? That’s a question linguists have pondered since 18th-century sailors started using the name for the evil spirit of the sea or the deadly depths of the ocean. Some claim the original Davy Jones was a British pirate, but there’s no evidence such a person actually existed. Others swear he was a London pub owner who kept drugged ale in a special locker, served it to the unwary, and then had them shanghaied to sea. But the theory considered most plausible is that the “Davy” in “Davy Jones’s locker” was inspired by St. David, the patron saint of Wales, who was often invoked by Welsh sailors. The “Jones” is traced to Jonah, the biblical figure who was swallowed by a whale. Dead as a doornail — “Knock, knock.” That wasn’t the beginning of a joke centuries ago, before we had doorbells that could play the theme from “The Godfather” or “Westminster Chimes” or even just plain ring. In those days you didn’t push anything to announce yourself: you pounded. Doors back then were thick and visitors used a knocker to bang on a metal plate on the door to get attention. Doornails held this target in place. If you were popular and had a lot of callers–hopefully not all bill collectors – the doornails would take their share of abuse. Eventually they got pretty mashed, giving rise to the expression, “dead as a . . .”
Done to a turn – Meat was roasted until cooked on an upright spit which had to be turned by hand. “Dead man’s hand” – Life insurance companies won’t pay off if you engage in certain dangerous activities. In the Old West, if we can believe westerns, “a friendly game of poker,” might have voided a policy. Disturbingly often, one or more players didn’t leave the card table alive. On August 2, 1876, in the town of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, it was the legendary Wild Bill Hickock who cashed in his chips, shot in the back by a man named Jack McCall while playing poker in a saloon. Wild Bill slumped over holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, forever after called a dead man’s hand.
Doily – A small ornamental mat, usually of lace or linen, named after Doily or Doyly, an 18th century London draper. “Druthers” Your imagination would come up with more intriguing possibilities than the reality of the origins of the expression. It’s simply the product of a regional speech mannerism, in which “I’d rather” gets contracted into “druther,” and then becomes a noun by adding an “s.” So if you had your druthers, you would have what you want, what you’d rather have. Eating humble pie – Servants ate “umble pie” which was made from deer waste while their Master and his guests had the better cuts of meat. Farming it out – The expression “farming out” – having someone else do part or all of your work – is connected to the place where you get up before dawn, work yourself to the bone, plant seeds, pray for rain, and then sometimes see your crops washed away when you get exactly what you asked for. But the connection is not that the expression came from the place, but rather that both come from the same source. In the Middle Ages, the word “farm” meant a tax or rent, not the land where you keep cows and pigs. The actual collection of the tax was subcontracted out to a person known as a tax farmer. Eventually the property for which the tax or rent was paid came to be called a farm. And farming something out came to mean subcontracting – assigning or paying someone to do our work for us.
Fuddy duddy — A fuddy duddy is an old-fashioned person with fussy, hyper-critical ways. Example: “Professor Higgins is such a fuddy duddy, he won’t even let his boys play in the yard on Saturdays.” The origin of this phrase is uncertain. It seems to have first gotten started around 1900 in Maine, a place and time of puritanical, straight-laced attitudes. Some dictionaries suggest that the phrase is related to “fuddled,” an old word meaning “drunk or confused,” but that theory seems unlikely because a fuddy duddy is not the kind of person who is likely to get drunk. A more intriguing theory is that it emerged from the letters sometimes found after the names of clergymen, who were also professors, something fairly common in those days. Someone known as “James Witherspoon, Ph.D., D.D.” might have been called “James Witherspoon, fuddy duddy” by those with little respect for his credentials.
Get out of bed on the wrong side – An old superstition said that it was bad luck to put the left foot down when getting out of bed. Getting your goat – This apparently refers to an old English (Welsh?) belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonise/terrorise one’s enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less- to non-productive. Gone to pot – Time eventually wears everything down. For example, once great downtown department stores declined, went to pot and were replaced by suburban malls. If you’ve ever gone to a school reunion, you know how just a few years, a few pounds, and a few grey hairs can make old classmates look like they’ve gone to pot, too. But why the pot? Is something cooking? Whatever counter-culture references the phrase may bring to mind, it actually is about the kitchen. In the Middle Ages, table scraps ended up in a big pot for stew. Once the centrepiece of a big meal, main courses were demoted to leftovers. Eventually “going to pot”, meaning going downhill, would be applied to anything, even the guy who sat behind you in the schoolroom years ago.
Goose bumps – When was the last time you used one of your small toes to accomplish anything? It’s one of several physical traits that are holdovers from long ago. Another is our appendix, a vestigial organ that no longer does much at all, yet we still have it. Goose bumps fall into this same category. We humans used to be a lot hairier. In cold weather that hair stood up on end, providing us with a natural insulation by creating pockets of warmer air between our skin and the outside cold. Relatively hairless now, we can wear goose down parkas to keep warm. But we still get goose bumps because the follicles on our skin automatically pucker up in response to the cold, trying to raise the hair that is no longer there.
“Go to town” — In the nineteenth century, most people lived in the country. They went to town to have fun, get some culture, maybe take care of business, go to church, socialise, or go shopping. It’s what many of them did right after their once- a-week bath. So the expression “go to town” came to mean something special, done in a big way, with lots of enthusiasm and excitement, pulling out all the stops and sparing no expense. In spirit, “go to town” resembles another nineteenth century phrase: “Sunday best,” the good clothes you saved for church and other special occasions – not the ordinary and everyday things you wore.
John Q. Public – 1) a member of the public or the community: person, citizen 2) the public or the community personified. When John Q. Public made his print debut in the late 1930s, he joined a long line of generic “Johns” in English. About 10 years earlier, “John Citizen” had started appearing in British texts as a nickname for the average Joe. Messrs. Public and Citizen are linguistic youngsters compared to “John Doe”; that term has been used for an anonymous or average man since the mid-1600s. Initially, such generic terms were predominantly male, but that changed with the arrival of “Jane Doe” in the 1930s. “Joan Citizen” debuted in the 1940s, but “Jane Q. Public” didn’t find her way into English texts until the mid-1980s. By the way, some think the “Q” was inspired by John Quincy Adams.
Let the cat out of the bag – In the days before spaying there were many surplus cats who were drowned in a sack. If, on the other hand, the tiestring came loose, it was said to let the cat out of the bag. “Living the life of Riley” – Whoever this guy Riley is, the tax collector would probably like to know about his source of income. People attribute such a grand lifestyle to him that he must have done quite well for himself. In fact, no one has ever traced the expression to an actual person, and he or she probably never really existed. But we do know where the expression almost certainly originated. His name was originally O’Riley (or O’Reilly–the spelling varies) and he was given life in a song, “Are You the O’Riley?” made popular in the late 19th century by the great vaudeville performer, Pat Rooney. In the song, O’Riley is always looking to strike it rich and lead the good life. Today, of course, we are more realistic about the possibilities of getting rich quick and actually living the life of Riley.
Limelight [in the] – Limelight has nothing to do with citrus fruit, and it’s not even green. Being in the limelight means the same thing as being in the spotlight. Limelight is what theatres used to light the stage with before modern lights were invented. It was called limelight because the source of the brightness was calcium oxide, the corrosive substance also known as lime. When burned, lime gave off an intense white light that fully exposed actors to the public gaze. So if you’re in the limelight the spotlight is yours and all eyes are upon you. Losing face – see saving face. Mad as a hatter – If someone says you are mad as a hatter, they are accusing you of being quite irrational. The sense of madness here is “suffering from a disorder of the mind; insane.” This phrase usually refers not to someone who is actually insane, but rather to a more normal person who is behaving in an irrational way. The phrase emerged in England in the 19th century. Hatmakers in those days used a lot of felt that was treated with chemicals including lead, arsenic, and mercury. Unfortunately, those chemicals are highly toxic. The symptoms of such poisoning include palsy, confused speech, and distorted thinking. Today, making hats is a much safer profession, but the phrase survives. An interesting alternate explanation of the phrase derives hatter from Anglo-Saxon atter (poison), which is related to adder (a poisonous snake whose bite was thought to cause insanity).
Mealy-mouthed — To be mealy-mouthed is to speak in circles, to be unwilling to directly state facts or opinions. The phrase carries a strong sense of disapproval. The source of the phrase is actually more direct: a mealy-mouthed person is like someone whose mouth is full of meal (powdered grain), unable to speak clearly. There’s a German expression, “Mehl im Maule behalten” (literally, to carry meal in one’s mouth) that means “to speak indirectly.” Our phrase most likely came from the German expression, or a similar one in another Germanic language. Mind your own beeswax – This came from the days when smallpox was a regular disfigurement. Fine ladies would fill in the pocks with beeswax. However when the weather was very warm the wax might melt. But it was not the thing to do for one lady to tell another that her makeup needed attention. Hence the sharp rebuke to “mind your own beeswax!”
Mind your P’s and Q’s – In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It’s where we get the phrase “mind your P’s and Q’s.” Not fit to hold a candle to – A menial household task was holding a candle for someone while they completed some type of activity. Some people were not held in much esteem; therefore they were “not fit to hold a candle to.” “Old Glory” – This famous name was coined by Captain Stephen Driver, a shipmaster of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1831. As he was leaving on one of his many voyages aboard the Brig Charles Doggett – and this one would climax with the rescue of the mutineers of the Bounty – some friends presented him with a beautiful flag of twenty four stars. As the banner opened to the ocean breeze for the first time, he exclaimed “Old Glory!”
Patent leather – After the Patten shoe which the young women wore in the buttery. When the cream spilled on their shoes, the fat would tend to make the leather shiny. Peeping Tom – A person who gets pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, from secretly watching others; a voyeur. After the legendary Peeping Tom of Coventry, England, who was the only person to see the Lady Godiva, an English noblewoman of the eleventh century riding naked as a means of persuading her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes. Pig in a poke – Farmers would take their baby pigs to market in a sack (poke). Some unscrupulous ones would tie a large cat in the bag and try to sell it as a piglet sight unseen. Someone buying that way was said to buy a pig in a poke. Pitcher – A leather jug treated with tar pitch to help it hold its shape. Potter’s field – It’s a standard, heart-grabbing feature story that every newspaper and TV news program runs once in awhile: some poor soul has come to a sad end, dying alone with no relatives or friends to claim the body for a proper burial. At that point the local government steps in to bury the unknown person in a “potter’s field.” But nobody ever explains how this sad place came to have such a strange name. Its source is The New Testament, Matthew 27:7. After Judas betrayed Jesus he felt guilty and threw away his 30 pieces of silver. The Priests picked up the money in the Temple and spent it to buy land from the potter to provide burial plots for those who needed them. Eventually any municipal cemetery for unclaimed bodies came to be called a potter’s field.
The real McCoy – How many times have you said this without ever stopping to think: Who was this guy, and what made him so real? Those who research such things have come up with two likely sources for the expression. One of them was a real person and the other… well, you’ll see in a moment. Boxer Kid McCoy was the welterweight champion around 1900. But as comedian Rodney Dangerfield might say, McCoy “couldn’t get no respect.” His identity was sometimes questioned and to prove it, the Kid would sock the doubter until he acknowledged, “You’re the real McCoy.” But more likely, it started with “the clear McCoy” (or McKay), slang for good Scotch whiskey. During Prohibition, when cheap homemade hooch was passed off as real imported Scotch, the expression became “the real McCoy,” meaning that the booze really did come off the boat.
Room & board – An apprentice would journey to another village to learn more about his craft (journeyman). There he would pay someone for his room, and food for his board. Round robin – A round robin is a sports tournament in which each contestant is matched with every other contestant. It’s also a petition in which the signatures are arranged in a circle, like spokes of a wheel, in order to conceal the order of signing. A round robin has nothing to do with red-breasted birds. The name is probably based on the French ruban (ribbon). In the seventeenth century, French monarchs sometimes ordered the death of the first person who signed a petition that displeased the Crown. In order to disguise the order of signing, the names were written on an endless, circular ribbon, and no one could be identified as the instigator of the petition. Later, sailors in the British Navy modified the round robin, using the wheel spoke pattern to hide the order of signing. It was not until the late 1800s that “round robin” was applied to sports tournaments. Rub you the wrong way – It would be tempting to guess that this has something to do with genies and magic lamps. Rub the lamp the wrong way and maybe an angry genie makes you walk backwards for the rest of your life. But no, the source is much more humdrum. In fact, it’s as dreary as housework and involves maids who were in a muddle about how to mop a floor. Several hundred years ago upper class housewives had servant problems. It seems that some of the hired help just didn’t understand how to mop up after wet-rubbing a wooden floor. They mopped against the grain, rubbing it the wrong way and leaving streaks. This must have been truly traumatic because the expression gradually came to mean the way anything annoying affects us.
Rule of thumb – The phrase “rule of thumb” is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. Saving face or losing face – The noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s wore much makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn’t “lose face.” Scuttlebutt – gossip. Say this word out loud a couple of times in succession and it will sound like total nonsense. That’s because the words from which it comes have nothing to do with present day life. Scuttle and butt hearken back to the olden days of sailing ships. The butt was a cask of fresh drinking water – a very important object on any ship. The scuttle was the hatch or hole on the deck of the ship near which the butt was placed. Sailors coming over for a drink tended to linger for a moment, exchanging the “latest” with whoever else was drinking. What they said became known as scuttlebutt. Today at work we gossip around the water cooler.
Short end of the stick [Getting the] – Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn’t want you to stay very long, he would give you a “short stick.” Short shrift – This is one of those expressions that many of us often use and yet have no idea of what we’re saying when we say it. It means to dispense with abruptly. That’s what the phrase originally meant too, but what it actually referred to was graphic and grim. (Close your eyes if you’re easily upset.) Shrift (or shrive, as in Shrove Tuesday when you made your confession before Lent) was old English for the giving of a penance at confession so people might absolve themselves of sin. To give short shrift referred to that process in its most extreme, dramatic, and condensed form: The brief confession a condemned prisoner at the block was allowed to make before being given the ultimate penance – by the axe man.
Six feet under – Until the bubonic plague swept Europe in the fourteenth century, bodies were buried at varying depths. During the Black Death, people became more aware of the need to bury their dead deep enough to insure that soil erosion didn’t expose the remains and create a further health hazard. The specific depth of six feet came later from an English law, something of an early family preservation act in which the idea was to join husband and wife even after death. Six feet down allowed enough space for the coffin of one spouse, and eventually for the coffin of the other on top, and still left two feet of dirt on top of both. We’ve kept it at six feet for practicality: the depth is above the water table and hard rock, but not too deep for the grave diggers. Slapstick – Requiring little or no dialogue, physical comedy is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. The trademark of the style involves simulated acts of violence – a kick in the pants, a playful slap or a quick whack with a stick – all for the sake of a good laugh. The comedic effect is usually emphasized by sound effects. Gongs and drums accompany the actors blow-by-blow, heightening the experience. In the late 16th century, actors in the Italian “commedia dell’arte” carried flexible clubs that made a sharp cracking noise as the target was struck. The clubs became known as “slapsticks” and since then all forms of physical comedy–with or without sound effects–have carried the name.
Sleep tight – In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. That’s where the phrase, “goodnight, sleep tight” came from. Son of a gun – After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns. Spring cleaning – The layer of hay in the kitchen was finally hauled out of the house when the weather turned warm in the spring. Square meal [getting a] – Your dinner plate was a square piece of wood with a “bowl” carved out to hold your serving of the perpetual stew that was always cooking over the fire. The kettle was never actually emptied and cleaned out. New ingredients were simply added to the muck. You always took your “square” with you when you went travelling. Start the ball rolling – Anyone who looks at the English language, especially American English, can see that those who speak it think that life is a game. Even when you’re not being athletic, it’s good to “score a touchdown,” “hit a home run,” or “deliver a knockout blow.” The British are also fond of playing field metaphors – they’re the ones who “started the ball rolling.” The sport was croquet, the leisurely pastime in which players use mallets to knock wooden balls through metal hoops stuck in the grass. Someone had to hit the ball first and start it rolling, and gradually the expression came to mean anyone who got things going.
Strike while the iron is hot – No, this has nothing to do with the iron you apply to a blouse or shirt. Nor is it connected to the golf club that’s been giving you so many good shots lately. In fact, you would probably have to be more than a hundred years old to recall the everyday experience that gave rise to the expression. As late as the beginning of this century, the blacksmith was still an important person. He made horseshoes and small household items such as door hinges by heating iron till it was red-hot and then shaping it on an anvil with a hammer. The best results came from striking the iron while it was still hot. Eventually, the expression came to mean doing anything at the most opportune time. Stone cold – Slate floors were often cold enough during the winter months that any bare skin coming in contact with them would “stick”. The slate floors were covered with a layer of hay to provide some warmth. The kitchen was the only room kept heated during the winter. All of the family spent the day cooped up in this one room (often 10 kids or more)… also the family cats and dogs who served important functions of “mousing,” “garbage disposal,” and etc. Tanked [getting] – When you drank too much out of the above “tankard” you were said to be “tanked” … if you got so “tanked” that you passed out, there was a chance that somebody might think you had actually died. Since back then they didn’t have experience with taking pulses, they often buried people alive who were actually in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose. Teetotaller – A teetotaller is a person who abstains completely from all alcoholic drinks. Such a person practices teetotalism, and is a teetotal person. Is a teetotaler someone who “totally drinks tea?” Actually, the original root form had nothing to do with drinking. As far back as the early 1800s, “tee-totally” was an emphatic form of “totally.” This use shows the true origin of the teetotal family as a result of reduplication, a lexical phenomenon where the initial letter of a word is repeated for emphasis. Most sources agree that the first application of “teetotal” to drinking was in a speech by Richard Turner, a member of the British Temperance Society, in 1833, in which he urged everyone to abstain tee-totally from all forms of alcohol.
Tie the knot – Tying the knot of the ropes in the marriage bed…or … The priest performing the wedding would bind the bride and grooms hands with rope during the ceremony. In modern day, you will often see the priest place a sash around their hands rather than rope, and it is from this that the saying comes. Although the practice is not as common as it was, depending on your denomination it is still done. Tumbler & tipsy – Glasses were hand blown, thus flat bottomed glasses were difficult to produce. Those with curved bottoms would tend to tumble over when placed on the table, and too many tumblers of whiskey would make you a little bit tipsy. Turn the tables – Tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was rougher. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side. Wet your whistle – Many years ago in England, pub regulars had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. Hence, “Wet your whistle.”
Whole 9 yards – The term “the whole 9 yards” came from WWII fighter pilots in the Pacific. When arming their airplanes on the ground, the .50 calibre machine gun ammo belts measured exactly 27 feet, before being loaded into the fuselage. If the pilots fired all their ammo at a target, it got “the whole 9 yards.” “Your name is mud” originated from Dr. Mudd’s swearing in at Richard Lawrence’s trial when his lawyer said “Your name is Mudd?”. (Lawerence attempted to assassinate President Jackson. When he failed he ran into a warehouse which the Doctor was in).