Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hence the Words

The 1500s were tough times. Many of the phrases created back then are still with us today.

Back then, most people got married in June, primarily because this coincided with their yearly bath which usually took place in May. The bouquet of flowers carried by the bride was used to hide body odor. The man of the house had the privilege of the first bath with nice, clean water. By the time the babies were given a bath, the water looked like a good place to hide.

Hence the saying – “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Houses had thatched roofs piled high with thick straw and no wood underneath. To stay warm, the pet dogs and cats slept in cubbyholes within the roof, which was close to the ground. When it rained, the animals would slip and fall off the roof.

Hence the phrase – “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

The wealthy had slate floors that became slippery when wet in the winter, so they spread thresh (grain stems after the seeds had been removed) on the floor to keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh. When the thresh pile reached a certain size it would spill outside when the door was opened, at which point a piece of wood would be placed in the entryway.

Hence the word – “Threshold.”

Only the wealthy had something other than dirt floors.

Hence the expression – “Dirt poor.”

Cooking was done in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they started a new fire and added things to the pot, mostly vegetables since meat was scarce. They ate the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and start over the next day. Sometimes, the stew had food in it for many days.

Hence the rhyme – “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

The most common of the scarce meats was pork. Obtaining pork made people feel special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their pork to show off. It was a sign of wealth and an indication of the worth of a man.

Hence the words – “Bringing home the bacon.”

They would cut off a bit of the hanging pork and share it with their visitors. Then they would all sit around, gnawing on the pork and making conversation.

Hence the expression – “Chewing the fat.”

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, while the rest of the family got the middle of the loaf. Guests and people of means received the top of the loaf.

Hence the term – “Upper crust.”

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. This combination would occasionally knock a drinker out for a couple of days. They would be laid out on a kitchen table to see if they would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a – “Wake.”

When they ran short of places to bury people, they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a house and reuse the grave. Upon reopening these coffins, they discovered that about one in 25 had scratch marks on the inside, indicating they had buried someone alive. Thereafter, they tied a string to the wrist of the deceased, lead it through the coffin, up through the ground and tied it to a bell attached to the grave marker. Someone would be required to sit up all night to listen for bells.

Hence the term – “Graveyard shift.”

If a bell rang in the graveyard, the doomed person could then be rescued from their coffin.

Hence the phrase – “Saved by the bell.”

Such a person would then have a second chance at life.

Hence the expression – “Dead ringer.”

Life has changed a bit in the last 500 years. For example, I bathe quarterly and rarely have a use for thresh.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Quote for the Day – “Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them.” Adlai Stevenson

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and the Ghost of Lamont Cranston. His blogs appear on several websites, including


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