I have always been interested in the derivation of the phrases you and I use all the time. How did some of these common expressions get to be such a key part of our language narratives?
Well, a while back, someone sent me a paper outlining many of those derivations. I can’t prove them all, but they sure are interesting! For example, in the 1500’s baths consisted of a tub filled with fire place heated hot water. The man of the house got first dibs, then the sons, then mom and the girls. Finally the youngest would be washed in that water. And thus the phrase was born, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
Generally, houses had thatched roofs made of layered straw. It was a convenient place for animals to get warm, so cats, dogs, mice and bugs all lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall through the roof. Hence the saying,”It is raining cats and dogs.”
Since only the wealthy had wood, tile or slate floors, the expression “dirt poor” became a familiar refrain. Those same poor folks might feel quite special if they could obtain some pork for dinner. To show off for any visitors, they would hang up their bacon over the fire place. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They might cut off a little too and share it with guests. They would sit around and “chew the fat.”
Bread would be divided up according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom part of any loaf and the rest of the family got the middle. Guests got the top part, known as the “upper crust.”
My favorite story had to do with old cemeteries in England. Apparently the small towns started running out of places to bury folks. So, they would dig up coffins and reuse the grave. When they reopened those coffins, many of them were found to have scratch marks on the inside. The assumption was that they had been burying people alive. So, they started tying string to the wrist of the corpse, threading it through the coffin and to a bell at ground level. Someone in the town was assigned the job to sit out in the graveyard all night and listen carefully for any tinkling of the bells. This job was called a “dead ringer.”
Maybe you enjoy these kinds of stories (whether or not we can prove them to be absolutely true) like I do. And maybe you too are fascinated with our English language and its interesting phrases. All of us though are responsible to communicate clearly. This week it would be good for all of us to muse on the instruction in Mathew 5:37 where we are told to “simply let your yes be yes and your no, no.” Speak clearly, with no ambiguity. Say it straight.
Maybe 500 years from now, others will be quoting phrases you and I make up!
By His Grace and for His Glory,
Sherry L. Worel