History doesn’t have to be boring

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Have you ever wondered how all those glorious phrases of the past were developed?

Thanks to the Internet, I was able to research the alleged origin of phrases still in use today. Here are some of my favorites:

“A sight for sore eyes” comes from writer Jonathan Swift, probably most famous for “Gulliver’s Travels.” He used the phrase in the 1700s. The actual quote – “the sight for you is good for sore eyes” – was found in a work titled A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.

Do you know why June is the most popular month for weddings? In the days of old, people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor…hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths 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 were 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!”

“Bite the bullet” is another old saying that remains in today’s conversation. Sometime between the 18th and 19th century, the expression originated from outdated medical practices, especially for soldiers. Back in the day, to distract patients (since anesthesia was not a thing yet), doctors would have them bite down on a literal bullet.

Urine was once used to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor”

But even worse than that were the really poor folks who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot…they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were considered the lowest of the low.

“Hands down” dates back to the 19th century. It makes reference to horse jockeys loosening their grip on the reins when their horse had a strong lead in a race.

Houses had thatched roofs, basically thick straw that was piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm; so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would lose their footing and fall off the roof. Hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

The floors of a home back then were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.”

As a child, I remember, on several occasions, my mom sternly asking a question that I didn’t want to answer because I know it would spell trouble for me. “Cat got your tongue,” she would ask. Some believe that saying traces its roots to ancient Egyptians who would cut out tongues and feed them to cats.

If you were among the lucky, a person might be able to afford to serve pork at a meal. When guests came to visit, a family would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.”

“Can’t hold a candle” dates back to the 17th century. Its meaning is related to one’s incompetence. The saying came from talking about an apprentice who was not even skillful enough to hold a candle for his master. In short, they are worthless as an apprentice.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock people unconscious 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.

There were cases where those thought to be dead were actually buried alive. Thus began the chore of tying a string on the wrist of the corpse, 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….thus the origin of the “graveyard shift.” And, if someone was alive six feet under and rescued, they were considered “saved by the bell” or a “dead ringer.”

“”Rub the wrong way” refers to cats rubbing their fur in the wrong direction as written in “Aunt Mary’s Tales” by Mary Hughes in 1819.

“Bury the hatchet” is a Native American phrase. When two tribes decided to settle their differences and live in harmony, the chief of each tribe buried a war hatchet in the ground to signify their agreement.

“Show your true colors” is nautical lingo. Lowering your colors aboard a ship to hide your nation’s flag is a strategic move. In a naval battle, if you hoist your flag high after hiding it, you are showing your true colors.

The exact origin of “rule of thumb” is uncertain, but the earliest record is by Scottish preacher James Durham: “Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb, and not by Square and Rule.”

And, finally, “spill the beans” allegedly dates back to ancient Greece where its citizens would vote anonymously by using white and black beans as a simple “yay” or “nay.”

Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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