Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Did You Say That?!

This blog has been on the dark side lately, so here is is an etymological examination of some hackneyed phrases that most people utter without a second thought. What the hell does that mean?! never crosses their mind. Today, Lucy Ferriss disabuses you of that thoughtlessness. Come to find out, those phrases do have meaning. If this is (fair & balanced) study of the history of words, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Chewing Some Olde Fat
By Lucy Ferriss

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I write during the summers at a house overlooking Excalibur Lake, just off Sir Walter Court and Lady of the Lake Circle. We pick up our milk at the Sherwood Shoppe. You get the idea. So it felt apropos to receive an e-mail from my Pakistani friend Aslam Khan detailing in part what he referred to as “some olde English history”:

  • There is an old Hotel/Pub in Marble Arch, London, which used to have a gallows adjacent to it. Prisoners were taken to the gallows (after a fair trial of course), to be hanged. The horse drawn dray carting the prisoner was accompanied by an armed guard, who would stop the dray outside the pub and ask the prisoner if he would like “one last drink.” If he said, “Yes,” it was referred to as “one for the road.” If he declined, that prisoner was “on the wagon.”
  • They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot, which was taken once a day and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “piss poor”; but worse than that were the really poor folk, who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot. They ”didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low.
  • 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 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 cats and other small animals (mice, 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.”
  • The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh, until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence: a thresh hold.
  • Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon, to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around talking and “chew the fat.”
  • 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 whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers 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 to eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of “holding a wake.”
  • England is old and small, and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house and reuse the grave. When 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 would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, thread 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 (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer.”

I don’t know if all these etymologies hold up. I welcome emendations from readers. But I get a peculiar charge out of sitting here in Merrye Olde Sherwood Forest (otherwise known as western Massachusetts) and receiving these bits of linguistic lore from a friend in another former British colony, half a world away. Ω

[Lucy Ferriss is the author of nine books, mostly fiction. Her novel The Lost Daughter (2012) is a Book-of-the-Month pick. Her memoir Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante (2005) was called Best Book of the Year by the Riverfront Times; her novel Nerves of the Heart (2002) was a finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize competition; her collection Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories was the 2000 winner of the Mid-List First Series Award. Other short fiction and essays have appeared most recently in the New York Times, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Georgia Review, and have received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Faulkner Society, the Fulbright Commission, and the George Bennett Fund, among others, She received her B.A. from Pomona College, an M.A. from San Francisco State University, and another M.A. plus a Ph.D. from Tufts University Ferriss is Writer-in-Residence at Trinity College (CT).]

Copyright © 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:09 PM

    On Wed, Aug 22, 2012 at 4:53 PM, Anonymous wrote:
    Hello Blogger,
    The article on phrase origins ("Chewing Some Olde Fat.") must certainly have been presented with "tongue firmly planted in one's cheek." For example:


    From Bob Fleck: An item circulating online under the title Interesting Historyclaims, “They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were ‘piss poor’.” This screams of folk etymology. Can you offer real clarity?

    A It certainly might be a folk etymology, except that the piece is in its intention merely a mischievous attempt to deceive its readers. However, as with other tongue-in-cheek suggestions about origins, a grain of truth exists in it. Urine has been widely used in many parts of the world in the preparatory stages of tanning, in particular to help remove the hair from hides before applying tanning agents.

    The Romans, for example, collected urine for this purpose systematically and even put a tax on it. The most famous taxer was the emperor Vespasian in the first century AD. The long-gone French public pissoirs were given the name vespasiennes as a direct link to him. Vespasian’s son is said to have objected to the disgusting origin of the tax revenues, to which in legend his father replied pecunia non olet, money doesn’t smell, a tag that from time to time is still employed to argue that money isn’t tainted by its origins.

    However, the expression piss-poor is recent and has nothing to do with tanning. The current state of research suggests that it may have been invented during the Second World War, because the first examples in print date from 1946. Though it is still classed as low slang by dictionaries, its mildly unpleasant associations have become blunted by time and familiarity.

    The origin is straightforward. Piss began to be attached to other words during the twentieth century to intensify their meaning. Ezra Pound invented piss-rotten in 1940 (distasteful or unpleasant, the first example on record) and we’ve since had piss-easy(very easy), piss-weak (cowardly or pathetic), piss-elegant (affectedly refined, pretentious), piss-awful (very unpleasant) and other forms.

    Piss-poor began life in a similar figurative sense for something that's third-rate, incompetent or useless, as it does in this recent example:

    Larkin’s letters, wrote Philippe Auclair, writer and broadcaster, were “very funny, very beautiful, and very sad; the grace of an angel, the precision of a geometer, and the short-sighted, intolerant piss-poor idées fixes of a provincial buffoon”.
    The Spectator, 27 Nov. 2010.

    Americans who know the idiom so poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in, sometimes in the fuller form ... or a window to throw it out of, might wonder if this is the origin. The idiom appears in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, published in 1936, so it does predatepiss-poor. However, it’s a graphic literal reference to poverty; as piss-poor was first used in a figurative sense, it's unlikely to have been influenced by the older idiom. In fact, the literal sense of extreme poverty for piss-poor didn’t come along until a couple of decades later, which also provides another reason, if one were needed, that the story you quote is nonsense.

    I think all the other explanations are similarly contradicted by this and other sites like "A Way with Words." Nevertheless, I enjoyed the tales told in "Chewing Some Olde Fat."


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