His-story or History? The Origin of Some Interesting English Phrases and Concepts

A Lesson in history and where things come from

Whenever someone talks history or even about it the words like “boring” or “useless” tend to pop up. However, most of us forget that without a history or the past we would never be able to explain the present or even expect a future. History reminds us of the origin of where we came from, how we got to where we are now; the cultural, social, economical, geographical, political and other aspects of it, without history we would never know the origin of so many interesting phrases most commonly used in various languages for instance, in English.

Therefore, sometimes a lesson in history is much needed for it not only grounds us to our reality but, it also tends to bring with it hilarious anecdotes of the past. One such lesson begins with an introduction to an old hotel/pub in Marble Arch, London which used to be adjacent to the gallows. The horse-drawn dray, used to cart the prisoner, usually accompanied by an armed guard, who would stop outside the pub to ask the prisoner if he/she would like “One last drink.” If the prisoner would say Yes, it was referred to as “one for the road”, in case the answer would be no, that prisoner was considered to be “on the wagon”. So there you go a history lesson.

Marble Arch, London

In the olden days, people used urine [pee] to tan animal skins. There were many families that used to pee, all in a pot, which was then sold to the tannery once a day. Unusual though it may be, this was mostly done as a means of survival by poor people, hence the term, “piss poor”, but even worse, sometimes people could not even afford to buy a pot and were therefore, considered the lowest of the low.

Although there is nothing special about it, there is a worldly wisdom in it, washing-up as well as washing hands is not as complicated today as it was earlier so, the next time you decide to complain because the temperature is not right, think twice about it. In the old days [the 1500’s to be exact] in England, most people got married in June since they had a yearly bath in May and it was believed that they smelled “pretty good” by June. However, since they usually started to smell by then, the brides were expected to carry a bouquet of flowers to hide the bad odour. This is where the custom of carrying a bouquet during the wedding ceremony started.

Furthermore, because taking a bath was an annual luxury, the whole family bathed with the same water. Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water and since the man of the house was privileged, he was the first to take a bath followed by the sons and other men of the family, then the women and finally the children. By the time it was the babies turn the water was usually so dirty that one could actually lose someone in it. This is where the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” originated.

Houses had thatched roofs with thick straw piled high and no wood underneath. Thus, it was the only place for the animals to get warm due to which all the cats and other smaller animals such as the mice and bugs were most often found to be living in the roof. Whenever it would rain and become slippery, the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

A comic depiction of the idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

In the absence of strong support under the straw, there was nothing that could stop things from falling into the house and this posed problems in the bedroom where bugs and/or droppings could mess up the clean bed. This is where the concept of the canopy beds came into existence, people in order to protect their beds from getting dirty, would have beds with big posts and a sheet hung over the top to afford some protection, leaving the floor dirty. Since, only the rich had something other than dirt, hence the saying, “dirt poor”.

Moreover, the wealthy had slate floors that when they would get slippery in the winter, would have thresh [straw] spread on the floor to help in keeping their footing. As the winter wore on they would add more thresh until, it would be slipping out when one would open the door. A piece of wood was often placed in the entryway for this reason, hence, the term thresh-hold.

Another very interesting lesson is that in the old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they would light the fire and add things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables with very little meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight, and then start the new day in much the same fashion. Sometimes this stew would have leftovers that had been there for quite a while. This lead to the phrase, “Peas Porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old.” On rare occasions when they could acquire pork, it made them feel truly special. When visitors would come over, people would hang up their bacon to show off. It was considered a sign of wealth that the man of the house could afford to bring home the bacon. As a show of formidable hospitality, they would cut off a little to share with their guests and sit around talking and “chew the fat.”

Pots like these were commonly found in English homes in the 1500’s.

Furthermore, those who had money used plates made from pewter which often caused poisoning. Food that had high levels of acid content caused some lead to get mixed with the food, eventually leading to lead poisoning even death in many cases. Such accidents most often occurred with tomatoes, which lead people to deem tomatoes as being poisonous, for the next approximately 400 years.

A typical pewter plate through the ages: 1450-1790.

Another fact related to food, includes the division of bread portion. The amount of bread one was entitled directly related to ones status in society so per se if one is rich one could have as much bread as one pleases but, if you were poor, your bread would be strictly rationed. Additionally, workers always got the burnt bottom of the loaf, with the family getting the middle while the guests would be honored with the top of the bread. Which lead to the phenomenon of “the Upper Crust”.

Moreover, since lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey, this combination would sometimes knock out the imbibers for some days. This would lead to misunderstanding the knocked out person to be taken as dead. As the imbibers would be prepared for burial they would be laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days as the family gathered around them to eat and drink, while they simultaneously waited for the unconscious to wake up, hence, the custom of “holding a wake”.

A typical Irish Wake

Since England is old and small, a time came when the local folks ran out of places to bury the deceased. So they would dig up coffins and take out the bones to reuse the grave [taking the bones to a bone-house]. A further confusion would result upon reopening the grave. The people usually found that about 1 out of 25 coffins would have scratch marks on them making it a possibility that someone had been buried alive. This then necessitated the need to tie a string around the wrist of the corpse and thread it through the coffin and up through the ground to eventually tie it to a bell. Although it was unusual, it helped to dig out those who may have been mistakenly buried. Someone would sit out in the graveyard at all times and listen for the bell, thus the phrase, “saved by the bell” or was considered to be a “dead ringer”.

A gravestone with a hanging bell

The above historical facts are far from boring as is the everyday opinion of kids and other people. In fact some of them are downright hilarious now. Moreover, without such lessons in history we would not be able to trace our evolution and origin. So history in fact lays the basis for our life today and should be appreciated as such, if not it can always provide a hearty laugh.