Have you ever wondered about the origin of various English expressions and customs? I’ve verified the veracity of many of the following and you can choose to accept them or not; however, if nothing else I think you’ll find them interesting.
In the 14th and 15th centuries people married in June because they took their yearly bath in May; however, they were starting to smell just a tad, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.
Back then the entire family used one big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house or the clan had the privilege of the nice clean water, and then came other men or sons, then the women and finally the children. The babies were last. 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 pet dogs, cats and the small animals: mice, rats & bugs—lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof and the folks would comment, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
In the 1500’s the floors were dirt, and only the wealthy had something other than dirt to walk on, which is where “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. To rectify this, a piece of wood was placed in the entryway, called a “threshold.”
The people of yore cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew contained food that had been in there for a quite a while; and we’ve all heard the rhyme, “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”
On rare occasions the people of the 1500s ate pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was both a sign of affluence and that the man of the house “could bring home the bacon.” Not only that, but when guests came over they would cut off a little to share with them and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”
Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so until the 1900s, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood, with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and all to frequently worms would get into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, one would get “trench mouth.”
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.”
When cemeteries would fill up, the townsfolk would often dig up coffins take their bones to a house and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, many of them were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and 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 (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be “saved by the bell,” or was considered a “dead ringer.”
As a result of the above, sometimes the “newly dead” 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, which is where the term “wake” comes from.
Which brings me to modern times right here in the Vail Valley where we’ve developed our own lexicon of English usage. I cannot help but wonder if people 500 years from now will conjecture about our expressions of the early 21st century. Language evolves from the exigencies of life in a particular period of history, so what expressions of import and pith will give the scholars of the 26th century an insight into what was important enough for us create special usage of the language?
While the Vail Valley is not a center for idiomatic evolution, I suspect that we may add to the amusement of future scholars. For a moment, just imagine a group of academes or savants sitting around a holographic classroom when they ponder the genesis of expressions such as “Meet at Mid-Vail at noon,” or “11 at 11,” and “There are no friends on a powder day.” But perhaps best of all, can you imagine their puzzlement the first time they encounter the word “Dude,” pronounced with six syllables?