November 04, 2008

That's How the Saying Goes, Part 1


by Deeanne Gist

One of my favorite things about reading and writing historicals is discovering the origin of some of our common everyday sayings and customs. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so 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."

  • Houses had thatched roofs (roofs made of thick layers of 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."

  • There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top would afford you some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

  • 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 it would all start slipping outside when you opened the door. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the saying a "thresh hold."

In my first novel, A Bride Most Begrudging, my characters live in a cottage with a thatched roof, a dirt floor and a canopy bed. My heroine does take a bath, but she didn’t have to share the water with anyone. As far as when they got married ... well, that’d be telling! J

I’ll give you a few more “sayings” next time. Meanwhile, do you have any you’ve learned about? Share them with us!


Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Dee,
I really enjoyed your article. Very informative. I actually saw a dirt floor once, and it is something I will never forget.

Karen Witemeyer said...

For my current WIP, I've been researching livery stables, and it's been fascinating to learn how many of these stables converted to automobile garages after the turn of the century. Makes sense with them still being in the business of transportation, but I had never though about it before.

Here are a couple sayings and their origins I came across:

Flying off the handle - to go into a rage.

The origin for this expression comes from U.S. frontier settlers. While repairing something, their axe head would sometimes come loose and fly off the handle. This was not only dangerous, but also held up work for others until it was fixed - much to the annoyance of all.

Here's one for having a frog in your throat - a choking sensation.

In the past, it was feared that a frog was present when this sensation occurred. In olden times people often drank from ponds and streams; there was always the possibility of swallowing a whole animal or, worse, its eggs. If the eggs were taken in, then they were said to hatch inside and, when ready to come out, would cause a choking feeling.

Makes you want to clear your throat,doesn't it?

Thanks for your post, Deeanne. I always look forward to your days on Bustles and Spurs.

Tina Dee Books said...

Hi Deeanne,

Great post. Some of these made me laugh, some made me wince. Can't wait to see what you'll have in next month's post.

Tina Dee

Deeanne Gist said...

Great ones, Karen! Thanks for sharing.

I think what cracked me up about the dirt floors, Molly, was that they SWEPT them! Ha!

Thx, Tina. :)

Anonymous said...

I learned lots from your posts. I only knew 2, the baby/bathwater, and the flowers being carried by brides, everything else was new to me.

Its all interesting.

Vickie McDonough said...

I've heard the saying "bring home the bacon" comes from a time when people got paid for a day's work with some type of food product, like a slab of bacon.

Thanks for sharing, DeeAnne. It's so interesting to learn how these phrases that we commonly say originated.

Deeanne Gist said...

Hey, Evelyn! Good to hear from you.

Vickie, "Bring home the bacon" is actually one of the sayings I'm going to discuss in my next post (Dec 4th)! What I found was similar, but with a little bit of a twist. So, that will be fun!

Nise' said...

Cool! This evening it was just pouring outside and my husband said its raining cats and dogs! Now I know where the saying originated!

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Fun facts that I didn't know, Deanne. They made me laugh. I have a saying that I've only heard my mama say--"I'm gonna hem me up a nap". That one tickles me.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

I'm sorry, Deeanne, I realized that I misspelled your name.