From Where Did that Phrase Come?

Favorite Idioms and Vocabulary from Times Past

(In cleaning out some of my school files, I came across these common phrases and their sources. Enjoy!!!)

images-1Here are some fascinating tidbits: 

People married in June. Most had taken their yearly bath in May, so the bride crarried a bouquet of flowers to cover their body odors. Hence, the bridal bouquetbecame a tradition at weddings.

A family used the same tub of water for baths. The man of the house received the benefit of clean water for his ablutions. His efforts were followed by all the other men/boys in the family. Women came next. Children were followed by babies. By then, the water was so dirty that one might hear “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. “

“Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.” A vegetable stew served today would remain on the fire tonight. People ate their fill, and leftovers remained in the pot to get cold overnight. The next day, the fire was relit and new vegetables were added. Some pots held remnants from several days’ efforts.

Having meat to share was a sign of wealth. Families would, literally, hang bacon to dry where visitors might see it. “Bringing home the bacon” was a sign of importance. People would cut off some of the dried meat to share with their guests. They would“sit around and chew the fat. “

Pewter plates were also a sign of wealth. Unfortunately, high acid foods (especially, tomatoes) caused some of the lead in the plates to seep into the food = lead poisoning. For many centuries, people thought it was the tomatoes that were poisonous.

Likewise, lead cups were used for ale and whisky. Imbibers often spent a couple of days passed out from the combination. If they couldn’t be brought around, they might find themselves laid out for burial. Hence, “holding a wake” to see if the person would awaken became commonplace.

Houses had thatched roofs, each with thick straw piled high. Unfortunately, no wood was underneath the straw. Often, small animals found warmth in the thatch. If it rained, the straw became slippery. Therefore, we have the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

The animals and “bugs” could also drop unexpectingly on one’s head. Therefore, “canopy” beds became essential. A bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection from the barrage of “visitors. “

“Dirt poor” came about from the floors in poor households.  The rich had slate floors, which became slippery when wet. People, therefore, placed thresh on the floor to maintain their footing. As the winter wore on, more thresh was added. When people opened the door, the thresh would slip out. To prevent this from happening, they placed a piece of wood over the entranceway as a “thresh hold.”

imagesThese are some of my favorites from the 18th and 19th Centuries:
“Art”—Our post-Romantic conceptions of art and artists have wrenched the word from its eighteenth-century meaning. Art in the 18th century more often meant something like “craft.” Art could also mean craftiness, as when Mr. B complains of Pamela, “O the little hypocrite! . . . she has all the arts of her sex.” Artlessnessbecame an increasingly flattering compliment as the century progressed and sincerity became more and more valued. Do you recall Lady Catherine complaining of Elizabeth’s “arts” in attracting Darcy?

“Awful” as in “awful majesty,” rather than something of poor quality; awe-inspiring

A “cupping-glass” was used by a surgeon to draw blood.

“To plead one’s belly” refers to escaping execution by claiming one is pregnant (Reminds me of the story from The Crucible)

“Macaroni” was a fop or dandy, not pasta. (Think of the words to “Yankee Doodle.”)

“Geneva (or Gin) comes from the word genever, Dutch for juniper, the plant used to flavor the Dutch variety of the drink. Gin became a favorite drink of the poor. A famous pair of Hogarth prints contrasts the squalid and diseased Gin Lane with the healthy and British Beer Street.

“Baggage” was an insulting term for a woman.

“Conversation” was any social interaction, and “criminal conversation” was adultery.

A “sedan chair” was a means of transportation around London. It included a seat inside a box, which was suspended between two rods. Two “chairmen” would lift the rods and carry the chair.

“Bedlam” comes from Bethlehem Hospital, which was London’s insane asylum. In the 18th Century, visiting Bedlam was a popular day trip; fashionable men and women would look at the lunatics in their cages.

“Liberty of the Mint” provided sanctuary for debtors who lived within St. George’s parish in Southwark; the area became popular with debtors/criminals hoping to avoid imprisonment.

“Mrs.” was an honorific used to identify women of a certain age, regardless of their marital status.

“Condescending” held no negative connotations. In fact, aristocrats were expected to show a proper degree of courtesy to their social inferiors. Lady Catherine was quite condescending to her tenants. “Condescension” is the voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior.

A “powder room” was a closet where the servants repowdered a wig.

John Adams once told his wife Abigail he would “take a virgin to bed if he got cold.” The phrase was a vulgarism for a hot water bottle.

A “man of parts” is someone who is talented and capable.

“Not giving a damn” does not refer to damnation, but to a monetary unit in India, one of little value.

“Puff you up” means to praise too much or to take praise too seriously.

“Make Love” was to flirt, not to participate in sex.

“Blockhead” comes to us from wooden forms used to make and maintain wigs.

Do you have other favorites? Add them below.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to From Where Did that Phrase Come?

  1. carolcork says:

    Regina, so many of these phrases are familiar but I never knew their origin.

  2. Finding such gems is one of my guilty pleasures, Carol. Thanks for joining me today.

  3. I love this kind of stuff. It’s the trivia addict in me.

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