Where Did that Saying Come From? by Jann Rowland

Where Did that Saying Come From? by Jann Rowland

Recently I came across an article with a list of the origins behind common sayings, which sparked my interest in such things. I went and did some further research and came up with a number of such sayings that I thought I would share. This list is (of course) in no way comprehensive, and I’ve only included sayings that would have been known before Jane Austen’s time. Thus, I give you, common sayings that might even have been known to our favorite early 19th century author!

Ever wonder why poor people are called “piss poor?” The saying originates from the practice of using urine to tan animal skins. (Gross, I know!) Families who did this to survive would pee in a pot and sell the full pot to the tannery. I don’t even want to think about how the tannery smelled! Of course, if you were so poor you could not even afford to buy a pot, then you “didn’t have a pot to piss in.”

In keeping with personal hygiene, in the middle ages, people used to bathe once a year. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine how I’d smell if I went a year without bathing! Their baths consisted of a big tub filled with water that everyone used. The man of the house got to bathe first, then the other sons and men, then the women and the children. By the time the babies were bathed, the water was pretty disgusting, and a small child could actually be lost in it. Thus, the saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!” Don’t laugh–though I’m too young to have experienced this, my older brothers and sisters sometimes speak of living in a small house with only a few rooms, and having baths like this once a week. The tub, or so I’m told, was collapsible, and my mother would heat the bathwater on the stove, after which dad would bathe, then mom, then the children. As far as I know, I never lost a sibling when they threw out the bathwater!

There is some disagreement about the origin of the saying “cat got your tongue.” One possibility is the use of cat-o-nine-tails by the English Navy. When whipped, the pain was so severe that the victims were left speechless. (Or hollering.) Then again, it could be because of the practice of cutting the tongues out of blasphemers and liars and feeding them to cats. Eww! And a man who butchered an animal that did not belong to him had to be caught with that animal’s blood on his hands, or he could not be convicted. Thus, the saying “caught red-handed.”

Let’s turn to eating. In medieval England, it was customary for the man giving a feast to give the guests a piece of cold meat from the shoulder of the animal on which they were feasting when it was time for them to leave. Thus, the term “give the cold shoulder” was a form of politeness rather than the rudeness it is considered today. Also during the middle ages, lords of manors would hold feasts after they hunted, and they would take (and give their friends, presumably) the choicest cuts of meat. Those who were considered of lower consequence were given a pie filled with entrails and other nasty things no one really wants, referred to as “umbles.” They were eating “humble pie.” A loaf of bread was often distributed based on a person’s status. Workers got the under crust, which was often burnt, while the family got the middle. The top of the bread was reserved for guests, who received the “upper crust.”

The life of a peasant was not a lot of fun. Not only was the life expectancy rather low, but the common man was rather poor. Occasionally, they managed to get a little meat, usually pork, which was a big deal in most houses. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of prosperity that a man could, “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.” And finally with respect to food (sort of), there was a 17th century puppet show called Punch and Judy where Punch apparently delighted in killing people. Sounds like the kind of programming I’d want my kids to watch! As this always made him really happy, anyone who was in a similar state of euphoria was “pleased as Punch.”

The demands of society could be more than a little time-consuming. In Paris in particular, ladies could not appear in public displaying anything less than a spectacular hairdo that would often take their maids hours to complete. When they came home, it was a relief to pull out those pins and “let your hair down.” People have always used fashion to display to others how important they are. In particular, in the 18th century, when wigs were a common part of one’s attire, those of the highest classes who wore the largest wigs were called “big wigs.”

A man who farmed sheep herded them by holding a long staff and shaking it in their direction. If he had too many sheep, he had “more than he could shake a stick at.” Chicken farmers sold chickens in the spring, and as such, those born in the springtime fetched a better price than those a little longer in the tooth. Unscrupulous farmers would sometimes try to pass off older birds for the price they would fetch for the new ones, leading to customers objecting “that’s no spring chicken!”

I’m certain you’ve all heard of the law, one that was still on the books in Regency times, that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was not thicker than his thumb. (There is some disagreement as to whether this law actually existed.) This led to the saying “rule of thumb.” I think if I approached my wife with a stick narrower than my thumb, she’d produce a baseball bat!

The left side of a person’s body has been considered evil for centuries. That’s why being left-handed (the Scots called it corrie-fisted) was strongly discouraged. It was also bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. That led innkeepers to push the left side of the bed up against the wall to ensure guests were forced to get out of bed on the right side and avoid “waking up on the wrong side of the bed.”

Hunting dogs were common in Regency England, and those dogs pointed out to where pheasant fell when gentlemen hunted them. They were also used to hunt other prey. In particular, dogs often chased their quarry up a tree, and would often continue to bark long after whatever they were chasing had vacated the premises for greener pastures. When this happened, the dog would be “barking up the wrong tree.”

In stage coaches, both in England and other places, they often drove in places that were infested with highwaymen or other desperate criminals. It was the practice for a man armed to the teeth to sit with the driver to deter would-be thieves from attacking. This led to the origin of the saying “riding shotgun.”

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be buried alive? Me neither. But it was a problem in old England with the lack of modern medicine we have today, when unconsciousness might be mistaken for death. As the country is small, places to bury their dead were at a premium. They began to dig up the coffins and reuse the graves when they ran out of room. When the coffins were opened, however, they found scratch marks on the inside, evidence that some people had been buried alive. In order to prevent this, they would tie a string around the wrist of the corpse and run it up to the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would sit there all night, “the graveyard shift,” to see if the bell began to ring. Thus, it was possible for someone to be “saved by the bell.” That person was then “a dead ringer.”

I could literally go on with these for pages and pages! Maybe I’ll do an encore on some future post, but for now, I think we’ll leave it at that! If you haven’t read the No Cause to Repine tetralogy of novellas, hold off, as I’ll be releasing a box set on Thursday. Then I have another novella for release in September. For those who were expecting the second volume of Bonds of Life, have no fear, I’ve delayed it a month. Look for it in October!

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Mirta Ines Trupp
August 21, 2021 11:26 PM

Great post! Informative and fun!

Robin G.
Robin G.
August 20, 2021 3:43 PM

I enjoyed that, thank you!

Linda A.
Linda A.
August 18, 2021 5:47 PM

Very interesting! Thank you for sharing.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
August 18, 2021 10:27 AM

That’s interesting how all those sayings came to be!lol I never knew any of this so this post was fun to read!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
August 18, 2021 9:34 AM

I remember mom heating water on the stove and pouring it in a washtub for the little children in our family. I don’t remember dad going first. He was always out of the house working so I don’t remember that part.

This was such an interesting post. I’ve heard many of these sayings but didn’t realize where they came from. I remember reading that long in the tooth was checking the mouth of a horse to determine whether it was old. That was where ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ came from. It was gauche to look in the mouth of a gift to determine its age.

I read it used in reference to those ladies who were ‘long in the tooth’ and still spinsters. LA! This was fun. Wishing you the best on all your new work and launches.

Amanda Kai
August 18, 2021 7:40 AM

Wow, this article was so interesting! I love hearing where common sayings originate. The ones about the graveyard shift and being saved by the bell were especially funny to me!

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