Life in the 1500s – Folk Etymologies

Disclaimer – Read Me First:

The message below contains several false attributions of the origin of some common English phrases. It began circulating on the Internet in April 1999, under the heading of “Life in the 1500s”.

These attributions are false, lacking evidence or credibility and were almost certainly made up by whoever posted that message. My comments disputing, debunking and generally dismissing these myths are added to the text in [square brackets].

Please don’t mail me saying that what’s listed below isn’t correct – I know.

They are included here merely as examples of the types of folk etymological myths that can so easily spread, and in the hope that this may in a small way help to dispel them. If you are interested in this sort of popular fallacy check out the Nonsense Nine.

Life in the 1500s – Folk Etymologies

1) Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May [No, people in medieval England got married when they got married and bathed when they needed to. Why May anyway?] 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. [hmm, ‘odor’, not ‘odour’, methinks our miscreant might be American] 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 the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it [lose a baby in six inches of water a bath – hardly] –hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
2) 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 dogs, cats and other small animals (mice rats, and 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.” [So, the dogs and cats live inside the roof keeping warm (how a dog can live in a thatched roof is somewhat of a mystery, but let’s proceed anyway) and, when it rains, they move to the outside of the roof and then slip off? Are you on some sort of medication? ]
3) There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house [Does this only apply to houses that had no roof? If so, I’ve no argument with this]. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.
4) The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying “dirt poor.” [‘Dirt poor’ is a 20th century expression that was coined in America. So, wrong country and 400 years too late – apart from that, good effort.] 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. A piece of wood was placed in the entry way–hence, a “thresh hold.” [Close, but no cigar. ‘Thresh’ doesn’t mean straw or wheat, in fact there never has been a noun ‘thresh’. The verb ‘thresh’ means ‘tread, or trample’ and that’s the source of threshold.]
5) They 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 ate mostly 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 had food in it that had been there for quite a while–hence the rhyme, “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.” [That’s just about possible, although the rhyme isn’t recorded in print until 1760. Even a blind monkey has to hit the target every now and again I suppose.]
6) Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth 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.” [Again, this phrase isn’t known until the 20th century. It derives from the earlier ‘chew the rag’, but even that is only 19th century.]
7) 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 for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous. [So, let’s get this clear – you are saying that, in the 1900s, tomatoes were considered poisonous? Really?]
8) Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get “trench mouth.” [More made up tosh. ‘Trench mouth’ (severe mouth ulcers) is a 20th century phrase that was named following the WWI condition ‘trench foot’. The trenches were defensive ditches – nothing to do with plates or bread.]
9) 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 “upper crust.” [Not an entirely implausible guess, but lacking any supporting evidence. See upper-crust for a little essay on this.]
10) Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They 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–hence the custom of holding a “wake.” [Drinking from lead cups doesn’t make one unconscious for a couple of days. Even if it did, it isn’t difficult to tell the difference between unconscious and dead (“What’s that Godric? He’s still breathing? Not dead then, I suppose.) People did hold vigils for the dead, but not to decide whether they were really dead or not. Even in the 1500s people were aware that dead people didn’t wake up.]
11) England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. [England isn’t the largest of countries but, in the 1500s there was no shortage of space to bury the dead.] So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a “bone-house” and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins 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 the wrist of the corpse, 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.” [‘Graveyard Shift’ and ‘Dead ringer’ are two of the most celebrated folk etymologies. See ‘the coffin quartet‘ for a debunking of the above.]
Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.