I write during the summers at a house overlooking Excalibur Lake, just off Sir Walter Court and Lady of the Lake Circle. We pick up our milk at the Sherwood Shoppe. You get the idea. So it felt apropos to receive an e-mail from my Pakistani friend Aslam Khan detailing in part what he referred to as “some olde English history”:
- There is an old Hotel/Pub in Marble Arch, London, which used to have a gallows adjacent to it. Prisoners were taken to the gallows (after a fair trial of course), to be hanged. The horse drawn dray carting the prisoner was accompanied by an armed guard, who would stop the dray outside the pub and ask the prisoner if he would like “one last drink.” If he said, “Yes,” it was referred to as “one for the road.” If he declined, that prisoner was “on the wagon.”
- They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot, which was taken once a day and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “piss poor”; but worse than that were the really poor folk, who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot. They ”didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low.
- 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. 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 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.”
- 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, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence: a thresh hold.
- 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 talking and “chew the fat.”
- 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.”
- Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers 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 to eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of “holding a wake.”
- England is old and small, and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. 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 would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, thread 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.”
I don’t know if all these etymologies hold up. I welcome emendations from readers. But I get a peculiar charge out of sitting here in Merrye Olde Sherwood Forest (otherwise known as western Massachusetts) and receiving these bits of linguistic lore from a friend in another former British colony, half a world away.
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