We Just Didn’t Make This Stuff Up…Or, Did We?

Facebook Post on Origins of Expressions

This morning my daughter shared a September 3, 2014, Facebook post created by Dan Steele (Dan Balam) of Norfolk, Virginia.  His post was an easy and fun read that got me to questioning whether the origins of the terms and phrases actually had been proven true or were myths that had been passed on over the years.

It turns out that in 1999, an anonymous essay titled “Life in the 1500s” appeared on the Internet and was widely circulated by e-mail. “Life in the 1500s” gave explanations for “chew the fat” and many other common phrases, such as “bring home the bacon” and “saved by the bell.” It credited these phrases to rural life in the 16th century.

Out of just plain curiosity, I first visited Dan’s Facebook page to learn more about him and to see what other kinds of posts he had written.  I also wanted to know how old the writer was.  My best guess is that Dan is perhaps a 20’s or early 30’s something male. And, that many of Dan’s other Facebook posts are actually thought-provoking, well-written, and deserving of at least one blog post.  My findings follow:

Searching Credible Websites for Etymologies

Next, I searched for credible sites that have the etymologies of words and phrases. Obviously, there was many more than one site, but I chose to go with the following:

All of these sites helped me confirm whether we made this stuff up, or not.  And, as you read the facts, please take the poll and answer true or false for each question. (I am using the honor system here, so please do not read ahead to the ANSWER first. )

An Adapted List of 15 “Facts about the 1500’s” from Dan Steele’s Facebook post–the question to ask yourself is “Did the origin of each of these words, terms, idioms, or phrases truly date back to the 1500’s and is the story true?”:

IDIOM:  Tanners used urine to tan animal skins, so poor families pWords Idioms and Phraseseed in a pot and once daily sold its contents to their local tannery…….If you had to do this to survive you were known “Piss Poor.” Also, this idiom “so poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in,” or sometimes in the fuller form …or a window to throw it out of.  True or False?

  • ANSWER:  The idiom appears first in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, published in 1936, so the 1500’s list does predate this origin. In fact, the literal sense of extreme poverty for piss-poor didn’t come along until a couple of decades later, which also provides another reason, if one were needed, that the story quoted is nonsense.  FALSE.

IDIOM:   People used a big tub filled with hot water to bathe their whole family in. The man of the house bathed first, followed by other men and boys, then the womDont throw out the babyen, and finally the children. Babies were last in line to be bathed. By then the water in the tub was so dirty that you might actually lose one in it.–Hence the saying, “Don’t throw out the baby with the Bath water!”  True or False?

  •  ANSWER: This proverb did, in fact, originate in the 1500s. ‘Throw the baby out with the bathwater’ is a German proverb and the earliest printed reference to it, in Thomas Murner’s satirical work “Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools),” dates from 1512.  It’s true meaning:  In getting rid of waste, don’t also discard what is worth keeping.  TRUE.

Bath TubIDIOM:  Most people bathed only yearly, in May.  Hence, most couples married in June while they still smelled pretty good.–However, because they were already starting to smell, Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide their body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.  True or False?

  • ANSWER:   According to the Huffington Post, during the 15th century, people took their yearly baths in May and would generally get married in June. Just to be safe, brides carried bouquets to mask the smell of body odor.  You will find this reason repeatedly if you research the tradition behind the bride carrying a bouquet. Another old and popular custom for carrying a bouquet was to ward off evil spirits. However, from About.com: …there were many opportunities for medieval people to cleanse their bodies. Thus, the prospect of going a full month without washing, and then appearing at her wedding with a bouquet of flowers to hide her stench, is not something a medieval bride was likely to consider any more than a modern bride would. And, from history-magazine.com:  There is no evidence that June was a popular month to get married until the last 100 years. FALSE.

IDIOM:  “It’s raining cats and dogs.”  A 1500’s origin?  True or False?Cats and Dogs

  • ANSWER:  Houses had thatched roofs (thick straw, piled high), with no wooden ceilings. Animals (dogs, cats, mice, bugs) climbed to the roofs to help keep warm.  When it rained the roofs became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off –Hence the saying.  TRUE.

IDIOM:  Canopy beds with big posts and sheets hanging over their tops were invented to protect occupants.  True or False?dirt floor thatched roof

  • ANSWER:  With only thatched roofs, nothing stopped things from falling into the house. In the bedrooms, bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed.  And, from history-magazine.com:  Canopy beds may have originated as a means of keeping out flying insects but if you think about it, people rich enough to afford a canopy bed — a huge investment in the 1500s — would also be living in homes with proper ceilings TRUE.

IDIOM: Only the wealthy had something other than dirt floors. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.”  True or False?dirt floor cottage

  • ANSWER:  Most peasant cottages did indeed have dirt floors. Some peasants lived in homes that sheltered animals as well as themselves. When livestock was enclosed in a peasant home, it was usually partitioned off in a separate room, sometimes at right angles to the family’s living space. Yet animals could still occasionally find their way into the house proper. For this reason, an earthen floor was a practical choice.However, there is no evidence that the term “dirt poor” was used in any context before the 20th century. One theory suggests that its origins lie in the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma, where drought and poverty combined to create some of the most horrific living conditions in American history; but direct evidence is lacking. And from history-magazine.com:  Probably correct — except that the expression is American — and from centuries later.In castles, the ground floor might be beaten earth, stone or plaster, but upper stories almost invariably had wooden floors, and the same pattern likely held true in town dwellings. Straw was not needed to keep people from slipping on the wet slate, but it was used as a floor covering all surfaces to provide a modicum of warmth and cushioning. Reeds or rushes were sometimes supplemented with aromatic herbs like lavender, and the entire floor would usually be swept clean and strewn with fresh straw and herbs on a regular basis. Old straw was not simply left down when fresh straw was added.  FALSE.

IDIOM:    The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, the thresh would start slipping outside. So, people placed a piece of wood across the entranceway. Hence: a “thresh hold.”  True or False?

  • ANSWER:   It might be logical to think of the little-raised strip in a doorway as an item intended to “hold” in “thresh,” except for one significant detail.  However, There’s no such thing as “thresh.”The word “thresh” is a verb which, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “to separate seed” or “to strike repeatedly.” It is not, and has never been, a noun used to designate floor rushes. The word “threshold,” like “thresh,” is Old English (OE) in origin and dates to before the twelfth century. Both OE words appear to relate to the movement of one’s feet; thresh (OE threscan) meaning to stamp or trample3 and threshold (OE therscwold) being a place to step.  FALSE.

Hanging kettle over fireIDIOM:    In those old days, women cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.  Every day they lit the fire and added more food 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 beginning with the leftovers that remained in the pot from the previous day. Sometimes 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” originated straight out of 16th-century kitchens. True or False?

  • ANSWER:  Peasant cottages had no kitchens in which to cook. The poorest families had only one room where they cooked, ate, worked and slept. It is also possible that most of these extremely poor families owned only one kettle. Poor town-dwellers usually didn’t even have that, and obtained most of their meals ready-made from shops and street vendors in the Medieval version of “fast-food.”1Those who lived on the edge of starvation had to make use of every edible item they could find, and just about everything could go into the pot (often a footed kettle that rested in the fire rather than over it) for the evening meal.The resulting stew was called “pottage,” and it was the basic element of the peasant diet. And yes, sometimes the remains of one day’s cooking would be used in the next day’s fare. (This is true in some modern “peasant stew” recipes.) But it was not common for food to remain there for nine days — or for more than two or three days, for that matter. People living on the edge of starvation were not likely to leave food on their plates or in the pot. Contaminating the carefully-gathered ingredients of a night’s supper with rotting nine-day-old remains, thus risking illness, is even more unlikely.What is likely is that leftovers from the evening meal were incorporated into a breakfast that would sustain the hard-working peasant family for much of the day. According to history-magazine.com:  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, this chant was not used before 1762.  FALSE.

IDIOM: When families could get pork, they felt quite special. So, when visitorsHanging bacon came over, they hung up their bacon to show it off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.”   True or False?


From Wisegeek.com:  One of the more common claimed origins for the expression dates back to the early years of the 12th century, and has to do with the gift of a side of bacon to a young couple who impressed a prominent local clergyperson with their deep devotion to one another. There is likely some truth to this legend, especially since this type of tradition is still alive and well in the area of Great Dunmow, Essex in the United Kingdom.

The use of the specific phrase “bring home the bacon” is somewhat more complicated, with the phrase appearing more commonly in 20th-century publications, beginning with newspaper accounts connected with professional boxing matches. For this reason, there is some merit in seeing this particular idiomatic expression as being a product of the United States in the early years of that century, although there may be an underlying basis for older references to bacon that relate to money and livelihood. Within the context of the prevailing culture during the first half of the 20th century, the term was often used as one means of delineating the responsibilities of each partner in a marriage. Men were expected to be the breadwinners and bring home the bacon, while women had the duty of taking care of home and hearth, making prudent use of the income generated by the husband to create a comfortable and pleasant home for that husband.

As gender roles and the structure of households became more varied during the second half of the 20th century, it became more common for more than one individual in the household to generate income and bring home the bacon. For this reason, the task of financially funding a household is rarely seen as the responsibility of any one individual, but the combined effort of two or more residents of the home. This has also led to shifts in understanding who is chiefly responsible for tasks such as the upkeep of the home and how each parent is involved in the act of raising children.  TRUE.

IDIOM:  And, they would cut off a little bacon to share with their guests and they would all sit around and “chew the fat.”  True or False?chew the fat

ANSWER:  “Chew the fat” is an English expression meaning to indulge in casual conversation or gossip. It is related to the antiquated phrase “chew the rag.” Both phrases date to the 19th century and originally meant to gripe or complain. The origin of these terms is uncertain. Most sources agree, however, that they probably describe the mouth movements that are common to both chewing and talking.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a widely used reference for English words and phrases, records the earliest published appearance of such terms. It dates the phrase “chew the fat” to 1885, crediting it to a book about British soldiers stationed in India. Most colloquialisms, however, are used in conversation for years or even decades before they appear in print. “Chew the rag” appears in American sources as early as 1875. Although no definitive coining has been documented, both phrases seem to have originated no earlier than the middle of the 19th century.

The nature of the “fat” in “chew the fat” is equally uncertain. Some sources suggest it refers to salt pork, a staple of shipboard life in early naval history. Before the advent of refrigeration, food was often preserved by curing it with salt. This long-lasting source of protein was kept on ships for long voyages when other food supplies ran short. Salt pork could be tough and fatty, requiring thorough chewing before it was digestible.

“Chew the rag” is likewise accounted to sailors or soldiers who would be forced to chew on rags when chewing tobacco was not available. It is suggested that they complained about their deprivation, giving the phrase its original meaning; “chew the fat” has been given a similar explanation. There is no documentation to support these stories, however, and “chew the rag” may as likely derive from the phrase “to rag,” meaning to scold or complain. In any case, “chew the fat” took on the meanings “or make idle conversation or to gossip by the early 20th century. It retains these meanings in the present day, with its older meanings and variations usually forgotten.   From history-magazine.com:  We couldn’t find a convincing explanation for chew the fat. One was that it was of US Civil War origin, another that it was from Cockney Rhyming Slang meaning “have a chat” — and rhyming slang was not known until after WWI.  FALSE.

IDIOM: The wealthy had dishes made of Pewter. Foods with high acid content caused somepewter dishes of the lead to leach into the food, causing death from lead poisoning. Most often it was the acid from tomatoes that caused the lead to leach into the foods, so for the next 400 or so years, tomatoes were considered poisonous.  True or False?

  •  ANSWER:  From the Smithsonian Magazine:In the late 1700s, a large percentage of Europeans feared the tomato.  A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit. …  From history-magazine.com:  It is true that tomatoes were thought to be poisonous until about 1830 — however tomatoes were extremely rare in Europe in the 1500s and in any case are not acidic enough to affect pewter.

IDIOM:  Ale and whisky were drank from lead cups. This combination sometimes knocked out imbibers for a couple of days. People walking along the road mistakenly would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. Deceased people were laid out on kitchen tables for viewing for a couple of days.  Families would gather around, eat and drink and wait to see if they might wake up. Hence the custom of–“Holding a Wake!” True or False?

  • ANSWER:  From ehow.com:  The idea of holding a vigil over a deceased body stems from ancient times and is linked to the practice of waiting near the dead person in case he/she returned to life. Although few people in the 21st century are going to believe this could happen, the tradition of friends and family accompanying the body before it’s buried survives intact. Wakes as vigils are more prominent among Roman Catholic communities in countries such as the United States and Ireland.A wake refers to what the visitors do, not what you expect the corpse to do! In this context a wake means a watch or a vigil. It originated from an all-night watch kept in church before certain holy days. It later became associated with fairs and revelries held at such times. Some towns in the north of England still observe local holidays called wakes. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).

IDIOM:  People divided up loaves of bread according to your status within the family. Workers got the burnt bottoms of the loaves, the family got the middle, and colonial breadguests got the top, or the “upper crust.”  True or False?

  • ANSWER:  From Snopes.com Although an admonition to “Kutt the upper crust [of a loaf of bread] for your soverayne” can be found in a 1460 work, the term ‘upper crust’ didn’t come to be used figuratively to refer to persons of the higher classes until the 19th century. Many have speculated that, but there is no documentary evidence supporting this as the phrase’s actual origin.  FALSE.

IDIOM:    England is so old and small that local folk started running out of places to bury people. So they dug up coffins and would take the old bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave.


The Charnel House, which was built in the 13th century stores bones previously buried. It was completed in 1427, and was one of the largest parish churches in England. Mary Tudor, Queen of France and sister of Henry VIII, is buried within.

When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized their loved ones had been buried alive… So they would tie a string on the wrist of a corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. People would sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell–Hence, the “graveyard shift.” Thus, a person could be “saved by the bell,” or considered a “dead ringer.”And that’s the truth….but are they?  True or False?

  • ANSWER:  From www.phrases.org/uk on its site debunked all three terms; i.e., “dead ringer,” “saved by the bell,” and “graveyard shift/watch.”The Graveyard Shift, or Graveyard Watch, was the name coined for the work shift of the early morning, typically midnight until 8am. The name originated in the USA at the latter end of the 1800s. There’s no evidence at all that it had anything directly to do with watching over graveyards, merely that the shifts took place in the middle of the night, when the ambience was quiet and lonely.The earliest example of the phrase in print that I have found is in the US newspaper The Salt Lake Tribune ,June 1897:

The police changed shifts for the month yesterday. This month Sergeant Ware takes the morning relief. Sergeant Matt Rhodes the middle and Sergeant John Burbidge the graveyard shift.

The ‘graveyard watch’ version of the phrase was normally used by sailors on watch – hardly a group in a position to supervise buried coffins. The graveyard link was made explicit in this definition, offered by the American mariner Gershom Bradford, in A Glossary of Sea Terms, 1927:

“Graveyard watch, the middle watch or 12 to 4 a.m., because of the number of disasters that occur at this time.”

Well we’re at the end and debunked many of the original interesting declarations from the “Life in the 1500’s” 1999 email.  How’d you do on the quiz?  I sincerely hope you found this history-sharing exercise fun and informational.  Please let me know.

One thought on “We Just Didn’t Make This Stuff Up…Or, Did We?

  1. Having read this I thought it was really informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this information together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!


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