The origin of phrases can be absolutely fascinating. We use them on a daily basis, but not many of us ever stop to wonder why – why the words we say are part of our language, and what they really mean. Here are a few great examples of that – and their origins.
Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water
Back in Victorian times, the practice for bathing was for the ‘man of the house’ to bathe first, then the wife, then the children in order of birth. Therefore, the baby would be last in the queue. By this time, so it is said, the water would be so dirty (people only tended to wash once a month) that it was entirely possible (apparently) to lose someone in it. Hence, when emptying the bathtub, the baby might be thrown out too!
Raining Cats & Dogs
When the majority of houses had thatched roofs, they were made by literally piling straw up – there was no wooden structure underneath. Now, due to straw being nice and warm, a lot of animals used to climb up and live in there, or at least sleep in there when it was chilly. But, when it rained the straw became slippery, and the larger animals (such as cats and dogs) would be washed right out. It would therefore be ‘raining cats and dogs’.
Bringing Home The Bacon/Chewing The Fat
If you were doing well in your profession, you might have been able to afford some bacon to go with your diet of (mainly) vegetables. If you could literally bring home the bacon, you would most likely hang it up to show it off hen guests came round. And because it was pretty expensive and a rarity to have it, it would be used sparingly. When friends came over for a chat, the fat would be cut off first, chopped into small pieces and handed out. You would ‘chew the fat’ with friends.
Holding a wake for someone who has passed away has become something of a tradition, but it has a very practical origin. Whiskey and ale was served in pewter cups which contained lead, and this could have the effect of knocking someone out for two or more days. They might even be thought to be dead. But before arranging the burial, mourners would hold a wake – sitting around the ‘body’ with food and drink to keep watch in case the deceased woke up.
Dead Ringer/Saved By The Bell/Graveyard Shift
People were just not that great at knowing whether someone had actually died or were just pretty unwell. Premature burials were a definite thing. So rather than the trauma of worrying about burying someone alive, a bell would be attached to a piece of string, which would be attached in turn to the body. The bell would remain above ground, and, if the person in the coffin awoke, the bell would ring. They were known as ‘dead ringers’ who had been ‘saved by the bell’. And who would hear the bell ringing? It would be the person whose job it was to sit in the graveyard, on the graveyard shift, to listen out for it.
So there you have it; language is a fascinating thing. I wonder what phrases the people of the future will use that relate to us right now?