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Issue 39

May 10, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Internet poppycock

Every day more and more information becomes available on the internet.  By the same token, the amount of misinformation increases, too.  The internet is rife with hysterical scare stories such as the "Good Times" virus, the "Blue Star LSD decals", warnings about LSD-impregnated pay-phones and admonitions not to attend cinemas for fear of syringes filled with HIV-infected blood hidden in the seats.  All of these are, of course, hoaxes.

As one of the web's premier etymology sites we have been inundated with emails about pluck you,  the "third common English word which ends with -gry" and the supposedly racist origins of picnic.  The latest manifestation of spurious etymology to infect the web is something which calls itself "Life in the 1500s".  It is so comprehensively implausible that we can only assume that it is the work of a prankster who wants to see how far s/he can permeate the web with this poppycock.

As so many of our readers asked us for our comments we have decided to devote this entire issue to showing just how preposterous it is.  At the same time you'll get some reliable etymological information from us.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From a number (far too many) of our readers:

Life in the 1500s [an anonymous email document]

Anne Hathaway was the wife of William Shakespeare.  She married at the age of 26.   This is really unusual for the time.  Most people married young, like at the age of 11 or 12.  Life was not as romantic as we may picture it.  Here are some examples:

No, life was not as romantic then, but such young marriages were usually only between royals and were contracted for political reasons.

Anne Hathaway's home was a 3 bedroom house with a small parlor, which was seldom used (only for company), kitchen, and no bathroom.

Actually, Anne Hathaway's home, although often referred to as a cottage, is  a substantial, twelve-roomed, Elizabethan farmhouse.

Mother and Father shared a bedroom.  Anne had a queen-size bed but did not sleep alone. She also had two other sisters and they shared the bed also with 6 servant girls (this is before she married).  They didn't sleep like we do lengthwise but all laid on the bed crosswise.  At least they had a bed.  The other bedroom was shared by her 6 brothers and 30 field workers.  They didn't have a bed.  Everyone just wrapped up in their blanket and slept on the floor.  They had no indoor heating so all the extra bodies kept them warm.

While we're only really qualified to discuss etymology, the reference to 30 field workers sounds preposterous.  Moreover, check out this picture of the cottage from the official Anne Hathaway's Cottage website.  If they "had no indoor heating" what are all those chimneys for?  The   website goes on to state that "There are many 16th century fireplaces still in place".

They were also small people, the men only grew to be about 5'6" and the women were 4'8".  So it was easier for 27 people to live in the small house.

Wait a minute.  What happened to the 30 field workers?   With them, the total should have been 47!

Most people got married in June.  Why?  They took their yearly bath in May, so they were still smelling pretty good by June, although they were starting to smell, so the brides would carry a bouquet of flowers to hide their body odor.

Actually, ordinary people took only two baths ever — when they were born and after they died. Hence Sir John Harington's famous astonished remark about Queen Elizabeth: "She bathes twice a year whether she needs it or not!"  There were, however, bath-houses which were popular with the rich but these were not primarily for bathing.  Their function was much the same as "massage" parlors today.

The general practice was to wear the same clothes all winter.   It was considered unwise to remove any article of clothing until the end of May.   Hence the saying: "Ne'er cast a clout till May be out".

Like I said, they took their yearly bath in May, but it was just a big tub that they would fill with hot water.  The man of the house would get 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 pretty thick.   Thus, the saying, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water," it was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Sorry, but that term arose in the mid-19th century, in English, anyhow.  It is thought that Thomas Carlyle translated it from a German proverb.   It is purely a metaphorical expression.

I'll describe their houses a little.  You've heard of thatch roofs, well that's all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath.  They were the only place for the little animals to get warm.  So all the pets, dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof.

Well, the "other small animals" part (but not the pets) is true. Even today, one of the problems with thatched roofs is that they attract rats.   But dogs, how silly!  How do you expect them to get on the roof of a house?

When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof.  Thus the saying, "it's raining cats and dogs."

How then, do you account for the equivalent Welsh expression which translates as raining old ladies and sticks?  Besides, if these thatched roofs became slippery when wet, it would not have taken a downpour to make them slippery, but the term raining cats and dogs refers to heavy rain, or downpours.   The term, which has been around since the 18th century, is of unknown origin but there are several theories floating about, none of which has anything to do with thatched roofs!

Since there was nothing to stop things from falling into the houses they would just try to clean up a lot.  But this posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other dropping from animals could really mess up your nice clean bed, so they found if they would make beds with big posts and hang a sheet over the top it would prevent that problem.  That's where those beautiful big 4 poster beds with canopies came from.

Well, the term four-poster bed didn't arise until the early 19th century.  However, it is in fact true that canopies did protect the bed, and more importantly, the sleeper from insects and other irritants, but this applied only to the wealthy.

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. 

Ha, ha, ha! This is an American expression, unknown in England and it means simply "as poor as dirt".  Besides which, dirt has never meant "earth" in England; it comes from the Old English word drit, "excrement". 

In fact, both rich and poor covered their earthen floors with rushes.  If they cared to, they would also strew aromatic herbs about.

The wealthy would have slate floors.  That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet.

Nope, the wealthy had dirt floors, too (see above).  The very rich (royals and such) who lived in castles had limestone flagstones.

So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

This is utterly wrong.  As threshing was often conducted outside the front (and only) door to a house, many people assume that a threshold is for keeping the thresh out, not in, but this assumption is wrong also.  The word thresh is, generally-speaking, a verb; it is not a product of threshing — those products are straw, grain and chaff.  There was an obsolete noun thresh but it meant a "threshing tool" and we don't think spreading threshing tools on the floor would help anyone keep their footing.

While the etymology of threshold has not been completely nailed down, the thresh portion is understood to derive from an ancient Germanic root meaning to "trample" or "tread".

In the kitchen they would cook over the fire, they had a fireplace in the kitchen/parlor, that was seldom used and sometimes in the master bedroom.

Wait a minute.  Previously you said they didn't have any indoor heating.  Now these fireplaces suddenly appear.  You've got a bit of a continuity problem.

They had a big kettle that always hung over the fire and every day they would light the fire and start adding things to the pot.  Mostly they ate vegetables, they didn't get much meat.  They would eat the stew for dinner then leave the leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day.  Sometimes the stew would have food in it that had been in there for a month!  Thus the rhyme: peas[e] porridge hot, peas[e] porridge cold, peas[e] porridge in the pot nine days old."

Alright, you've scored a single point with that.  This reminds us of a curious practice in Jamaica.  There is a kind of stew called a pepperpot which is kept on the stove and the pot is never entirely emptied.  It is the leftover portion of the stew which is thought to be the key ingredient and when a girl gets married her mother gives her a portion of the family pepperpot.  There could be molecules of those pepperpots which are centuries old.

Pease, by the way, is the source of our modern word peas.  Speakers assumed that the s sound at the end of pease meant it was plural.

If you had money your plates were made out of pewter. Sometimes some of their food had a high acid content and some of the lead would leach out into the food.  They really noticed it happening with tomatoes.  So they stopped eating tomatoes, for 400 years.

Uh-oh, your score has just taken a dive.  Tomatoes are a New World fruit.  They were totally unknown in England until the 19th century (see The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Beeton, 1st edition, 1861).  She advised her readers to boil them for at least an hour and a half or, at least, until the unpleasant "fresh" taste had disappeared.

The main problem with tomatoes was that as they are solanaceous, like Deadly Nightshade, everyone assumed that they were poisonous.  Even in North America.  In fact, in 1860 an entrepreneur who was trying to encourage the consumption of tomatoes publicly ate one (with sugar) on the steps of New York City Hall to show that they are not poisonous.

Most people didn't have pewter plates though, they all had trenchers, that was a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. They never washed their boards and a lot of times worms would get into the wood.  After eating off the trencher with worms, they would get "trench mouth."

Nice try. While such trenchers (which were often just a piece of bread, by the way) are the origin of the term trencherman, according to the OED the first recorded use of trench mouth was in 1918. The trenches referred to were those of trench warfare, as with trench foot.  Among doctors, trench mouth is known as "acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis", and it is caused by a bacterial infection of the mouth which is transmitted by sharing water bottles, as among soldiers in trenches.

Apart from that, what kind of worms live in wood anyway?   Sure, there are beetle larvae which are sometimes called worms and there are parasitic worms which cause intestinal problems but who ever heard of wood-boring worms which cause gum infections?

If you were going traveling and wanted to stay at an Inn they usually provided the bed but not the board.

Good grief!  All inns also served as pubs which provided food and ale!  However, you have brought up a good point in that board in "room and board" derives from the board or table at which meals were taken.

The bread was divided according to status.  The workers would get the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family would get the middle and guests would get the top, or the "upper crust".

Wrong!  This term is a purely metaphorical expression which was introduced in the 1830s.

They also had lead cups and when they would drink their ale or whiskey.  The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days.

If the author of this piece didn't write this simply as a hoax, he should stick to things he knows and stop making things up.  Whisk(e)y was unknown to the English until the 18th century, and then it was as a barbaric Scottish drink.  Additionally, lead poisoning is cumulative and does not simply "knock [people] out" for days!  Instead it slowly makes one sicker and sicker over time (if the accumulation of lead does not stop).   Even so, the symptoms are not sudden paralysis but loss of hair and teeth, followed by dementia.

They would be walking along the road and here would be someone knocked out and they thought they were dead.  So they would pick them up and take them home and get them ready to bury.  They realized if they were too slow about it, the person would wake up. 

Are we to assume, then, that it was preferable to bury someone alive than return them to the bosom of their family?  In these hasty burials, who would pay the gravediggers?  And what about the dire shortage of burial plots (see below)?   Such absurdities and inconsistencies clearly indicate that Life in the 1500s is mere fantasy.

Also, maybe not all of the people they were burying were dead.  So they would lay them out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up.  That's where the custom of holding a "wake" came from.

Afraid not.  The noun wake comes from the exact same source as the verb.  Night-long vigils known as wakes have been a religious observance since Anglo-Saxon days.  It is related to watch.

Since England is so old and small they started running out of places to bury people. So they started digging up some coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave.

No they didn't. The country may be small but there's still plenty of room for burying folk.

They started opening these coffins and found some had scratch marks on the inside.  One out of 25 coffins were that way and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.

Actually, this bell contraption was sometimes (but very, very rarely) prepared for eccentric rich people who had a morbid fear of being buried alive.  The few instances we know of where this was done  happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, not the 16th.

Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. That is how the saying "graveyard shift" was made.

The graveyard shift is, again, a peculiarly American expression and is unknown in the UK.  The earliest documented use of the phrase (1907) is in Collier's Magazine.  It is thought to have arisen because it begins at midnight, "the witching hour".

If the bell would ring they would know that someone was "saved by the bell" or he was a "dead ringer".

As all boxing fans know, someone is saved by the bell when the end of the round is signaled (by a bell) during a count.  Besides, a dead ringer means an identical double.  How does one derive that meaning from this "explanation"? 

The term dead ringer did not arise until the late 19th or early 20th century.  It comes from dead as in dead on, "exact" and ringer, "a double".  This latter term derives its meaning from the practice of substituting a look-alike horse in a horse race.  This was known as ringing the changes, from the bell-ringing term.  Originally, to ring the changes meant to sound all of a church's bells in every possible sequence —  a peculiarly English practice.  There are several ways to accomplish this (the relevant mathematical discipline is called combinatorics) and with some of the larger peals it can take up to three days.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Your turn!

Dr. James Coleman provides us with another of his language-related pet peeves:

I submit for your curmudgeonly consideration an item of current usage: Use of anxious for eager; as in " I am anxious to see this movie".

We agree.  Anxious is a word derived from anxiety.  Does the notion of seeing a movie generally cause one to experience anxiety?   Not unless it's the recent Lost in Space movie!  What a stinker.


Sez You...

From Tony Hill:

You are, of course, most correct. I recently read Back Issue 25 and where you discussed a certain insulting gesture and its supposed origin in the phrase pluck yew.

My curiosity was piqued by your response in the issue, so I did some web rooting and found an interesting discussion (reproduced below) at this site:

First Obscene Gesture

What we may think of today as "flipping off" is of very old origin, about 2,500 years old in fact. Known to the Romans as the digitus infamis ("notorious finger"), its meaning hasn't changed at all in the intervening years. Aristophanes uses it in The Clouds (423 BC) as a literary device. In the following excerpt, Strepsiades, while talking to Socrates, deliberately confuses the obscene daktylos (Greek for "finger") with the poetic dactyl:

SOCRATES: Polite society will accept you if you can discriminate, say, between the anapest and common dactylic — sometimes vulgarly called "finger rhythm."
STREPSIADES: Finger rhythm. I know that.
SOCRATES: Define it then.
STREPSIADES [Extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture]: Why, it's tapping time with this finger. Of course, when I was a boy [holding up his penis], I used to make rhythm with this one.

That Strep, what a character.

Biblical scholars point to Isaiah 58:9-10, which seems to indicate that the gesture was known to the ancient Israelites: "If you remove the yoke from your midst, the point of the finger, and speaking wickedness...then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday." Either way, it's a rich testament to the adage that actions speak louder than words.

We were interested by your comments on the "First Obscene Gesture" but you shouldn't trust everything you read on the web (just Take Our Word For It).

Your source states that "flipping off" was "Known to the Romans as the digitus infamis". Actually, while the Romans did indeed have a gesture known as digitus infamis, we do not know exactly what that gesture was (Which finger was used? How?).

If you look up any well-annotated edition of Aristophanes, you will see that neither the Greek text nor the commentary by "The Scholiast" has the stage direction "Extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture". This is obviously a modern interpolation. Please bear in mind that modern translators of Aristophanes commonly rewrite the more obscure passages (especially those which rely on Greek puns) in order to preserve the humor at the expense of the original meaning.  By the way, Aristophanes does not "deliberately [confuse] the obscene daktylos... with the poetic dactyl " as, in Greek, they are precisely the same word.   Both "finger" and "beat" were called daktylos.

In our indefatigable quest for the truth, we have tracked down this particular translation; it's by William Arrowsmith and is included in "Four Plays by Aristophanes" (Meridian Books).  There, in the footnotes, one discovers some interesting facts.  The translator explains that his version of this passage assumes that each of the male actors wore a false phallus, just as they would if this were an ancient Greek farce.  Arrowsmith takes pains to point out that no other scholar agrees with him in this assumption.

While the ancient Greeks and Romans may well have raised the middle finger in insult, we do not find any  confirmation of that hypothesis in the passages cited.  All that we can be sure of is that they made some sort of gesture with one of their fingers.

As for Isaiah 58:9-10, it contains no reference to the middle finger, nor to an insulting gesture. Among the ancient Israelites, curses were made by pointing the index finger at someone and verbally wishing them ill.   It seems most likely that this is what Isaiah meant by "the point of the finger, and speaking wickedness".

Remember, it is only Americans who raise the middle finger in insult. Almost every nation has a different way of performing an insulting gesture. Britons raise the index and middle fingers in a V shape, Italians flick their thumbnail off their upper incisors, the French slap the inside of their right elbow and Mexicans grab their crotch. The most elaborate one of which we are aware is that of Colombia where the thumbs are linked and the hands are flapped like a bird in flight.

Oh, one more thing, it may interest you to know that the bowmen at Agincourt were not actually English. They were Welsh mercenaries.   As these bowmen spoke Welsh (a Celtic language which bears no resemblance to English) there is no way the "pluck yew" theory could be true.


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