Issue 113, page 1

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netymology revisted

Yet again (see also Spotlight, Issue 99) a rash of spurious etymology is being spread by email.  Several readers have asked if they are true so here goes...

Sleep tight

In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes.  When you pulled on the ropes the mattress  tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on.  That's where the phrase, goodnight, sleep tight  came from.

This explanation does seem plausible.  Beds which support their mattresses on ropes did exist and are still used in some parts of the world.  On the other hand, this would imply that, after you've read your child a bedtime story and kissed her on the cheek, you expect her to pop out of bed and haul on the ropes which support her mattress.

If this phrase originated "in Shakespeare's time" then there should be some written evidence of its use from those days.  After all, the writer of the original email had to get their information from somewhere.  We are unable to find any example of the word tight use in regard to sleeping earlier than the late 1898.  The phrase sleep tight did not appear until even later.  Here's the first use we could find:

Good night, Son. Sleep tight.

- Eugene OíNeill Ah, Wilderness!  1933

It seems that the word tight was used to mean "soundly" or "steadfastly", as in the expression sit tight.  The phrase goodnight, sleep tight probably caught on purely because of its internal rhyme.


Rule of thumb

Thumbs up! The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old  English law which stated that you couldn't beat  your wife with anything wider than your thumb.

Oh, those wicked old Englishmen!  Don't get too upset, though.  This story, while  widespread, is entirely fictitious - there never was any such law.

The origin of this phrase is not entirely certain but it first appears in the late 1700s.  The most probable origin lies in the fact that the top joint of a man's thumb is approximately an inch long.  Want a quick approximation to an inch?  Use your thumb as a rule.


Mind your P's and Q's

In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and  quarts.  So in old England, when customers got  unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down.  It's  where we get the phrase mind your P's and Q's.

Again, this seems quite plausible, doesn't it?  But this is only one of several explanations which have been suggested for this phrase.  Others include a dancing-master's instruction to "mind your pieds et queues [i.e. feet and pigtails]" and a school-teacher's encouragement to pupils who are learning to write.

In an early 1600s, a play by Thomas Dekker has the line "Now thou art in thy pee and cue".  A pee was a kind of coat (as in the U.S. naval pea-coat) and the cue was the "queue" or "tail" of a wig.  Dekker was probably just making a punning allusion to the letters P and Q, though.

We've actually heard the "pints and quarts" explanation before but it was about keeping track of the customers' bills, not a warning of imminent mayhem.  The only problem with these explanations is that we've never heard of a pub which serves beer by the quart.


Wet your whistle

Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a  whistle baked into the rim or handle of their  ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they  used the whistle to get some service.  Wet your whistle, is the phrase inspired by this practice.

Has anyone ever seen one of these mugs?  A picture of one?  A written description of one, perhaps?  Of course not, they never existed.

Since the middle ages, whistle has been used as a slang term for the throat.  As in...

Letís have no pitty, for if you do, hereís that shall cut your whistle.

- Beaumont and Fletcher, Coxcomb , 1612

So, to wet your whistle is simply "to wet your throat".


Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

... The Ship's Master usually wanted to store the cannonballs such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around the gun deck. The solution was to stack them up in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon...  
[See last week's Words to the Wise for the complete version]

Since we wrote about this last week, we have been inundated with copies of this email.  So we did a little more digging.  Fortunately, we weren't too dismissive about this one last issue - it could actually turn out to be true.

Although we could not find any written evidence from the period of sailing ships, we did find a 1663 account of the armaments of Edinburgh Castle which referred to "28 short brasse munkeys, alias dogs" and "10 iron munkeys".   These "munkeys" were not "cannonball holders", though, they were cannon.

We came across support for "cannonball holder" story in an amusing dictionary called When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There's the Devil to Pay.  The book is about terms with naval origins and the author, Olivia A. Isil, relates exactly the same story as the email etymology.  But her only source is an ancient, sea-dog called Captain Hezekiah Litchfield known for his exceptionally... er... "colorful" language.  Ms. Isil doesn't accept the story unconditionally, however, and quotes the Italian saying se non Ť vero, Ť bene trovatto ("Ôf it's not true, it's well invented").  [See also this week's Sez You...]

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Last Updated 12/03/01 08:36 PM