Issue 190, page 1

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Life in the 1500s Revisited

Oh, dear.  Long-time fans of TOWFI will remember our discussion of a ridiculous e-mail called Life in the 1500s.  Well, some fool is at it again.  This e-letter is called Who Knew? and is equally as preposterous as the previously discussed e-mail.  Who Knew? has  apparently been making the e-mail rounds for a year or more, so we thought we should debunk it as soon as possible.

Subject: Fwd: Who Knew?

In George Washington's day, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back, while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are "limbs," therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression "Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg."

Pu-LEEZE!  Cost an arm and a leg is not recorded until the 20th century, suggesting that it may  have arisen in the late 19th century.  Photography was available then.  The sense of the phrase is literal: paying for something with one's arm and leg is simply too expensive.

As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year!  (May & October) Women always kept their hair covered while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs. The wigs couldn't be washed, but to clean them, they could carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term "big wig." Today we often use the term "here comes the Big Wig" because someone appears to be, or is, powerful and wealthy.

Here we go with this bathing thing again.  That theme appeared in Life in the 1500s, too.  This has nothing to do with cleaning wigs.  How preposterous that someone could fit a wig inside a loaf of bread and have it get "fluffy".  Did the writer of the piece mean to suggest that wigs were made with yeast?  The beast!  Bigwig simply refers to the large wigs that important men (or simply distinctive men) wore when wigs were fashionable.  It dates from the early 18th century.

In the late 1700's many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair. Commonly, a long wide board was folded down from the wall and used for dining. The "head of the household" always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while an invited guest, almost always a man, would be offered this chair to sit in during a meal. To sit-in the chair meant you were important and in charge. Sitting in the chair, one as called the "chair man." Today in business we use the expression/title "Chairman."

Rubbish!  The chairman was simply the person who sat in the "chair of authority"  or the head chair in a meeting.  It has nothing to do with dining tables.  If it did, the head of a family would be called a chairman.  Ludicrous!  It dates from the mid-17th century when it was hyphenated: chair-man.  The notion of chairing a meeting comes from this same sense.

Needless to say, personal hygiene left much to be desired. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told "mind your own bee's wax." Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term "crack a smile." Also, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt and therefore the expression "losing face."

Bwahahahah!  First, beeswax is simply a whimsical sound-alike for business.  It has no literal meaning in this sense other than perhaps because beeswax had several uses in the arts and household (on wooden furniture, for example). Second, to crack a smile is simply a reference to the mouth forming a sort of "crack" in the face.  Third, to lose face is a direct translation of Chinse tiu lien.  And it has only been used in English since the 19th century.  If it had arisen as the Who Knew? author suggests, it would have been in use since the 17th century, at least.

Further, acne scars are not the result of bad hygiene.  Bad scarring of the face was often due to smallpox.  And indeed women would try to cover such scars (Elizabeth I tried), but not with a heavy application of wax!  Body heat would render that too soft to work, anyhow.

Finally, mind your own bee's wax (or none of your beeswax) is said to someone who is prying into another's affairs, not to someone who is staring at another's face.  Utter rubbish!

Bee's wax in this sense dates from the 1930s in the U.S.

Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace[d] garment, worn by a proper and dignified lady, gave birth to the term "straight laced."

First, it is spelled strait-laced.  Second, its original meaning was "tightly laced" (regarding a bodice or similar piece of clothing), but it is not because proper ladies wore tightly-laced corsets that we have the term strait-laced meaning "prudish" today.  Instead, if the bodice were tightly laced, it would be somewhat rigid, especially if it contained stays.  This notion of rigidity was transferred to strait-laced when applied to human conduct, and eventually the "rigid" sense changed to "prudish".  The term (with these meanings) first appears in the mid-16th century.

Any woman could wear a strait-laced bodice, not just proper or dignified ladies.

Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the "ace of spades."  To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."

Ha ha hee hee ha ha!  We can't stop laughing at this one long enough to debunk it!  Cards were taxed, yes, and the tax stamp often appeared on the ace of spades.  This does not mean to suggest that only the ace of spades was taxed.  Nonsense.  The entire deck was taxed when it was sold, and the decks were sealed (often with a tax label) so there was no way to remove an ace of spades, anyhow.  Not playing with a full deck is simply similar to other constructions describing intelligence (or lack thereof): not the sharpest knife/ brightest bulb in the box, a few bricks short of a load, the lights are on but nobody's home, etc.  Check out for more similar phrases.  Many of these clichés are fairly recent, coming from the 20th century.

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people. Since there were no telephones, TV's or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs and bars who were told to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times you go sip here" and "you go sip there." The two words "go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion; thus, we have the term "gossip."

Heeeheee!  Lame!  See our discussion of the origin of the word gossip.  It derives from God sib.  Nothing to do with sipping.  Or going.  We repeat: lame!

At local taverns, pubs and bars, people drank from pint and quart sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in "pints" and who was drinking in "quarts." Hence the term minding your "'P's and Q's."

This is one of several possible explanations, none of them certain.  See our previous discussion of this topic.

When a soldier needed to repair his gun, he would send a request to supply for a barrel or a stock or a lock, depending on what was broken. If he needed an entire new gun, he would ask for a Lock, Stock and Barrel. Thus, if we say they are moving lock, stock &barrel we mean they are moving everything. 

No no no.  The lock, stock and barrel are simply the main parts of a gun, so if one referred to them figuratively, one meant "the whole hog" or "everything".  It dates only from the early 19th century.

Now, don't we all feel better?

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