Melanie & Mike say...
|the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine|
|May 10, 1999|
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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.
From a number (far too many) of our readers:
No, life was not as romantic then, but such young marriages were usually only between royals and were contracted for political reasons.
Actually, Anne Hathaway's home, although often referred to as a cottage, is a substantial, twelve-roomed, Elizabethan farmhouse.
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".
Wait a minute. What happened to the 30 field workers? With them, the total should have been 47!
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".
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
Nope, the wealthy had dirt floors, too (see above). The very rich (royals and such) who lived in castles had limestone flagstones.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Wrong! This term is a purely metaphorical expression which was introduced in the 1830s.
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.
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.
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.
No they didn't. The country may be small but there's still plenty of room for burying folk.
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".
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.
...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.
Dr. James Coleman provides us with another of his language-related pet peeves:
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.
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