Example: [Collected via e-mail, October 2000]
As incredible as it sounds, we are informed that 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 so to clean them, they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for
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 would be offered to sit in this chair during a meal whom was almost always a man. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. Sitting in the chair, one was called the "chair man of the board." Today in business we use the expression/title "Chairman of the Board."
Needless to say, personal hygiene left much room for improvement. 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."
Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in "straight laced."
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
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 and thus, we have the term "gossip."
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."
Origins: In 1999, a spurious missive purporting to explain the origins of a number of common phrases appeared on the Internet. That laughable compilation, titled "Life in the 1500s," was pulled together as someone's idea of a joke.
In 2000, the pranksters went at it again with yet another specious list of purported word and phrase origins, this time dating it to the 1700s. Typically titled "Little History Lesson," it offered the set of false etymologies listed in the Example section above.
Below we analyze each entry in order:
"If it takes a leg" (used to express desperate determination) dates to 1872. Similarly, print sightings for "I'd give my right arm" (to be able to do something especially desired) go back as far as 1616.
Even in the 1700s in locales and social strata where the wearing of wigs was common, these headcoverings were indeed washed (albeit carefully); they were not inserted into loaves of bread and baked. (One has to wonder about an explanation that posits folks who were afraid they'd damage expensive goods by washing them would happily risk incinerating them.)
Print sightings of "big wig" and "big wigged" date to 1781 and 1778 respectively, with the term's always having referred to someone regarded as societally prominent by virtue of wealth, position, or power. While the term does find its origin in the rather impressive wigs sported by the upper crust, said wigs were deliberately constructed to be large and imposing; they didn't get that way from having been baked in bread to kill lice.
The "board" in "chairman of the board" refers to a board of directors, generally a group of successful businessmen appointed to oversee the running of a corporation. The word "chairman" dates to 1654 and refers to the occupier of a chair of authority.
"Mind your own beeswax," a phrase first noted in 1934, is no more than a cutesy way of saying "Mind your own business," with "beeswax" used as an ear-pleasing substitute for the more staid "business." The saying it's based upon, "To mind one's business," dates to 1660 and means to tend to one's own concerns in preference of involving oneself in the doings of others.
One "cracks a smile" in the same way that one cracks a joke or a boast; there is no physical crevice made in anything, let alone the fictional wax masks women were supposedly parading about in. Sightings of "crack" used in the sense of uttering something loudly and with flair date to 1315, with "crack a boast" to 1386.
The linguistic concept of "losing face" (or saving it) didn't enter the English language prior to contact between British traders and the Chinese and was first noted in 1834. The "face" the Chinese were so concerned about wasn't an anatomical one but rather the publicized image of oneself, in the sense of the "face" one displays to the world at large. Two Chinese words, one meaning "moral character," the other "social prestige," were each translated into English as "face," with "to lose face" meaning to have damage done to one's reputation or to be publicly embarrassed.
"Strait" came into the English language from the Latin verb "stringere," which means "to strain; draw tight." Other "strait" words we're familiar with, such as Straits of Gibraltar and strait-jacket, likewise employ its narrowing or restraining elements. "Strait-laced" was first spotted in 1430, and while at that time it did have to do with the tightness of corsets, by the 1540s the term had expanded to encompass things that were narrow in range or scope or people that were uncommunicative (i.e., kept a great deal of themselves in). By the 1550s, it was used to describe folks who were excessively rigid or scrupulous in matters of conduct.
"Not playing with a full deck" is simply one of countless sayings of the same ilk as "two bricks shy of a load" or "a couple of French fries short of a Happy Meal"; a phrase indicating that the person referred to lacks ordinary intellectual capacity.
While the "Little History Lesson" e-mail has remained surprisingly static across its decade-plus existence, one additional item about freezing the balls off a brass monkey has come to be added to it.
In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of
However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make "Brass Monkeys." Few land lubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." (All this time, you thought that was an improper expression, didn't you.)
In a further nutshell, (with the non-nutshell version offered here), while the etymology of this pronouncement is still up in the air, the "cannonballs" explanation should be dismissed because when the saying started appearing in print in the
Barbara "frozen assets" Mikkelson
Last updated: 1 November 2010
Lighter, J.E. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Random House, 1997. IBSN 0-679-43464-X. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.