"Language is the archive of history ...
Language is fossil poetry."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just because Americans speak English across the country, or in the British Isles from whence our language came, that doesn't mean we always understand each other wherever we live or go.
For example, my simple New England, "How are you?" becomes "How are you doing?" (with or without the verb) in the South, while neither phrase was much help when the conductor on a London bus asked my son if he was "getting aboot?" Lots of sentence shortening there. The kind man was only asking, "How are you getting about?" Same questions, different expressions.
Now, "Shut up!" might be too crass for most people, and I prefer my father's, "Keep still!" But both commands pale next to the genteel Southern parent's onomatopoetic, "Hush!" (I wasn't in England long enough to know how the British quiet an unruly child.)
Besides questioning what we say, I find it equally interesting to find out why we say it. I already have a half-dozen books of word origins in my bookcase, but none are as full of fascinating facts as the print-out I just received from some folks at Fort Gordon containing common phrases that originated in the 16th century. Here, for your learning pleasure, are a few of them.
You may never complain of running out of hot water again after you hear about bathing customs in the 1500s - and why weddings usually took place in June. You see, May was the month most people took their annual bath. But if the bride's bath had worn off by June, she would carry a bouquet of flowers to mask the smell. Hence, the still traditional bridal bouquet.
As you can imagine, "the bath" nearly rivaled the wedding in importance. Following the primitive water-heating process, the family placed a large tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. Then, following a strict hierarchy, the father or oldest man in the house took his bath first. Next, all using the same water, came the other men and boys, followed by the women, children and, finally, the babies. By then the water would have become so dirty you can understand why someone might say, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Only the wealthy could afford anything other than a dirt floor - leading to the phrase "dirt poor" - but both classes took their baths the same way. Unfortunately, the better slate floors became very slippery after the third or fourth bather, so they spread thresh (grain husks) on the floor to minimize falls. Rather than sweep up the floor covering, especially in the wintertime, they kept adding new layers of thresh over the cold slate. But when they opened the door the thresh was likely to blow outside, and that's why they placed a piece of wood in the doorway and called it the "threshold."
Food customs in the 16th-century gave rise to other phrases we use today without knowing the reason why. Almost all hot food was prepared in a large kettle suspended over an open fire. What went into the pot was what they had on hand, which was mainly vegetables and little if any meat. Leftovers were kept in the pot and augmented with whatever they had on hand the next day. For variety the weathered concoction might be eaten cold, which is why children learned to repeat the rhyme, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old."
What meat they did have was usually pork, which they might hang on a hook so visitors could tell when someone in the house "brought home the bacon." They also might cut off small pieces and "chew the fat" while they chatted with their guests. When pieces of bread were doled out, workers and members of the family were given slices cut from the center or bottom of the loaf, while guests were given "the upper crust."
There's more, like why those visiting hours at a funeral home are called a "wake," and the reason for that canopy over a four-poster bed. But we'll save the rest for another time - Halloween, perhaps, when the thought of nail scratches on the inside of a coffin, and creepy crawlers in your bed are easier to take.
A belated thanks to those readers who located the ingredients of the "hidden salad bar" Feb. 8. Deborah Cox, Ann Saunders, Kris Kristensen, Bill Scholly, Mason and Kay Richardson, Helen Lug, Ruby Morris, Robert Wilson, Kathy Pokrzywinski and Chaplain Heyward Knight all found the pepper, olive, romaine, tomato, radish, onion, carrot, spinach, lettuce and the dressing to go with it.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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