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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: June ::
No, It's Not True!
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0990  Sunday, 13 June 1999.

[1]     From:   Bob Haas <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Jun 1999 11:12:34 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?

[2]     From:   David Kathman <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Jun 1999 11:07:35 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?

[3]     From:   Tom Dale Keever <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Jun 1999 13:39:24 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   No, It's Not True!

[4]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Jun 1999 14:31:34 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Haas <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Jun 1999 11:12:34 -0400
Subject: 10.0982 Think any of this is true?
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?

Melanie & Mike debunk this piece of Internet "urban myth" in the May 10
issue of their etymological newsletter THE LATEST EDITION.  You can take
a look at their critique at:
http://bay1.bjt.net/~melanie//Issue039.html

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Jun 1999 11:07:35 -0500
Subject: 10.0982 Think any of this is true?
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?

Larry Weiss wrote:

> This came to me from someone who thought it was amusing.  The list may
> find it intriguing too.
>
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
>
> Life in the 1500's:
>
> Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in
> May and were still smelling pretty good by June.  However, they were
> starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the
> b.o.
>
>        *************************
> Baths equaled a big tub filled with hot water.  The man of the house had
> the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men,
> then the women and finally the children.  Last of all the babies. By
> then the water was so dirty you could actually loose someone in it.
> Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water".

[etc.]

I got the exact same message forwarded to me by a coworker who wondered
whether it was accurate, so it's apparently making its way around the
Internet.  My first thought was that most of these things sound like
urban legends and/or folk etymologies, i.e.  made-up "explanations" for
the origins of words or phrases that sound plausible or amusing but have
no historical basis.  I haven't actually done the research, but upon
reading this again, that's still what they look like.

Dave Kathman

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Dale Keever <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Jun 1999 13:39:24 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        No, It's Not True!

Popular media "verbivore" has put the following debuning of the "Life in
the 1500's" internet hokum online for all who are curious.

Spook Etymology on the Internet          Richard Lederer

Recently, all around the Internet has been sparking an item called "Life
in the 1500s." The color and romance of the word and phrase explanations
in the message are as beguiling as can be. But as soon as I opened the
messages (sent to me by more than 50 people because I'm on everybody's
list), I knew that most of the so-called historical revelations therein
were false.

Take (please!) this electronic explanation of a common meterological
phrase: "Houses had thatched roofs. Thick straw, piled high, with no
wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all
the pets -- dogs, cats, mice, rats and bugs-lived in the roof. When it
rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall
off the roof.  Hence the saying, 'It's raining cats and dogs.'"

Dubious. The literal explanation is that during heavy rains in not so
Merry Olde England some city streets became raging rivers of filth
carrying many dead cats and dogs. But there is also strong evidence that
the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs" may not be literal.

In the dark Ages, people believed that animals, including cats and dogs,
had magical powers. Cats were associated with storms, especially the
black cats of witches, while dogs were frequently associated with winds.
The Norse storm god Odin was frequently shown surrounded by dogs and
wolves. So when a particularly violent storm came along, people would
say "It's raining cats and dogs," with the cats symbolizing the rain and
the dogs representing the wind and storm. This folkloric explanation is
supported by such expressions as "it's raining dogs and polecats" and
"it's raining pitchforks."

The e-message continues, "The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had
something other than dirt, hence the saying 'dirt poor.' The wealthy had
slate floors which would get slippery in the winter when wet. So they
spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter
wore on they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door, you
would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed at the
entry way, hence a 'thresh hold.'"

Nonsense. "Threshold," first recorded in A.D. 1000, descends from an Old
English compound "threscold," "doorsill, point of entry." The "hold" has
nothing to do with keeping one's footing. The original meaning of
"thresh" was "to tread, to trample." Farmers originally threshed wheat,
separated the grain from the chaff, by treading on piles of it. The
treading seemed similar to wiping one's feet at the doorway of a house,
and that entrance took the name "threshold" from such threshing, or
treading..

The e-drivel continues flowing: "Sometimes they could obtain pork and
would feel really special when that happened. When company came over,
they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a
sign of wealth and that a man 'could really bring home the bacon.'  They
would cut off a little share with guests and would all sit and 'chew the
fat.'

Ridiculous. Here the bacon refers to the greased pig that once figured
so prominently in American county fairs. The slippery swine was awarded
to whoever caught it, and the winner could take (bring) it home.

"Chew the fat" is unknown before the American Civil War. One theory
contends that sailors working their jaws on the tough salt pork rationed
out when supplies ran low constantly grumbled about their poor fare
while literally chewing the fat. What seems clear is that chewing the
fat, like shooting the breeze, provides little sustenance for the amount
of mastication involved.

Which is just what happens with jerry-built, jury-rigged etymologies.

The Greek "etymon" means "true, original," and the Greek root "-logia"
means "science or study." Thus, etymology is supposed to be the science
or study of true and original word meanings.

But I have learned that the proud house of etymology is populated by all
manner of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties miscreated by
spook etymologists. ("Spook" reaches back to the Dutch "spooc," "ghost,
specter.") These sham scholars would rather invent a word origin after
the fact than trace it to its true source. Spooks prefer drama and
romance to accuracy and truth.

A dramatic example of spook etymology is dragging its chains around the
Internet even as I write. "Life in the 1500s" purports to explain all
sorts of words and phrases on the basis of life 500 years ago. Alas,
almost all the etymologies in "Life in the 1500s" are spookily haunted.
Some of the most bogus explanations pertain to death:

"Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey," proclaims the Internet
message. "The combination would sometimes knock people out for a couple
of days. Someone walking along the road would them for dead and prepare
them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of
days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and
see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a 'wake.'

Folderol! Piffle! Poppycock! "Wake" descends from the Middle English
"wakien," "to be awake," and is cognate with the Latin "vigil." "Wake"
simply means, traditionally at least, that someone stays awake all night
at the side of the casket on the night before the funeral.

Now for the tour de farce of the spook etymologies that clank throughout
this e-message: "England is old and small, and they started running out
of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take
their bones to a house and re-use the grave. In reopening these coffins,
one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and
they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they
would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up
through the ground and tie it to a bell.

"Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for
the bell. Hence on the 'graveyard shift' they would know that someone
was 'saved by the bell' or he was a 'dead ringer.'

Bosh and balderdash! In factories that work around the clock, employees
report for work at 8 a.m. for the "regular" or "day" shift; at 4 p.m.
for the "swing" or "night" shift; and at midnight for the "graveyard"
shift, lasting until 8 a.m. According to Harold Wentworth and Stuart
Berg Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, the name "graveyard shift"
refers to "the ghostlike hour of employment"-and nothing more.

Now the plot deepens, and our subject turns grave: "Dead ringers"
actually originated at the race track. To take advantage of the long
odds against an inferior horse's winning a race, unscrupulous gamblers
would substitute a horse of superior ability and similar appearance.
Nowadays, "dead ringer" means any close look-alike.

Why "ringer"? Probably because "ringer" was once a slang term for a
counterfeiter who represented brass rings for gold ones at county fairs.
And "dead" here means "absolute, exact," as in "dead heat" and "you're
dead right."

Should I even dignify the above explanation of "saved by the bell" with
a logical explanation. Oh well, here 'tis, and it's just what you
thought in the first place. "Saved by the bell" is nothing more than the
obvious-a reference to the bell signaling the end of a round of boxing.
No matter what
condition a fighter is in during a boxing contest, even if he is being
counted out, he is saved by the bell and gains a reprieve once that bell
rings.  I do hope that we all gain a reprieve from these idiotic spook
etymologies that clank around the Internet and haunt the proud house of
our English language.

*********************************
Please visit and explore our Verbivore site at
http://www.pobox.com/~verbivore
*********************************
Richard Lederer and Simone van Egeren
9974 Scripps Ranch Blvd. #201
San Diego, CA 92131

Phone: 619-549-6788
Fax: 619-549-2276

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Jun 1999 14:31:34 +0000
Subject: 10.0982 Think any of this is true?
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0982 Think any of this is true?

In response to the question "Think any of this is true?" (in regard to
the posting about "Life in the 1500's"), I would say, "Maybe, just a
bit; but most of it is implausible."

About a month ago, I got the same posting from a friend (who now can't
remember where she got it from-I'd really like to know the source).  I
told my informant I was grateful for the chance to read someone's
"strange imaginings" about Renaissance England but wished someone would
track down what is known on the various claims made in the posting.   A
worthy article might be done on the subject, not only correcting the
specific errors, but discussing the whole phenomenon of imagining the
past in ways even more bizarre than it actually was.

I suspect that one reason pseudo-information flourishes is that most of
us-even if we've done scholarly work in the area-aren't sure about many
of the details. The whole subject of daily life in the past is one that
needs more scholarly study.  A lot has been done, but many details are
hard to document, and lots of folklore has drifted into the subject.

Much in the posting sounds as if it was imagined in order to account for
various expressions and sayings ("bring home the bacon," "don't throw
the baby out with the bath water," etc.). Occasionally, the information
may be correct-e.g., I've heard similar explanations of "threshold"
(though the OED isn't very clear on the subject).  But sometimes the
information is clearly not correct. "Trench mouth" apparently has
nothing to do with trenchers; "upper crust" (in the sense of
aristocratic) is an American expression coined in the 1800s; a "wake"
isn't so called because people are waiting to see if the dead person
will "wake up," but is a specialized meaning of the general sense of
"wake" as "vigil" or "time of watching"; "dead ringer" is a fairly
recent U.S. coinage; etc.

I ought to know more than I do about thatched roofs.  I visited a number
of old houses in England-including Anne Hathaway's cottage.  But I
simply don't remember most of what I saw and was told. The way the house
is described in the posting sounds partly accurate, but  I really doubt
that pets lived on the roof (at least most of the time).

One claim made at the beginning of the material is absolutely false:
that most people in the 1500s married at age 11 or 12.  They didn't.
Legally, they couldn't marry until the age of consent (12 for women, 14
for men), but it was quite rare to marry even that early.  (Maybe 1 in
1000 married as young as 13.)  The average age of 1st marriage in the
1500s and 1600s was about 25-26 for women and 27-28 for men.  For
documentation, see  SHK 10.0479  (March 17, 1999).

Maybe we could pool the collective wisdom of SHAKSPER to identify the
errors and approaches to accuracy in the posting.  Would it be worth the
effort?  I think, probably, it would.

Bruce Young
 

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