English is a beautiful and fascinating language which has been constantly evolving over the years and it is because of this that the words which were used centuries ago have been turned into common sayings today. Many of these common terms originated in the 15th and 16th centuries and their origins may be found in those times.

Tanners, those who turned animal skins into leather, were numerous in those days and the usual method of tanning leather was by the application of urine. Poor people used to urinate into a receptacle and sell their urine to the tannery and if you had to do this, you were known as ‘piss poor’. Those who were even poorer ‘didn’t have a pot to piss in’.

In many of the poorer homes there was no floor covering. The upper classes were able to afford slate slabs on the floors of their houses but the lower classes did not. This led to those who could not afford flooring being called ‘dirt poor’.

In the homes of more affluent people, floors were covered in slate which became very slippery in wet weather. To combat this, straw was laid on top of the slabs, and the wetter this straw became, the more straw was added until it was so deep it spilled out whenever the door the door was opened. A plank of wood was laid across the door to hold in the straw, otherwise known as thresh, and the term ‘threshold’ was born.

Straw was also used in the thatched roofs of the houses, often with no ceiling between the straw and the human living space. The thatch was the warmest part of the house and attracted any animals which could climb up there, including cats, mice, bugs and beetles. However, when it rained the animals had a habit of slipping out of their homes and falling into the living areas, which gave rise to the saying ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’

This also gave rise to the four poster canopy which was set up over many beds to stop animals – and their excrement – falling onto the clean white sheets of the house’s occupants.

Hygiene was not particularly at the forefront of the residents of the day who tended to bathe only once a year, usually in May at the start of the summer. There was a strict hierarchy of bathing as they all used the same tubful of water. The man of the house took to the tub first followed by all the other males in the household. Then the senior female followed by all the other women and the children. Last to bathe were the babies, by which time the water was, as can be imagined, very mucky. The household had to be very careful that by the time the water was ready to be discarded, there was nobody left in the bath, hence the saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The annual May bath led to many weddings being held in June when the bride, groom and guests did not smell too much. However, the bride found that by carrying some sweet-smelling flowers, any offensive odour was minimised, and thus was started the carrying of a bridal bouquet.

In the kitchens of the time the huge open fireplace was both the heat and cooking source for the household. Over it hung a cauldron full of food and each morning the fire under it would be lit and the day’s food put into the pot. There was rarely meat for the lower classes, who ate mainly vegetables but if there was anything left over in the pot, it would be allowed to cool until the following day when the fire would be relit and the process started again. This meant that the food in the pot could be several days old, which gave rise to the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old. Every loaf of bread was broken up depending on the status of the recipient. The lower classes received the base of the loaf, which was often burnt, the middle classes received the middle of the loaf and the upper classes, or guests of the family got the top, leading them to be branded ‘upper crust’.

Meat was scarce but occasionally the workers were able to get hold of some pork or bacon. It was a great compliment that a man was able to ‘bring home the bacon’ and it was often hung up so that those visiting the home were able to see it. Special visitors were given some of the meat so that they could sit with their hosts and ‘chew the fat’. And the crockery they used – which was not made of pottery – was also the source of sayings and theories. The landed gentry had plates that were made out of pewter and the lead content would seep into some of the very acidic foods like tomatoes. Those eating tomatoes which had absorbed lead would often die of lead poisoning and this led to the fruits being considered poisonous until the truth was realized several hundred years later.

And beer, wine or spirits were often drunk out of lead goblets which also taint the drink and cause the imbibers to pass out. Taken for dead, they would then be laid out on a table and the family would gather to wait for a day or two to see if they might wake up. This was therefore called a ‘wake’ and the term continues to this day. By the time the family had decided the victim would not wake up and was actually dead, they would have to find somewhere to bury him. Sometimes they would dig up an already-buried coffin to reuse the grave but on many occasions they would find the inside of the coffin was scratched and they realized that lots of people were being buried alive. To overcome this, they would tie a piece of string to the corpse and lead it up through the ground where it was tied to a bell. A member of the family or an employee would sit next to the grave to see if the deceased rang the bell, which gave rise to the term ‘the graveyard shift’. If the bell was rung, the coffin would be dug up and the person who was buried was said to be ‘saved by the bell’ and if the coffin actually contained a deceased person, he was said to be a ‘dead ringer’.


True or false – I shall leave that to your imagination!


Debbie le May