Amusing, yes. True? Not according to the researchers at snopes.com, the Urban Legend debunking site.
"In a nutshell, this whole thing is a hoax, someone's idea of an amusing leg-pull. It began its Internet life in April 1999.
As for a specific debunking:
Although today's brides carry flowers simply because it is now the custom to do so, at one time bridal bouquets were symbols of sexuality and fertility. Covering up anyone's bad smell played no part in why this custom came into being.
Although the admonition against throwing the baby out with the bathwater dates back to the 16th century, its roots are Germanic, not English. Its first written occurrence was in Thomas Murner's 1512 versified satirical book Narrenbeschwörung, and its meaning is purely metaphorical. (In simpler terms, no babies, no bathwater, just a memorable mental image meant to drive home a bit of advice against overreaction.)
Mice, rats, and bugs definitely take up residence in thatch roofs-to them it's a highrise hay mow. Cats and dogs, however, don't go up there.
The saying it's raining cats and dogs was first noted in the 17th century, not the 16th. A number of theories as to its origin exist:
By evoking the image of cats and dogs fighting in a riotous, all-out manner, it expresses the fury of a sudden downpour.
Primitive drainage systems in use in the 17th century could be overwhelmed by heavy rainstorms, leading to gutters overflowing with debris that included dead animals.
In Northen European mythology, it is believed cats influence the weather and dogs represent wind.
The saying might have derived from the obsolete French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall or cataract.
It might have come from a similar-sounding Greek phrase meaning "an unlikely occurrence."
Canopied four-poster beds were the province of the well-to-do, not the ordinary folk. Possibly their origin had to do with a desire to display wealth conspicuously by showing off rich tapestries and fabrics. Beautifully thick wall hangings were likewise a way of dressing up a room while at the same time putting on the dog a bit. (The hangings also served to keep the warmth of a room in.)
Such fripperies were not the norm in lesser households where available funds would more likely be directed to keeping people fed and clothed than to decorative flourishes.
Dirt poor is an American expression, not a British one. Claims that the saying grew out of British class distinctions as measured by style of flooring are just plain silly.
As mentioned briefly above in the "everybody slept on the floor" discussion, floors were never bare dirt anyway. Fresh reeds were laid on them every day and thrown out every night, with another fresh set brought in for sleeping on. In the summer months, aromatic herbs might be added to this vegetive underfooting.
As stated above, the reeds were changed daily. Besides, who ever heard of calling reeds, rushes, or sheaves of grass "threshes"? One threshes plants to separate stalk from seed, but no part of the plant is called the "thresh."
The "thresh" part of threshold apparently comes from a prehistoric source that denoted "making noise" and is related to the Old Church Slavonik tresku, meaning "crash." By the time it reached Germanic (thresk-), it was probably being used for "stamp the feet noisily" (something that's a good idea to do in a doorway if you're wearing muddy boots).
Even some cooking practices of today call for tossing whatever's on hand into the stewpot, with new ingredients added each day to whatever is left over. French bouillabaisse, for instance, is sometimes made this way, as are any number of "peasants' stews."
Surprisingly, one authority states the saying predates the 16th century, asserting it comes from the 12th and refers to a time when a slab of bacon was awarded to the happiest married couple. A man who therefore "brought home the bacon" wasn't showing how good a provider he was but rather the success of his marriage.
Another authority believes the "bacon" refers to the pig used in the greased pig chase common to many local fairs. The winner's prize was the pig itself, thus the skilled pig catcher got to "bring home the bacon."
The term chewing the fat doesn't seem to have been around prior to the American Civil War. One theory links it to sailors attempting to chomp on the tough rind found in salt pork sea rations. As Richard Lederer puts it, "What seems clear is that chewing the fat, like shooting the breeze, provides little sustenance for the amount of mastication involved."
Tomatoes were generally shunned by many Europeans until the 19th century, but not because they had discovered that tomatoes were acidic and lead from pewter plates therefore leached into them. Many people believed tomatoes to be dangerous to eat because they resembled other plants known to be poisonous, such as henbane, mandrake, and deadly nightshade. For a long time the tomato was considered primarily an ornamental plant; eating its fruit was considered to be distasteful and potentially harmful.
Trencher is a medieval word that comes from the French trancher, "to slice," which shouldn't seem all the remarkable when viewed in the light of the earliest ones being made from sliced bread and used at banquets to receive morsels taken from a central dish and for soaking up any dripping sauces. Food that needed to be pierced or cut was not placed on a bread trencher. Trenchers started to receive pewter or wooden underplaques (also called trenchers) in the 14th century. Though these underplaques were sometimes used as plates to eat from, by custom the more common use called upon them to support a bread platform for food until sometime in the 16th century.
By the mid-16th century, what had been the wooden underplaque was coming to be viewed as dinner plate in its own right. Wooden trenchers that could hold both solid and liquid foods came into vogue, with some having separate hollows to house diners' salt. Wooden trenchers were washed after every use, though.
Trench mouth wasn't a term until 1918, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the "trench" part of the term referred to the trenches of World War I. Trench mouth is a bacterial infection of the mouth called "acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis." Soldiers sharing water bottles (as they did while cooped up for months at a time under enemy fire in the trenches of World War I) passed the disease to each other in record numbers, hence the simpler name this disease came to be known by.
Worms never played any part in this.
"If you were going traveling and wanted to stay at an Inn they usually provided the bed but not the board."
No matter how you parse "board" in the previous sentence, inns were in the business of providing it. Travellers paid extra for their meals, but food was to be had at any place that deemed itself worthy of the name "inn." (Those that wanted only a room could get just that too.) As for the notion that travellers were expected to provide their own plates and utensils, that too is silly.
The "board" in bed and board (or room and board) refers to the board table or sideboard where food was laid out. Common usage came to shift this meaning away from the furniture itself to encompass the food served from it.
"The bread was divided according to status. The workers would get the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family would get the middle and guests would get the top, or the "upper crust"."
Even a blind squirrel can find an acorn once in a while, and that appears to be the case here-the wag who thought up this e-mailed leg pull accidentally stumbled onto an actual origin.
"Kutt the upper crust (of a loaf of bread) for your soverayne [sovereign]" was good manners in 1460. The custom at the time was to slice the choice top portion off a loaf and present it to the highest-ranking guests at the table. Centuries later, this practice led to calling the elite who ate the upper crust "the upper crust."
The rest of the bread was not apportioned out by rank, though.
Waking the dead is an ancient custom that extends around the world and has existed in Europe for at least the past thousand years. The term refers to the practice of watching over the corpse during the period between death and burial. Partly, this had to do with making sure someone was always around in case the corpse woke up (see our Buried Alive page for numerous stories about premature interments), but the watchers were also there to make sure household animals and assorted vermin were kept off the deceased.
Some so feared the possibility of live burial that they left instructions for special tests to be performed on their bodies to make sure they were actually dead. Surgical incisions, the application of boiling hot liquids, touching red-hot irons to their flesh, stabbing them through the heart, or even decapitation were all specified at different times as a way of making sure these people didn't wake up six feet under.
Burying the dead in previously-used graves happened with some frequency throughout Europe, both before, during, and after the 1600s. It didn't have to do with any particular country being too small to hold all the dead bodies, though-it had to do with the shortage of space in established cemeteries. The family of the deceased would habitually look to inter the loved one in the graveyard attached to their parish and, like any other piece of land, graveyards were finite-they could only be used to house so many before they filled up and older tenants had to be moved out.
Sometimes remains were dug up, and sometimes what was left was pushed aside, with the newcomer loaded in on top of whoever was already there. Most folks accepted this practice, provided the old bones remained near the church. When bones were disinterred, they were taken to a charnel house, in a process termed second burial.
English common law states a grave is held only temporarily (not owned) and its use terminated "with the dissolution of the body." Grave inhabitants are granted "the right of appropriation of the soil to the body interred therein until its remains shall have so mingled with the earth as to have destroyed its identity." In other words, once you're bones, you've lost your rights.
Modern cemeteries in many countries routinely rent graves for two to thirty years. At the end of that period, the bones are disinterred and reburied in accordance with that country's cemetery laws. Vancouver, BC, successfully uses a 30-year-renewable lease for its graves. In London, England, the wealthy have for many years obtained 99-year leases on their graves in prestigious cemeteries. (Graves for purchase, though, are scarce.)
Scratch marks have been found on the inside of some coffins and tombs. Our Buried Alive page details some cases of this. Such marks, however, were a relatively rare find, certainly nothing on a level even remotely approaching the "one out of 25" figure given in the e-mail.
Premature burial signalling devices only came into fashion in the 19th century; they weren't around in the 15th. Some of these 19th century coffins blew whistles and raised flags if their inhabitants awoke from their dirt naps. (Once again, our Buried Alive page provides information about a number of these devices, including ones available in modern times.)
The earliest documented use of the phrase graveyard shift comes from a 1907 Collier's Magazine. However, graveyard watch was noted in 1895, with that term referring to a shipboard watch beginning at midnight and lasting usually four hours.
Saved by the bell is a 1930s term from the world of boxing, where a beleaguered fighter being counted out would have his fate delayed by the ringing of the bell to signify the end of the round. Need we mention that although fisticuffs were around in the 1500s, the practice of ringing a bell to end a round wasn't?
Likewise, dead ringer has nothing to do with the prematurely buried signalling their predicament to those still above ground-the term means an exact double, not someone buried alive. Dead ringer was first used in the late 19th century, with ringer referring to someone's physical double and dead meaning "absolute" (as in dead heat and dead right).
A ringer was a better horse swapped into a race in place of a nag. These horses would have to resemble each other well enough to fool the naked eye, hence how the term came to mean an exact double.
To sum up, though it's entertaining to toy with mental images of cats and dogs falling through thatch roofs and shudder deliciously over the thought of our forebearers dining off wooden platters that had worms waving out of them, that's about as far as one should take this craziness. No matter how many inboxes this popular e-mail has landed in, it never once enlightened anyone. Indeed, it probably left more than a few looking like utter fools when they tried to pass this "knowledge" along to friends better versed in phrase origins.
As always, the bottom line is to take such missives with a grain of salt.
Barbara "salt seller" Mikkelson
Last updated: 17 December 2000
The URL for this page is http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.htm
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Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2003
by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson
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