Dennis Cassinelli: How early American sayings originated
The English language as we know it today, and particularly here in the American West, evolved over a period of many years. In this article, I’ll describe several sayings that have developed over time people sometimes say without realizing how they first originated. Some of these sayings were started by the English back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Others became popular right here in the United States.
Hank Monk, the famous stagecoach driver, or “Jehu,” was known as the Best Jehu in Nevada. (Jehu being pronounced as “yayhoo”). The reason for this was from Biblical King Jehu in the Old Testament, who was known for driving his chariot fast and furiously. This also describes how Hank Monk drove his stagecoach.
Indoor plumbing wasn’t available in the early American West. If you lived in the desert country, worked in mining or had limited water to spare, bathing was rare at best. Couples would usually take their annual bath in May, so they would still smell pretty good for their wedding in June. If the bride was starting to smell, she carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor, hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the sons and men, then the women, and finally the children. Last of all was the babies. By then, the water was so dirty, you could actually lose someone in it, hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
Floors were sometimes just dirt. Wealthy people had something other than dirt. This is where the term “dirt poor” originated. Wealthy people often had slate floors that would get slippery when wet in the winter. When this happened, they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was then placed in the entrance way. This then became “a thresh hold.”
In early pioneer homes, stage stops, pony express stations, etc., people cooked meat and vegetables in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. They usually ate stew for dinner, sometimes leaving leftover food in the pot for quite a while, and eating it again the next day, hence the rhyme, “peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old.” Whenever they could afford bacon, they would hang it up to show it off as a sign they could “bring home the bacon.” Then, they could cut off a little to share with guests, so they could sit around and “chew the fat.”
Those with money had plates made of pewter. Foods with high acid content such as tomatoes caused the lead in pewter to leach out into the food. For a period of about 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous. Lead cups were sometimes used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock out imbibers for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on a slab for a couple days and the family would gather around to eat and drink to see if they would wake up, hence the custom of “holding a wake.”
In small towns and villages, it was found when reopening coffins, about one in 25 had scratch marks on the inside indicating the person had been buried alive. People concerned about this sometimes tied a string to the wrist of a corpse, led it up through the coffin to the surface and tied to a bell. Someone then had to sit out in the cemetery all night to listen for the bell. Thus, someone could either be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer.”
Sayings of a political nature developed as well. For U.S. senators, we can usually say, “Never have so few done so little for so many.” For U.S. Congress members, it can be said, “When all has been said and done, there is much more said than done.”
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.