We don’t realize how easy life can be in this modern world. In an age where not having the latest iPhone and selfie stick is enough to ask “Why me?”, some of our everyday sayings harken back to an all but forgotten time of people living in poverty on an unimaginable scale. Read through the following phrases and their origins to see how some of our not-so glamorous history follows us straight into the modern day.
Have you ever used the term “piss poor?” Nowadays, it refers to someone without two nickels to rub together, but it’s actually much worse than that. Tanneries, or places where animal skins were processed into leather, required the use of urine in the tanning process. Poor families would pee in a pot and sell it to the tannery for a pittance. If your family had to resort to this to make ends meet you were called “piss poor.” Even worse off were the families who couldn’t afford a pot. They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were considered the lowliest of the low.
Today, a daily shower is expected if you want to be a part of polite society. Back in the olden days, families would take a yearly bath in May. Since everyone still smelled relatively good for several weeks, June became the customary month to hold weddings. However, not all brides were oh so fresh, so they would carry bouquets of flowers to mask any unpleasant body odors. Today’s brides follow the custom of carrying a bouquet, but let’s hope they didn’t skip a shower on the day of the ceremony.
The yearly bathing ritual followed a hierarchy based on your place in the family. The father, as head of the household, got to bathe first in a hot, clean tub of water. His sons, then the “womenfolk” and finally, the not-so-lucky children followed him. By then, the water was so filthy they could actually lose sight of the little ones in the tub. That’s why we make sure not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Have you ever wondered about the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs?” Well before modern roofs, houses were covered in thatch, or layer upon layer of hay with little to no wooden structure underneath. Dogs, cats and unwanted varmints would burrow into the thatch for warmth. When a heavy rainstorm came along, the animals would fall out of the roof onto the floor. People with a little extra money would erect bedposts and cover them with fabric to keep all the unwanted pests off of them while they slept. That’s where canopy beds come from.
In most of these thatched houses, there was no flooring. That made you “dirt poor.” Richer people had slate flooring that got slippery when wet. They added “thresh” or straw on top of the slate. They kept adding thresh until it started sliding outside. They’d add a piece of wood in the doorway to keep the thresh in place, and hence, you have a “threshold.”
Other sayings rooted in the distant past are still frequently used to this day. When a man had enough money to buy pork, he would hang it up and display it with pride. He could “bring home the bacon.” If he could afford to share it with guests, they would sit around and “chew the fat.” Your income also dictated the quality of bread you could buy. The poor settled for the burned bottom, while the rich enjoyed the “upper crust.” Every time we utter one of these old sayings, we’re bringing history to life.