Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater
According to ELLEN WHYTE, author of Logomania, when ferreting out odd facts is your hobby, friends roll their eyes, groan and look askance when you tell them of the treasures you’ve found … until they want to know something!

FOR SOME TIME NOW I have been dispatched by the gang to discover what the kissing disease is all about, whether hatters are really mad, and why people are sent to Coventry, which is a really nice place rather than some dump where they would really suffer.

Research often involves checking half a dozen reference books as well as various trusty online resources. While ferreting out the answers, there are always some wildly incorrect yarns masquerading as ‘the truth behind the tale.’

One of the most persistent is a document called ‘Life in the 1500s.’ It has been circulated for 10 years or more via websites, blogs and email, and seems set to fascinate and mislead new readers for another 10 years.

It starts off with a tale about Shakespeare’s wife living in a tiny house and having to share her bed with so many people that they are stacked crossways across the bed. It then goes on to talk about brides preferring June weddings but having to carry flower bouquets to kill the body odour as their annual baths were in May; how plates were made of wood, never washed and therefore infested with worms; and other ‘facts’ about life in Tudor England.

The authors also state that: (i) it’s raining cats and dogs became popular because animals nested in thatched roofs, and would come crashing down on the family during heavy downpours; (ii) throwing the baby out with the bathwater comes from the tradition of the whole family using the same bathwater one after another, and at the end of which the water would be so dirty that one could easily lose younger and smaller members of the family; (iii) saved by the bell came from arranging a string-and-bell system that linked coffins to cemetery guards, just in case anyone had been buried alive; and (iv) dead ringer was a nickname for people who had been rescued after being buried alive.

If you check it out, however, most of ‘Life in the 1500s’ is nonsense.

Debunking myths
The truth is that Shakespeare was quite well off. His plays were performed at the royal court and at the Globe, the London theatre that Shakespeare owned one-eighth of. His plays were the blockbusters of the time, even the dreadful Titus Andronicus that was the Tudor forerunner of splatter films like Kill Bill!

Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, was the daughter of a wealthy farmer, so she wasn’t short of cash either. Anne lived in a mansion with 12 bedrooms and at least as many servants. It’s highly unlikely this rich lady was forced to stack her staff in bed with her at night.

It is true that June weddings were considered lucky in the past, but this was a Roman superstition. According to Ancient Roman mythology, Juno, the goddess of love, blessed couples marrying in June.

In the 1500s in Tudor England, people got married when they liked—or when they had to. Baths were rather rare, mainly because indoor plumbing wasn’t around yet. However, the Tudors washed every day, and were famous for their preoccupation with fashion and style, especially at social occasions like weddings.

Brides wore beautiful dresses, their finest jewellery and carried flowers as a symbol of fertility. Thanks to a story that the great god Zeus presented his bride Hera with flowers and apples on their wedding day, Ancient Greek brides were carrying flowers 2,000 years before Tudor brides were picking their blooms.

In addition, the wreath of orange blossom worn by Tudor brides was originally a Middle Eastern custom that was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Orange blossom was a sign of purity, fertility and luck for the Saracens—plus, it probably looked really pretty, something no woman can resist when she’s dressing up for her wedding.

Plates in the 1500s, whether made of metal or wood, were washed thoroughly after use. The idea of worms crawling about on plates is ridiculous. The Tudors didn’t have microscopes but since the Romans figured out that building cesspits near water sources caused disease, everyone was perfectly aware of the link between hygiene and health.

As for the phrases said to stem from the 1500s, well, that’s also to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

It’s raining cats and dogs
To rain very heavily.

Although many houses in the 1500s had thatched roofs, it is ridiculous to suppose cats and dogs would be stupid enough to climb up there to sit out in the pouring rain—or that their owners would allow it!

In fact, this phrase appeared in print in 1738 and is a variation on an older synonymous phrase from 1652: to rain dogs and polecats.

There are a dozen popular explanations for the origins of this phase. These include suggestions that the imagery has its roots in old religions that linked cats and dogs to bad weather, and that old-fashioned drains would become clogged with all sorts of nasty things including road kill, only to release these when flooded by unusually heavy downpours.

However, nobody really knows where it came from.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
To discard something important with something unimportant.

Scholars have written learned articles about the origin of this phrase for years, disagreeing exactly where and when this image came from. German author Thomas Murner used it in 1512; however, some authorities say he did not coin the phrase but simply used a popular proverbial expression.

Wherever it came from, the satiric image was popularised by many people, including the great religious reformer Martin Luther and the iconic writer Goethe. Over time the phrase was translated and adopted into various languages, including English, Dutch, Spanish and French.

Saved by the bell
Rescued just in time.

This phrase is mostly used as a standalone exclamation. It first appeared in print in 1932, more than 400 years after the 1500s, and has its roots in boxing imagery.

During a boxing match, each round is started and ended by the ring of a bell. If you’re running into trouble, the sound of the bell that signals a break is very welcome.

Interestingly, the ringer in the next phrase is entirely unconnected with the world of fisticuffs.

Dead ringer
A double or look-alike.

In 1890, US horseracing enthusiasts trying to cheat the public would substitute ringers or look-alikes for bona fide racehorses. During these years a racehorse that was entered to run a race but whose trainer meant it not to win was nicknamed a dead one or dead ‘un.

Although dead ringers came about just over 100 years ago, the sense of dead meaning complete had appeared in phrases like dead on, dead stop, dead loss and dead earnest since the 16th century. Similarly, ring was used as a synonym for substitute from the 16th century onwards, too.

Finding out where phrases come from inevitably leads to exploring the past, something that is an absorbing study all by itself. Plus, figuring out fact from fiction appeals to my Sherlock Holmes instinct. Sometimes there are no conclusive answers but it doesn’t matter: the pursuit of knowledge is what makes writing Logomania such fun. Hopefully you will find the results as amusing as I find the chase.

ELLEN WHYTE was given her first dictionary in school when she was seven. Designed for kids, it was limited to defining common words in a dull way. At about the same time, someone gave her an encyclopedia on animals. It had a panda on the cover and was filled with information about the biggest, smallest, fastest, toughest and weirdest animals on the planet. The dictionary was ignored while the encyclopedia was read until it fell apart. It wasn’t for some years before she discovered that languages could be as interesting as animal encyclopedias. She now has a bookshelf bulging with dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias and other reference books, and is completely hooked on learning the stories that lie behind the words and phrases we use every day.

Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Mary Higgins Clark's Moonlight Becomes You, published in 1996, one of the characters in the thriller talks about the Victorians, who were terrified of being buried alive, using grave bells where the bells were tied to the corpse’s finger and a cemetery guard was hired to walk the grave for seven days just in case they come back to life. "... wealthy Victorians were so afraid of being buried alive that they had a hole built into the top of their caskets, for an air vent reaching up to the surface of the ground. A string was tied to the finger of the presumed deceased, run through the air vent, and attached to a bell on top of the grave. Then someone was paid to keep watch for a week in case the person in the casket did, in fact, regain consciousness and try ringing the bell."

Saturday, February 06, 2010 1:18:00 AM  

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