Elderfox's Blog

Thoughts of an elder writer-in-progress

Did you know?

on January 31, 2011

I received the following in this mornings e-mail and added them to my “phrase book”.  It’s interesting  how words/phrases follow us down thru centuries…

In George Washington’s days, there were no cameras. One’s image was
either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed
him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others
showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not
based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were
to be painted. Arms and legs are ‘limbs,’ therefore painting them would
cost the buyer more.  Hence the expression, ‘Okay, but it’ll cost you an
arm and a leg.’ (Artists know hands and arms are more difficult to paint)
As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year
(May and October) Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their
heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford
good wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs, so to clean them
they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake
it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the
term ‘big wig.’ Today we often use the term ‘here comes the Big Wig’
because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.
In the late 1700s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one
chair. Commonly, a long wide board folded down from the wall, and was
used for dining. The ‘head of the household’ always sat in the chair
while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Occasionally a guest, who
was usually a man, would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal.
To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. They called
the one sitting in the chair the ‘chair man.’ Today in business, we use
the expression or title ‘Chairman’ or ‘Chairman of the Board.’
Personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women
and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread
bee’s wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When
they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another
woman’s face she was told, ‘mind your own bee’s wax.’ Should the woman
smile, the wax would crack, hence the term ‘crack a smile’. In addition,
when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt . . . Therefore,
the expression ‘losing face.’
Ladies wore corsets, which would lace up in the front. A proper and
dignified woman, as in ‘straight laced’ wore a tightly tied lace.
Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax
levied when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the ‘Ace of
Spades.’ To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards
instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were
thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren’t ‘playing with a full
Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what
the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV’s or
radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs,
and bars. They were told to ‘go sip some ale’ and listen to people’s
conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at
different times. ‘You go sip here’ and ‘You go sip there.’ The two words
‘go sip’ were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion
and, thus we have the term ‘gossip.’
At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint and quart-sized
containers. A bar maid’s job was to keep an eye on the customers and
keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who
was drinking in ‘pints’ and who was drinking in ‘quarts,’ hence the term
minding your ‘P’s and ‘Q’s.’
In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters
carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It
was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to
prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method
devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four
resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon
balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There
was only one problem…how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or
rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a ‘Monkey’ with 16 round indentations. However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make ‘Brass Monkeys.’ Few
landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than
iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far,
the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs
would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, ‘Cold
enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’ (And all this time, you
thought that was an improper expression, didn’t you.) 


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