The Fascinating Origin of Words Linked to Poor People | campus.sg

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What’s the origin of the phrase “graveyard shift” or “bring home the bacon”? Unsurprisingly, they’ve got origins in folk etymologies, but some have been perpetuated by a set of urban legends found in a list called “Facts About the 1500s,” or “Life in the 1500s,” which has been floating around in cyberspace since 1999. Many of the stories concocted in this “list” seem to originate from the conditions of poor peasants.

Here are some common words on this fictitious list, and where they really originated from:

“Piss Poor”

The claim was that poor families used to all pee in a pot which was taken to a tannery to be sold – the fact that you had to do this to survive led to the word “piss poor.” But even poorer folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot “didn’t have a pot to piss in” – meaning they were the lowest of the low.

EXPLANATION: Urine was really used to tan animal skins, but “piss poor” had nothing to do with tanning. In fact, the phrase was only recorded in the 20th century according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and originated in the United States. The word “piss” was used to imply excess or undesirability, so “piss poor” meant “of extremely poor quality or standard.” The phrase “not to have a pot to piss in,” according to the OED, is to be penniless – it’s a slang that also originated from the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1934 novel Nightwood (by Djuna Barnes): “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”

“Raining cats and dogs”

The phrase was used to describe how animals – from mice to bugs and even cats and dogs – would live in the thatched roofs of houses of the poor, since it was the only place for animals to get warm. And when it rained, it became slippery, so the animals would slip and fall off, hence “raining cats and dogs.”

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EXPLANATION: While mice, rats, and bugs definitely did take up residence in thatch roofs, cats and dogs, however, didn’t. The saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” was actually first noted in the 17th century, not the 16th. The origins are murky, but there are some theories: one was that the image of cats and dogs fighting expresses the fury of a sudden downpour, and another was the fact that cats influence the weather and dogs represent wind in Northern European mythology.

“Dirt Poor”

The claim was that only the wealthy had flooring made of something like stone or wood. The floor of a poor person’s home was just dirt, hence the saying, “dirt poor.”

EXPLANATION: It is true that earthen floors were predominant in most peasant European houses until the mid 14th century. The hardpacked dirt was normally topped off with a thin layer of straw for warmth and comfort. However, the term “dirt poor” was only coined in the 20th century, according to dictionaries.

“Bring home the bacon”

In the old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big cauldron that always hung over the fire. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.”

EXPLANATION: Some linguists believe the saying “bring home the bacon” was from way back in the 12th century, referring to a custom of awarding the happiest married couple a “flitch of bacon” (side of pork), as told in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath. So instead of showing off wealth, the man was instead showing off a successful marriage! Other linguists think it referred to a pig that was caught by a skilled pig catcher in a local fair – hence the man got to “bring home the bacon.” The phrase, however, did not appear in print until 1906 in New York.

“Upper Crust”

Bread was traditionally divided according to status. In a wealthy household, workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

EXPLANATION: The phrase “upper crust” entered English in the 15th century, referring literally to the top crust on a loaf of bread which was reserved for the master and mistress of the household. But the term “upper crust” wasn’t used to figuratively to mean the aristocracy until 1823, when a dictionary of sports slang by Jon Bee listed: “Upper-crust—one who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-crust.”

“(Funeral) Wake”

Back in the day, people used to drink alcohol out of lead cups. It’s claimed that drinking ale or whisky out of lead cups would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Sometimes they were considered dead and prepared for burial, laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days. The family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up, hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

EXPLANATION: The custom of “waking the dead” has actually been practised in Europe for at least a thousand years, when people would watch over a corpse during the period between death and burial. This was partly to ensure that someone was around if the corpse woke up, but also to ensure that household animals and pests were kept off the body. Interestingly, to ensure there wasn’t a possibility of a live burial, the bodies underwent tests to ensure the bodies were actually dead. These include surgical incisions, application of boiling hot liquids, stabbing them through the heart, and even decapitation!

“Graveyard Shift”

When locals ran out of graves to bury people, they dug up old coffins and reused the grave. Sometimes these dug-up coffins would have scratch marks on the inside, meaning the bodies had been buried alive. So in order to prevent this from happening to new burials, they tied a string attached to a bell to the wrists of a corpse and had someone sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. So this someone would be on the “graveyard shift.”

EXPLANATION: It’s well known that burying the dead in previously-used graves wasn’t uncommon due to the shortage of space in established cemeteries. The original remains were dug up or sometimes pushed aside, with the newcomer loaded in on top. In those days, a grave was held only temporarily; when your body turns to bones, you’ve lost your rights – according to the law.

Scratch marks have been found on the inside of some coffins and tombs, but the method to prevent premature burial by signalling wasn’t around until the 19th century. And the earliest documented uses of “graveyard shift” dates back only to the late 1800s. It referenced work shifts that took place in the middle of the night and early morning hours – when the environment could be spooky. The earliest documented use of the term was in 1895 in the New Albany Evening Tribune in a story about coal mining: “It was dismal enough to be on the graveyard shift…”

Now, whoever said history was boring?