Fact or Folklore, Still Interesting

March 1, 2010


I have always had an interest in the origin of words, phrases and sayings.  So, even though I don’t usually open forwards because there are simply tooooo many of them, I just had to open the one we got yesterday with this title: Where did the phrase “piss poor” come from??

Following are supposed answers to that and alot of other questions that I would never even have thought  to ask!

Note:  After reading through all of it it seems to relate to England in the 1500’s.

Where did the phrase “piss poor” come from?

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families would all pee in a pot and then once a day it was taken to the tannery and sold.  And if you had to do that to survive you were “piss poor”.
But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot.  They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the poorest of the poor.

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be.  Here are some facts about the 1500s:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.  However, since they were starting to smell, brides 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 other sons and men, then the women and then the children. Last of all the babies were bathed. 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!”

Houses had thatched roofs –thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats, dogs and other small creatures (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof.  Hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house either. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could fall on your bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.”

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. So, a piece of wood was placed in the door way to prevent that. Hence: a thresh hold.                       
(Getting quite an education, aren’t you?)

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could afford 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.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat”.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.  

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days.
Unfortunately, someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.
So a tradition began where they were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding “a wake”.

England being old and small, the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and take the bones to a bone-house, and then reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, some were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been occasionally burying people alive. So then they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.  Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night,  on “the graveyard shift” to listen for the bell.  Thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered “a dead ringer”.

Much of this may be more folklore than fact, but it all sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?