Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2003 / 18 Adar I, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Spook etymology on the Internet | Recently, all around the Internet has been sparking an item called "Life in the 1500s." The color and romance of the word and phrase explanations in the message are as beguiling as can be. But as soon as I opened the messages (sent to me by more than 50 people because I'm on everybody's list), I knew that most of the so-called historical revelations therein were false.

Take (please!) this electronic explanation of a common meterological phrase: "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 pets -- dogs, cats, mice, rats and 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.'"

Dubious. The literal explanation is that during heavy rains in not so Merry Olde England some city streets became raging rivers of filth carrying many dead cats and dogs. But there is also strong evidence that the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs" may not be literal.

In the dark Ages, people believed that animals, including cats and dogs, had magical powers. Cats were associated with storms, especially the black cats of witches, while dogs were frequently associated with winds. The Norse storm god Odin was frequently shown surrounded by dogs and wolves. So when a particularly violent storm came along, people would say "It's raining cats and dogs," with the cats symbolizing the rain and the dogs representing the wind and storm. This folkloric explanation is supported by such expressions as "it's raining dogs and polecats" and "it's raining pitchforks."

The e-message continues, "The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying 'dirt poor.' The wealthy had slate floors which would get slippery in the winter when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door, you would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed at the entry way, hence a 'thresh hold.'"

Nonsense. "Threshold," first recorded in the year 1000, descends from an Old English compound "threscold," "doorsill, point of entry." The "hold" has nothing to do with keeping one's footing. The original meaning of "thresh" was "to tread, to trample." Farmers originally threshed wheat, separated the grain from the chaff, by treading on piles of it. The treading seemed similar to wiping one's feet at the doorway of a house, and that entrance took the name "threshold" from such threshing, or treading.

The e-drivel continues flowing: "Sometimes they could obtain pork and would feel really special when that happened. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth and that a man 'could really bring home the bacon.' They would cut off a little share with guests and would all sit and 'chew the fat.'

Ridiculous. Here the bacon refers to the greased pig that once figured so prominently in American county fairs. The slippery swine was awarded to whoever caught it, and the winner could take (bring) it home.

"Chew the fat" is unknown before the American Civil War. One theory contends that sailors working their jaws on the tough salt pork rationed out when supplies ran low constantly grumbled about their poor fare while literally chewing the fat. What seems clear is that chewing the fat, like shooting the breeze, provides little sustenance for the amount of mastication involved.

Which is just what happens with jerry-built, jury-rigged etymologies.

The Greek "etymon" means "true, original," and the Greek root "-logia" means "science or study." Thus, etymology is supposed to be the science or study of true and original word meanings.

But I have learned that the proud house of etymology is populated by all manner of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties miscreated by spook etymologists. ("Spook" reaches back to the Dutch "spooc," "ghost, specter.") These sham scholars would rather invent a word origin after the fact than trace it to its true source. Spooks prefer drama and romance to accuracy and truth.

A dramatic example of spook etymology is dragging its chains around the Internet even as I write. "Life in the 1500s" purports to explain all sorts of words and phrases on the basis of life 500 years ago. Alas, almost all the etymologies in "Life in the 1500s" are spookily haunted. Some of the most bogus explanations pertain to death:

"Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey," proclaims the Internet message. "The combination would sometimes knock people out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would them for dead and prepare them for burial. 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 and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a 'wake.'

Folderol! "Wake" descends from the Middle English "wakien," "to be awake," and is cognate with the Latin "vigil." "Wake" simply means, traditionally at least, that someone stays awake all night at the side of the casket on the night before the funeral.

Now for the tour de farce of the spook etymologies that clank throughout this e-message: "England is old and small, and they started running out of places to bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a house and re-use the grave. In reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and 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 to listen for the bell. Hence on the 'graveyard shift' they would know that someone was 'saved by the bell' or he was a 'dead ringer.'

Complete balderdash!. In factories that work around the clock, employees report for work at 8 a.m. for the "regular" or "day" shift; at 4 p.m. for the "swing" or "night" shift; and at midnight for the "graveyard" shift, lasting until 8 a.m. According to Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, the name "graveyard shift" refers to "the ghostlike hour of employment" -- and nothing more.

Now the plot deepens, and our subject turns grave: "Dead ringers" actually originated at the race track. To take advantage of the long odds against an inferior horse's winning a race, unscrupulous gamblers would substitute a horse of superior ability and similar appearance. Nowadays, "dead ringer" means any close look-alike.

Why "ringer"? Probably because "ringer" was once a slang term for a counterfeiter who represented brass rings for gold ones at county fairs. And "dead" here means "absolute, exact," as in "dead heat" and "you're dead right."

Should I even dignify the above explanation of "saved by the bell" with a logical explanation. Oh well, here 'tis, and it's just what you thought in the first place. "Saved by the bell" is nothing more than the obvious -- a reference to the bell signaling the end of a round of boxing. No matter what condition a fighter is in during a boxing contest, even if he is being counted out, he is saved by the bell and gains a reprieve once that bell rings. I do hope that we all gain a reprieve from these idiotic spook etymologies that clank around the Internet and haunt the proud house of our English language.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


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01/30/03: Twice in a Blue Moon
01/23/03: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
01/16/03: Retro-active words
12/19/02: Why I deserve welfare --- actual letters
12/05/02: English for -- make that "by" -- foreigners
11/21/02: Humorously Inclined Informational Products
11/14/02: Disorder in the Court: a Collection of 'Transquips'
10/31/02: Oxymoronology
10/24/02: The Bandwagon
10/17/02: Is life a movie? We all speak their lines
10/03/02: Brave New Words
09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer