The origin of phrases


One for the road and on the wagon

The story

There is an old pub in Marble Arch, London, which used to have some gallows adjacent to it. Prisoners were taken to the gallows (after a fair trial of course) to be hanged.

The horse-drawn dray, carting the prisoner, was accompanied by an armed guard, who would stop the dray outside the pub and ask the prisoner if he would like one last drink.

If he said yes, it was referred to as one for the road.

If he declined, that prisoner was on the wagon.

The truth

Good story, eh? Now it is the habit of your webmaster (Guy) to, where possible, check the veracity of contributions. So, I checked this one and it has been found wanting! However, it is such a good story that I'm still including it! Here are my sources:

One for the road: origin unclear, but the phrase only dates back to the early 20th Century.

On the wagon: origin relates to people drinking water from water-carts in early 20th Century USA.

The whole nine yards

The story

During WWII, U.S. airplanes were armed with belts of bullets which they would shoot during dogfights and on strafing runs. These belts were folded into the wing compartments that fed their machine guns. They measured 27 feet and contained hundreds of rounds of bullets. Often times, the pilots would return from their missions having expended all of their bullets on various targets. They would say, "I gave them the whole nine yards", meaning they used up all of their ammunition.

The truth

Per Wikipedia, the phrase was first used idiomatically in 1907 and hence originated well before WWII (and before fighter aircraft).

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water!

The story

In the 1500s, 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 finally the children. Last of all the babies. 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!

The truth

Per The Phrase Finder, the phrase did originate in the 1500s but in Germany rather than in England. It was first used in a satire entitled Narrenbeschwörung in 1512 (where it was accompanied by the image on the right) and only reached the English language in the 19th Century.

Raining cats and dogs, canopy beds, dirt poor and threshold

The story

In the 1500s, 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 and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, i

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean 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 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. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance. Hence a threshold.

The truth

Raining cats and dogs: per The Phrase Finder, "No one knows the precise source of the 17th century expression 'raining cats and dogs', but we can be sure that it didn't originate because animals fell from the sky." Note that, in the first recorded instance (Richard Brome's The Woman Wears the Breeches in 1653), the reference was to 'polecats' and this only got changed to 'cats' in Jonathan Swift's A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation in 1738. As discussed in the 2004 book entitled Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends by David Wilton, one can envisage mice, bugs and other small animals living in the thatch of roofs. And maybe such animals would attract cats. But it is much more difficult to imagine dogs living up there. Furthermore, per The Phrase Finder, "for dogs to have slipped off when it rained they would have needed to be sitting on the outside of the thatch – hardly the place an animal would head for as shelter in bad weather."

Canopy beds: per Wikipedia, canopy beds were used in the 16th Century (and earlier) in Europe but they were used by rich people and rich people typically did not need to worry about things falling through the roof. Rather, the canopies were to afford the rich people both some warmth (castles are draughty places) and some privacy (from their servants who slept on the floor nearby). In passing, note that a canopy bed has many parts, including: bed frame, bedposts, bed rails, canopy, casters, centre supports, crown, finials, footboard, foot, head, headboard, platform, risers, side rails and schrooms.

Dirt poor: per MerriamWebster, the term was first used in 1937.

Threshold: per MerriamWebster, the word dates back to Alfred the Great (9th Century), with its origin not known.

Bring home the bacon and chew the fat

The story

In the 1500s, 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.

They would cut off a little to share with guests and they would all then sit around talking and chew the fat.

The truth

Bring home the bacon: the phrase only dates back to the early 20th Century, where most of its initial uses were boxing-related, with 'bacon' probably being slang for 'body'.

Chew the fat is a variant of chew the cud, meaning to chat in an aimless manner, where the metaphor is simply based on the observation that cows masticate their food for a long time.