Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Do We Say That?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I thought I’d take a slight break from things strictly grammatical this week and talk tongue-in-cheek about a topic that’s always fascinated me, the etymology of words and names. Having been a history buff all my life, especially ancient history, I’ve found it interesting to discover where names come from or how idiomatic expressions got their starts. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered why we say It’s raining cats and dogs? That’s one of the early-on idioms many of us teach our students, but when a student once asked me why English speakers say that, I just gave him a blank stare and then quickly said something devilishly clever like, “Because that’s English.” See how quickly I can think on my feet? Hmm . . .

Well, okay, why do we say It’s raining cats and dogs? Here’s one of the most popular explanations, which may very well be what is commonly referred to these days as an “urban legend.” In England during the Middle Ages, most commoners’ houses had thatched roofs. That was the place where animals could keep warm in the colder months, so the pets, like dogs and cats, and other small animals lived on or in those thatched roofs. When it rained, the roofs became slippery, and sometimes the animals slid and fell off the roofs. That may be where we get the idiomatic expression It’s raining cats and dogs. Is it true? Well, maybe not, but it’s certainly an interesting story!

I remember many years ago wondering about the origin of my own first name. I used to joke that Richard must mean “a rich man,” and that’s what my folks had wished me to become when I grew up. Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the name is made up of two Germanic words, ric and hard, and they mean “brave power.” Other male names ending in (h)ard are also Germanic in origin. Howard means “brave heart” and Leonard means “brave lion.” I think that’s neat!

My students have always been fascinated by the stories I can now tell them surrounding the possible origins of idiomatic expressions, and I get a big kick out of being able to tell them those stories instead of cleverly saying, “Because that’s English.” Those stories open up windows into what life was like hundreds of years ago. They’re like small archaeological dig sites, only made up of words instead of artifacts you can hold in your hand. That story about the origin of It’s raining cats and dogs is a perfect example.

Here’s one more creative explanation that you might find interesting. What’s wonderful about this story is that it explains two idiomatic expressions at the same time: Because land in England was at such a premium even in the Middle Ages, people started running out of places to bury their dead. So they would dig up coffins and reuse the graves ― a practice that’s now illegal. Sometimes when reopening coffins, they’d find scratch marks inside. People quickly realized they had been burying some of their loved ones alive. To stop that horror from happening, they tied a string around the dead person’s wrist, brought the string through the coffin and up to the surface of the ground, and tied the string to a bell that was mounted on a stand next to the grave. Someone would be given the charming task of sitting next to the grave all night to listen for the bell. If the bell started ringing, he’d run to get help to dig up the “dead person” before he or she really was dead! That’s why on the graveyard shift, they knew someone might be saved by the bell. Interesting, right?

When I tell one of these stories to my students, I feel like a camp counselor gathered with my kids around a roaring campfire. I find these tales, whether true or not, to be a great tool to increase my students’ attentiveness, listening comprehension, and retention of the idiomatic expressions under discussion. Anything that works is fine by me!

As a change of pace, I’m going to list a few of my favorite idiomatic expressions. Let’s see if you can tell us how they came to be. Are you ready? Okay, let’s go!

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.
3. Good night. Sleep tight.
4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

There you go. Five commonly used idiomatic expressions with really interesting stories behind them. Let’s see if you can become part-time etymologists and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised by what you may find out, and I can’t wait to read your comments on these great idioms!


Comment from Sam Simian
April 11, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Dear Grammar Guy,

Let me start off by saying that I have no idea how most, if not all, of the idioms and words that we use started, but I think that there are a few curious things about etymologies. First, laymen don’t usually vehemently voice their opinions about something that they don’t know anything about, but all bets are off when it comes to language — including etymologies. For example, I remember a normally modest coworker who took me to task for suggesting that “mind your p’s and q’s” may have come from printers confusing lowercase p’s and q’s. “No, it comes from ‘Perform your “pieds” and “queues” properly’!” Second, it seems that the more vivid, visual, and outlandish the etymology is, the more likely people are to believe it. (I wonder if this is connected to the notion that things that are vivid, visual, and outlandish are often easier to remember.) I hope that I’m not violating any rules of azargrammar when I say that one of my favorite examples of a vivid, visual, and outlandish explanation involves an apocryphal tale of an acronym for people who had been pillared for unlawful carnal knowledge. Finally, people seem to be especially attracted to etymologies that illustrate some “world view,” be it positive or negative. For example, many religious people like the likely etymology for “religion” — religion > rely > re-, re- + ligare, to bind “American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed,” and many feminists have embraced the unlikely etymology for “rule of thumb” — the restriction on the width of the “proper” tool for beating one’s wife.

When I Googled your first idiom, it said that your etymology for “It’s raining cats and dogs” was “nonsense.” Instead, it said that the idiom probably originated in “heavy rain[s] … occasionally carry[ing] along dead animals and other debris. The animals didn’t fall from the sky, but the sight of dead cats and dogs floating by in storms could well have caused the coining of this [colorful] phrase.”
And I hate to be a party pooper, but the same site pooh-poohs the notion that the origin of “saved by the bell” is creepy coffins. It claims that the idiom comes from boxing.

I could Google the the idioms in 1 – 5, but pretty soon my comments would start sounding plagiaristic. Ultimately, while I agree that etymologies can be quite fun, I don’t think their accuracy is important in the ESL classroom. However, I do think that they can serve a very practical purpose: etymologies — whether true or false — can be wonderful mnemonic devices — especially if they are vivid, visual, and outlandish. In fact, if your goal is helping students remember vocabulary and making the classroom more fun, an inaccurate etymology that’s vivid, visual, and outlandish is probably more valuable than an accurate etymology that’s boring. (Just remember to say something like, “This story probably isn’t true, but I heard that the origin of X was ….”)

Sam Simian

Comment from
April 14, 2008 at 8:05 am

Thanks for leaving such interesting comments, Sam!

Yes, indeed, we definitely have the same outlook on the use of such juicy stories that may or may not really explain the origins of certain idiomatic expressions. As far as who’s right and who’s wrong about any given explanation, that’s very debatable and really not worth the effort, as you pointed out. But the stories can be lots of fun, and I agree with you completely that having as much fun in the classroom as possible is what good teaching and enjoyable learning are all about!

Thanks again for writing in, Sam.

Comment from JoyTeacher
April 26, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Hey Grammar Guy,

Idioms are the seasoning in the soup of our melting pot language, and I love your approach (and Sam’s, too, for that matter.) I am duly challenged to not just teach idioms, but to look for (or make up?) etymologies to help make them stick in my students’ minds

This is my first time on your blog, but it won’t be the last. What a kick! As Arnold once said, “I’ll be back….”


Comment from Grammar Guy
April 27, 2008 at 9:50 am

Welcome, Julie!

I’m so glad you got a kick out of this blog entry, and I’m very happy that you’ll come back. Please spread the word to your colleagues and anybody else who might enjoy reading this blog.

I hope you’ve had a chance to look over the other entries, too.

Thanks for leaving a comment!

Leave a comment on this post