Thursday, April 10, 2008
Why Do We Say That?
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!