Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why Do We Say That? Part 2

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

Awhile back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the etymology of some idiomatic expressions we commonly use in English (Why Do We Say That?).

Since the feedback I’ve received said it was so much fun and so interesting, I think it’ll be equally as much fun to delve into a few more oddities of the language. Amazingly, just last week a student of mine asked me why we call the trip that newlyweds take a honeymoon. That student, a Spanish speaker, mentioned that it’s even the same expression in Spanish, “luna de miel,” and it turns out that the same term or a similar one exists in other languages, too from Italian to Hebrew to Persian!

Well, for once I wasn’t caught in that awkward position of having to say something like, “Why? Because that’s English,” or, “Hmm… I’ll have to look into that and let you know.” One of the possible explanations behind this term really makes us linguistic archaeologists! Here’s why:

It seems to have been a custom in ancient Babylonia (ca. 1000 BCE) for the father of the bride to give his new son-in-law as much mead as he wanted for a whole month after the wedding. (Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey and still produced today in some countries.) Since the Babylonian calendar was lunar, this happy period when the new husband could imbibe all the mead he wanted was called the honey month. (It’s interesting to note that the word month is related to moon.) So that may be how we came to call this period the honeymoon. How it got from ancient Babylonia to us is another story, but eventually the meaning got cut down to only the period right after the wedding when the newlyweds traditionally go off on a trip. So there you have it!

Now, what about a proverb like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”? The proverb means basically that fools can sometimes try to rid themselves of a bad thing, but instead succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well. The proverb may be of German origin, going back at least to the 16th century. One theoretical story about its origin is that in the Middle Ages, bathing was not something commonly done in Europe, but when it was, it became a family affair. Customarily, a large tub was filled with hot water and the father had the privilege of taking the first bath. Heating such a large amount of water was not an easy thing to do, so the water would be reused. The father was followed by his sons, who were then followed by all the women in the family, the mother first, and then the daughters. You can imagine how the water kept getting dirtier and dirtier as each person got in and out of the tub! According to this customary pecking order for family bathing, the last ones to take a bath were the babies. (This seems logical as babies have been known to release their bodily wastes in the water – and nobody would have wanted to get into the water after that happened!) By the time they were placed into the tub, the water was quite murky and it was just about impossible to see down to the bottom. If you weren’t careful, you might not even see a baby in that water if you let go! So that may be a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why people started saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Isn’t that cool?

How about one more? Because I suffer from the occupational hazard of always thinking about words and phrases and remaining keenly aware of how odd they can be instead of just taking them for granted, I remember one day wondering about the word threshold. Our handyman had just put in a new kitchen door for us, and he also put in a new marble threshold. I suddenly began wondering where such an odd word came from and why we use such a name for that thing. Here’s what I found out:

Going way back to the time in Europe when royalty lived in castles, it was traditional for many of the floors of those castles and the houses of the rich to have smooth stone floors. (I suppose that was their equivalent of our ceramic tile floors.) The problem was that those smooth stones, like ceramic tile, can get very slippery when wet and therefore pretty treacherous. In the wintertime, it was hard not to have their floors constantly getting wet when people would track in the snow and ice that clung to their boots. To counter that, they spread a light covering of straw, also known as thresh, on the floors so people wouldn’t slip and fall. During the winter, they’d keep adding more and more thresh until finally the thresh would spill out the doors when they were opened. To stop the thresh from spilling out every time a door was opened, they started placing a strip of wood along the opening at each door, and that may very well be how we get the word threshold; it “held the thresh” from spilling out the door!

I just eat this stuff up, and I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Now let’s see if you can do some linguistic sleuthing of your own. Take a look at the following goodies and see if you can discover some possible tales to explain why we say what we say. I’d love to get your results and post them!

1. Ah, poor old Mr. Riley. I hear he’s passed on. So when is the family going to hold the wake?
2. It’s wonderful how successful Karen’s been in business. Good for her! You know, I understand that her family was dirt poor when she was a kid.
3. Is that a bottle of tincture of violet I see on your bathroom counter? Isn’t that used to cure trench mouth?
4. I know my brother needed a new car, but I can’t understand why in the world he decided to buy a Jeep.

There you go. Four commonly used expressions or names that may have really interesting stories behind them. Here’s your chance to become a part-time etymologist and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised at how these goodies may have come about!


Comment from Sam Simian
June 18, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Here are some “guesses” at the “goodies”:

1. Ah, poor old Mr. Riley. I hear he’s passed on. So when is the family going to hold the wake.
“In the 1500s, lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey,” …. “The combination would sometimes knock people out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take 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.”
wake (n.2)
“state of wakefulness,” O.E. – wacu (as in nihtwacu “night watch”), related to watch; and partly from O.N. vaka “vigil, eve before a feast,” related to vaka “be awake” (cf. O.H.G. wahta “watch, vigil,” M.Du. wachten “to watch, guard;” see wake (v.)). Meaning “a sitting up at night with a corpse” is attested from 1412 (the verb in this sense is recorded from c.1250). The custom largely survived as an Irish activity. Wakeman (c.1200), which survives as a surname, was M.E. for “watchman.”

2. It’s wonderful how successful Karen’s been in business. Good for her! You know, I understand that her family was dirt poor when she was a kid.
“In the 1500s, the floors for poor people were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying dirt poor.”
“There is no evidence that the term dirt poor was used in any context before the 20th century. One theory suggests that its origins lie in the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma, where drought and poverty combined to create some of the most horrific living conditions in American history; but direct evidence is lacking.”

3. Is that a bottle of tincture of violet I see on your bathroom counter? Isn’t that used to cure trench mouth?
“In the 1500s, most people didn’t have pewter plates …, they all had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. They never washed their boards and a lot of times worms would get into the wood. After eating off the trencher with worms, they would get trench mouth.”
“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of trench mouth was in 1918. The trenches referred to were those of trench warfare, as with .trench foot. Among doctors, trench mouth is known as ‘acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis,’ and it is caused by a bacterial infection of the mouth which is transmitted by sharing water bottles, as among soldiers in trenches.”

4. I know my brother needed a new car, but I can’t understand why in the world he decided to buy a Jeep.
“Jeep 1941, Amer.Eng. military slang, from G.P. ‘general purpose (car),’ but influenced by Eugene the Jeep (who had extraordinary powers but only said ‘jeep’), from E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theater (also home of Popeye the Sailor). Eugene the Jeep first appeared in the strip March 13, 1936.”
“Myths are frustrating, because once they become entrenched in people’s memories, they’re very difficult to pry loose. Jeep is a good example. Many people believe, and many dictionaries will tell you, that it’s a pronunciation of the initials GP, an abbreviation the Army used for its ‘general purpose’ vehicles.

Not true. The name actually comes from Eugene the Jeep, a cartoon character who first appeared in Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theater comic strips in 1936 (the original Popeye cartoons). Eugene was a cute little guy — a fuzzy creature the size of a small dog, with the ability to disappear into the fourth dimension in an emergency and to foresee the future. He ate a diet of orchids and the only sound he made was ‘jeep, jeep.’

Eugene was the Snoopy of his day. He was tremendously popular and was adopted as a sort of mascot by several government contractors and other corporations (including Halliburton, by the way) in the late 1930’s.

When the Army introduced its small all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle in 1941, the little car was manufactured mainly by two big companies, Willys-Overland and Ford. It just happened that Ford, on its models, used the factory designation GP—G for ‘government contract’ and P as a code for 80-inch wheelbase.

So GP was not an Army designation, it did not stand for ‘general purpose,’ and it was not the origin of the name Jeep. When Willys-Overland unveiled its prototype, reporters wanted to know its name. The publicist said, ‘You can call it a Jeep.’ Willys changed hands over the years and now the trademark ‘Jeep’ is owned by Chrysler.

Comment from Grammar Guy
June 18, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Wow! Thanks for all that great information, Sam. I really appreciate your efforts! I, for one, find this stuff fascinating, and I hope others do, too.


Leave a comment on this post