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February 1, 2000

Many phrases have found their way into our everyday conversation, and even our literature. They are sometimes colorful and usually enable a better understanding of the subject under discussion. Most often we see them or hear them collectively and pay no real attention to the individual words being used. Together, they constitute a phrase that brings forth a mental image. Rarely do we take time to think about the origin of phrases. So it's a surprise when we examine the words in a phrase and realize they don't always make sense. An e-mail correspondent has furnished me with a collection of some frequently used phrases along with an explanation of their source. "There really is some logic to the phrases," my correspondent notes. "However, the logic got lost over the centuries. Note the influence of the English-speaking people of the 1500's on our grandparents and parents." Here's a sampling:

Most people in the 1500's got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and were still smelling pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.

Baths equaled 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."

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 and other small animals such as 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."

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 really mess up your nice clean bed. So, they found that if they made beds with big posts and hung a sheet over the top, it addressed that problem. Hence those beautiful big four-poster beds with canopies.

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 when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they kept adding thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. To prevent this, a piece of wood was placed at the entry. Hence, a "thresh hold."

These were interesting to me and to you, too, I hope. If so, we'll take a look at some more phrases in another column.