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February 8, 2000

Here's the final installment in our series about the origin of phrases as furnished by an e-mail correspondent. No source is cited for any of this, but I have great faith in the one who sent them to me.

England is old and small. In the 16th century they started to run out of places to bury the dead. So, they would dig up coffins and take the bones to a house, then re-use the grave. In reopening the old coffins, one out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside. They realized with horror that they had been burying people alive. The solution was to tie a string on the corpse's wrist, then lead it through the coffin and up through the ground. There it would be tied to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. Hence on the "graveyard shift" they would know that someone was "saved by the bell," or, he was a "dead ringer."

In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When someone pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Thus the phrase "good night, sleep tight."

ôRule of thumb" is derived from an old English law which stated that a man could not beat his wife with anything wider than his thumb. In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So, in old England, when customers grew unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. Hence the phrase, "mind your P's and Q's."

Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to call for service. "Wet your whistle" is the phrase inspired by this practice.

That winds up the list of phrases and their origins that came to me from a friend via the mysterious e-mail system. No guarantees accompany any of these, but they're all interesting. If nothing else they provide a brief diversion from the monotony of winter.