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Ancestral Phrases, Sayings and Clichés - Part 2

ANCESTRAL PHRASES, SAYINGS AND CLICHÉSDid you come across familiar sayings in the earlier blog, strange little clichés you have heard all your life?


Here is an additional set of familiar and unusual phrases from our ancestors.


Upper Crust Refers to the high society or wealthier classes in a community.  It originated when making bread in the 1500s was done using a raw lump of dough and placed straight into the bread oven. No bread tin, it just sat on the floor of the oven. The oven was heated by the fire making it very hot at the bottom. When the bed was done baking and taken out to cool, the base of the loaf was overcooked black and also dirty. The top of the loaf was done just right while remaining clean. The bottom of the loaf was reserved for the servants to eat, family members had the middle of the loaf, while the upper crust was for guests and the head of the house.


Cut to the Mustard It means to meet high expectations, if it doesn’t the person or items does not meet those potentials.  The phrase comes from the military, meaning to pass muster or to pass inspection.


Turn the Tables It refers to making changes.  Wooden tables only had one finished side. The other side, less expensive to make, was left as rough wood. When the family was alone, they ate on the rough side to keep the good side nice for company. When company came, the whole top lifted off and was turned to its good side.


Clean Your Plate Before Eating Dessert A mother would say this phrase to her children.  The square plate, besides the pot,  was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is).


Rule of Thumb A good idea or lesson for people to follow. An old English law (1400s) declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.   Also, it was used by bakers in judging flour, the flour being rubbed between thumb and fingers.


Losing Face / Saving Face Refers to not being embarrassed by something you did. The phrase began with the noble ladies and gentlemen of the late 1700s who wore a great deal of makeup to impress each other. Since they rarely bathed, the makeup would get thicker and thicker. If they sat too close to the heat of the fireplace, the makeup would start to melt. If that happened, a servant would move the screen in front of the fireplace to block the heat, so they wouldn’t “lose face.”


Keep Your Pants On  and Keep Your Shirt On These phrases meant to remain calm and to be patient.  When people had a limited number of suitable shirts or pants, they had to care for them.  However, if a man found himself in a position where he needed to do battle or fight, he first removed his shirt or even pants to keep them in good repair.  So by keeping one’s shirt on, they were less likely to fight someone.


Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water It means not to give up on the good and proven methods.   A yearly bath by our ancestors was normal and was done in May.  However, the family filled just one big tub with hot water. The man of the house would bath first getting the privilege of the nice clean water. Then all the other sons and men, next the women and finally  the children, all using that same one tug of water. Last of all were the babies. By then the water was pretty dirty and thick with debris.  It was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. So you had to be careful not to throw the water and the baby out.


Sleep Tight It was a wish for a person to have a good nights rest or sleep.  It began with the construction of bed frames years ago which were strung with ropes (no box springs yet) on which straw mattresses were placed. After some time the ropes would loosen and the straw mattress would sag. So came the need to tighten the ropes for a good night’s rest. NOTE- Your grandmother may have slept on a ‘rope-bed’.


Dirt Poor Refers to the lower class or someone who is very poor.  In the 1500s, many floors in people’s homes were dirt. Those with any money could have a floor of slate or wood.  If a person only had dirt floors, they were the poorest people in the community.


All Right and Okay This is an American term, ‘okay’ and O.K. dates back to 1839. In the local newspaper of Boston, they had deliberately misspelled ‘All Correct’ as ‘Oll Korrect’. It soon became ’O. K.’ abbreviated and used as a slogan for President Van Buren.


Gum up the Works This means when someone messes up a job or project. It originated with the first settlers along America’s east coast who loved to chew the sweet sap from the trees.  This favorite treat was very hard to get out of the trees and extremely sticky.  So a person had to be very careful and not get it all over themselves.


Can you come up with any additional family phrases used by your relatives?

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