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7 Tall Tales About Life in the 1500s and the Origins of Phrases

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It hits your email inbox with surprising regularity: “Life in the 1500s,” a collection of the incredible stories behind old sayings like "throw the baby out with the bath water" and "chew the fat." "Incredible" is the operative word. The stories are amazing; too bad they're not true. Here’s the real scoop behind the first set of the expressions in this prank email.

1. To throw the baby out with the bath water

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The Tall Tale: Baths consisted of 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."

The Facts: In the 1500s, when “running water” meant the river, filling a large tub with hot water was a monumental task. A wet-cloth version of a sponge bath was all most people could manage. In the 19th century, English writers borrowed the German proverb “Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten] [to throw the baby out with the bath water].” The saying first appeared in print in Thomas Murner’s satirical work Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) in 1512. Judging from the woodcut illustrating the saying, mothers were able to fill a tub large enough to bathe a baby, but the child could hardly be lost in the dirty water.

2. To rain cats and dogs

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The Tall Tale: 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 dogs, cats, and other small animals (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."

The Facts: Mice and rats (not cats and dogs) did burrow into the thatch, but even they would have to be on top of the thatch to slide off in the rain. Etymologists offer several theories about the origin of the phrase, which first appeared in print in the 17th century, not the 16th:

• It could refer to the well-known enmity between two animals and so allude to the fury of “going at it like cats and dogs.”

• William and Mary Morris suggest that the phrase arose from the medieval belief that witches in the form of black cats rode the storms and from the association of the Norse storm god Odin with dogs and wolves, but since the expression appeared so late, these seem unlikely sources.

• Gary Martin, author of the Meanings and Origins section of the Phrase Finder website, states that there is no evidence for the theory that “raining cats and dogs” comes from a version of the French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall. Instead, Martin proposes that, “The much more probable source of 'raining cats and dogs' is the prosaic fact that, in the filthy streets of 17th/18th century England, heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals and other debris…Jonathan Swift described such an event in his satirical poem 'A Description of a City Shower,' first published in the 1710 collection of the Tatler magazine.”

• But then again, Swift was noted for his flights of fancy and the phrase had been used since the mid-1600s. Perhaps these elaborate backstories are gratuitous. “Raining cats and dogs” may simply be an imaginative way of describing a pounding storm.

3. Dirt poor

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The Tall Tale: The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt—hence the saying "dirt poor."

The Facts: In the simplest cottages, the floor might be packed dirt, but those who could afford them had wooden floors. “Dirt poor” is an American expression first documented in the 1930s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and a search of Google Books backs up the claim.

4. Threshold

The Tall Tale: The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entry way—hence, a "thresh hold."

The Facts: The wealthy had wooden floors. The boards were rough, so they were covered either with carpets or, yes, rushes or reeds, but these were usually changed daily. Although in Scots dialect reeds were sometimes known as “thresh,” threshold has a different origin. It comes from therscold or threscold, which is related to German dialect Drischaufel. The first element is related to thresh (in a Germanic sense, "tread"), but the origin of the second element is unknown.

5. Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold

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The Tale: They cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while—hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

The Facts: OK, this one is actually true (except for the claim that anyone likes it cold). Pease, as it’s often spelled in the chant, is an archaic spelling of “peas,” so pease porridge is what we now call “pea soup.”

6. To bring home the bacon

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The Tall Tale: Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon."

The Facts: Some writers trace the expression “bring home the bacon” to catching the greased pig at a fair and bringing it home as a prize. Others claim the origin is in an English custom dating from the 12th century of awarding a “flitch of bacon” (side of pork) to married couples who can swear to not having regretted their marriage for a year and a day. Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” refers to the custom, which still survives in a few English villages. One problem, though: The phrase did not appear in print until 1906, when a New York newspaper quoted a telegram from the mother of a prizefighter telling him “[Y]ou bring home the bacon.” Soon many sportswriters covering boxing picked up the expression.

7. Chew the fat

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The Tall Tale: They would cut off a little [bacon] to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."

The Facts: The Oxford English Dictionary equates “chew the fat” with “chew the rag.” Both expressions date from the late 19th century and mean to discuss a matter, especially complainingly; to reiterate an old grievance; to grumble; to argue; to talk or chat; to spin a yarn. J. Brunlees Patterson in Life in the ranks of the British Army in India and on Board a Troopship (1885), speaks of “the various diversions of whistling, singing, arguing the point, chewing the rag, or fat.” In other words, “chewing the fat” is an idle exercise of the gums that produces little nourishment.

Sources: Domestic architecture: containing a history of the science; “Flitch of Bacon,” Wikipedia; "Housing in Elizabethan England," Daily Life through History; Google Books Ngram Viewer; The Phrase Finder; Snopes.com; Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 1971; New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd ed.; Oxford English Dictionary Online.

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History
10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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