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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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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
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When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
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Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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