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6 Widely Repeated Phrase Origins—Debunked!

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Recently we busted some myths about the popular email “Life in the 1500s.” Here are the rest of the tall tales, shrunk to fit reality.

1. Dead ringer

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The Tall Tale: England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer."

The Facts: Snopes.com rounds up many accounts of live burial, feared and real, including only one instance of scratch marks purportedly discovered in a coffin lid. The idea of a signaling system inside a coffin didn’t occur until the late 19th century, when Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to the Tsar, after hearing a horrifying account of girl nearly buried alive, patented a safety coffin. The slightest movement of the chest or arms of the body inside the coffin would trigger a complex mechanism to admit air into the coffin, ring a bell and wave a flag above.

But all that has nothing to do with the origin of the expression dead ringer. Ringer is slang for a look-alike horse, athlete, etc. fraudulently substituted for another in a competition or sporting event. It comes from an earlier slang verb to ring or to ring the changes, meaning to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item. (Ring the changes harkens back to “change-ringing”: using a team of bell ringers to play tunes on church bells.) The ringer was originally the person arranging the fraudulent swap; later it came to mean the substituted competitor. Dead is used in the sense "absolute, exact, complete," as in “dead ahead” or “dead right.” So a dead ringer is an exact look-alike.

2. Saved by the bell

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The origin of saved by the bell is not in coffin contraptions or even the ardent prayers of students to be spared of answering a tough question by the clanging of the end-of-period bell. The classroom meaning is an extension of the original source of the phrase: boxing. It means to be saved from being counted out by the bell at the end of a round, and is first documented in the early 20th century.

 3. Graveyard shift

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The graveyard shift has nothing to with literal graveyards, just the lonesome, uneasy feeling of working in the dark silence of the midnight hours. The expression first appears in the late 19th century. In 1895, the New Albany Evening Tribune for May 15 has a story about coal mining that begins, “It was dismal enough to be on the graveyard shift…” On August 17, 1906, Marshall, Michigan's The Marshall Expounder, in a piece entitled “Ghosts in Deep Mines,” says, “And of all superstitions there are none more weird than those of the ‘graveyard’ shift…usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.” Sailors similarly had a “graveyard watch,” usually from midnight to 4 a.m. According to Gershom Bradford in A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927), the watch was so called “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time,” but another source attributes the term to the silence throughout the ship.

4. Upper crust

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The Tall Tale: Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

The Facts: An isolated source hints at such a custom. One of the first printed books on household management, John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, circa 1460, says (translated into modern English), “Take a loaf…and lay [a trencher] before your lord; lay four trenchers four-square, and another on the top. Take a loaf of light bread, pare the edges, cut the upper crust for your lord.” It’s not clear whether the upper crust was considered the tastiest nibble or the sturdiest substitute for a plate, but such instructions have cropped up nowhere else. Over the centuries, the phrase upper crust appears in reference to the earth’s surface, bread and pies. But it’s not until the 19th century that we find it used to mean upper class, so the connection with the apportioning of a loaf is dubious.

In the 19th century, upper crust appears as a slang term for the human head or a hat. In 1826, The Sporting Magazine reported, “Tom completely tinkered his antagonist’s upper-crust.” Most likely it’s simply the idea of the upper crust being the top that made it a metaphor for the aristocracy. Here’s how Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it in 1838's The Clockmaker; or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville:It was none o' your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

5. Trench mouth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Tall Tale: Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, pieces of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

The Facts: Trencher, from Anglo-Norman, is related to modern French trancher, to cut or slice. It appears in English in the 1300s meaning either a knife; a flat piece of wood on which meat was sliced and served; a platter of wood, metal or earthenware; or a slice of bread used as a plate or platter.

Wooden carving boards can be breeding grounds for pathogens, but they have nothing to do with the origin of the phrase trench mouth. One of the earliest mentions of the term appears in the journal Progressive Medicine in 1917. If that date makes you think of World War I and trench warfare, you’re right. Trench mouth is ulcerative gingivitis caused not by worms or mold, but by bacteria, probably spread among troops in the trenches when they shared water bottles.

6. Wake

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The Tall Tale: Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock a person out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up—hence the custom of holding a "wake."

The Facts: The English could hold their ale in the 16th century. It was considered more healthful than water and was part of daily life, even for breakfast. Strong liquor (except for brandy, “a woman’s drink”) was not popular. Some people had pewter cups, which contained lead, but lead poisoning is generally a gradual, cumulative process. If anyone got knocked out from drinking mass quantities of ale from a pewter cup, don’t blame the lead. Nevertheless, the practice in many world societies of holding a wake for the dead arose at least partly from the fear of burying them prematurely. In the British Isles, the Christian wake, an all-night service of prayers for the dead, may have been influenced by the Celtic pagan wake in which the corpse was placed under a table on which liquor was provided for the watchers. Over the years, both types of wakes degenerated into scenes of drunken debauchery.

Sources: Access Newspaper Archive; Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear; "Food and Drink in Elizabethan England," Daily Life through History; Google Books Ngram Viewer; “Lead poisoning,” MedlinePlus; Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed.); "English Ale and Beer: 16th Century," Daily Life through History; Oxford English Dictionary Online; Of Nurture (in Early English Meals and Manners, Project Gutenberg); Snopes.com; “Wake,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958); Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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