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10 Wacky Whoppers About the Origins of Popular 18th Century Phrases

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The history hoaxers are at it again. On the heels of “Life in the 1500s”—the viral email filled with phony phrase etymologies (which we debunked here and here)—comes another popular email loaded with even bigger whoppers. This time it’s called “Little History Lesson” and it purports to trace common sayings back to 18th century customs. Here are the tall tales and the facts.

1. Cost an arm and a leg

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The Tall Tale: In George Washington's days, there were no cameras. One's image was either sculpted or painted. Some paintings of Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms. Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are limbs, therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, "Okay, but it'll cost you an arm and a leg.”

The Facts: Usually, the more people depicted, the bigger the painting, thus the heftier the price—but there never was a limb-tally system of pricing for artworks. The expression “to cost an arm and a leg” is a metaphor about precious body parts. The similar line “I’d give my right arm…” dates from the early 1600s. The phrase “an arm and a leg” rattled off the tongue easily before it was used to signify an exorbitant price. After the American Civil War, Congress enacted a special pension for soldiers who had lost both an arm and a leg. The phrase “cost an arm and a leg” begins to crop up in newspaper archives in 1901, referring to accidents and war injuries. In 1949, it shows up in the figurative sense. The Long Beach Independent reported, "Food editor Beulah Karney has … ideas for the homemaker who wants to say 'Merry Christmas' and not have it cost an arm and a leg."

2. Big wig

The Tall Tale: As incredible as it sounds, we are informed that men and women took baths only twice a year, in May and October. Women always kept their hair covered while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs. The wigs couldn't be washed so to clean them, they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term "big wig." Today we often use the term "here comes Mr. Big Wig" because someone appears to be or is powerful and wealthy.

The Facts: Of all the half-baked ideas! Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, sure, but a wig in a bread shell? Not unless you want perruque flambée. On the other hand, the English of the 18th century bathed even less than twice a year. Those who could afford to take the cure at a mineral spa or seaside retreat might have a full-body bath once a year. But folks kept clean with sponge baths. Most men kept their hair close cropped to fit under their wigs, which came in a range of prices and could be (carefully) washed. And yes, the big shots had the big, fancy wigs and were known by the snarky term “big-wigs” since at least 1703. Their egos might have been inflated, but their wigs were not puffed up in the oven.

3. Chairman of the board

The Tall Tale: In the late 1700s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair. Commonly, a long wide board was folded down from the wall and used for dining. The "head of the household" always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while an invited guest—who was almost always a man—would be offered to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. While sitting in the chair, one was called the "chair man of the board." Today in business we use the expression/title "Chairman of the Board."

The Facts: Um, no. The tables didn’t fold down from the wall and a table the right height for someone seated in a chair would leave the underlings on the floor blindly groping over their heads for food. Even humble cottages had tables and chairs. “Board” has meant a table used for meals since the 1200s. By the 1500s it also meant a table at which a council is held—and hence, the group of people who meet at a council table, and by extension, those charged with supervising a particular business. Since the 1600s, “chairman” has meant one who occupies a chair of authority, specifically the person chosen to preside over a meeting.

4. Mind your own beeswax

The Tall Tale: Needless to say, personal hygiene back in those days left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread beeswax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told "mind your own beeswax." Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term "crack a smile." Also, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt and therefore the expression "losing face."

The Facts: From the ancient Romans to the San people of the Kalahari, folks have slathered their faces with everything from sheep sweat to pulverized pearls or nightingale poop in hopes of achieving smooth, radiant skin. The Greek physician Galen is said to have developed the first cold cream in the second century AD. Although it contained beeswax, it was a creamy, rose-scented mixture of water and olive oil, not the hot, hardening, hair-stripping wax treatment we know and fear today. The 18th century English did use painful plasters to remove hair, but they had no cure for the pockmarks caused by acne, smallpox or syphilis ("The Pox"). Instead of camouflaging the pockmarks, they turned them into fashion statements, covering them with boldly colored silk or leather “patches” cut into stars, dots and other shapes.

If you think "Mind your own beeswax" sounds like more like a gum-snapping bottle-blond chorus girl of the 1930s than a bewigged 18th century lady, you're right. “Beeswax” is an intentional mispronunciation of “business,” probably meant to sound cute and soften the blow of telling someone to buzz off. Google Books first documents it in 1939. A related expression, “That’s none of your beeswax,” shows up in a 1929 children’s book.

5. Crack a smile

The Facts: There’s nothing mysterious about “Crack a smile.” It’s just a figure of speech meaning to suddenly break or burst into a grin.

6. Lose face

The Facts: “To lose face” is a translation of a Chinese expression, meaning to lose one’s good name or reputation—the face one presents to the world. English traders of the early 19th century picked up the metaphor from their dealings with the Chinese.

7. Straight laced

The Tall Tale: Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in "straight laced."

The Facts: This expression does have to do with corsets, but not because the lacing made someone’s posture straight and upright. Although “straight laced” is now considered an acceptable spelling, the phrase was originally “strait laced,” meaning constricted or narrow. And yes, that other expression is (redundantly) “the strait and narrow,” the restricted path proper people were expected to follow. “Strait,” “strict,” and “restrict” are just a few of the words derived from Latin stringere, to strain. Explore more here.

8. Playing with a full deck

The Tall Tale: Common entertainment in the 1700s included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards—but it was only applicable to the "ace of spades." To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't "playing with a full deck."

The Facts: "Not playing with a full deck" has nothing to do with loopy people looking for tax loopholes. Like "missing a few marbles," it's a smart-aleck description for someone lacking smarts. The metaphor has spawned a plethora of variations like "His dipstick doesn't quite touch the oil," “batteries not included,” and "one taco short of a combo platter."

9. Gossip

The Tall Tale: Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people. Since there were no telephones, TVs, or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars to "go sip some ale" and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times: "you go sip here" and "you go sip there." The two words "go sip" were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion, and thus, we have the term "gossip."

The Facts: Exactly 1000 years ago, in 1014, godsibb, the ancestor of the word “gossip,” meant a sponsor at a baptism—a godmother or godfather, from god + sib, a relative. It came to mean a friend or chum, a person to chat with, and eventually, someone (yes, a woman, usually) who delights in idle talk. By the early 19th century, it meant the idle talk or groundless rumors themselves.

10. Minding your P’s and Q’s

The Tall Tale: At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint and quart sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in pints and who was drinking in quarts. Hence the term "minding your P's and Q's."

The Facts: The origin of “minding one’s P’s and Q’s” has stumped even the redoubtable etymologists at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). They are not ready to confirm or deny that the expression arose from the tracking of pints and quarts, but they have amassed a slew of citations that offer several other possibilities. In the earliest from 1602—“Now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou hast such a villanous broad backe”—Pee and Kue seems to be some kind of apparel. Some have suggested the phrase springs from admonishing sailors not to stain their pea coats with their tarry pigtails, but that doesn’t fit the context of the 1602 quotation.

The OED dismisses the idea that the saying sprung from parents reminding their children (in baby talk) to remember their “pleases and thank-yous,” since those words were not a set phrase before the 20th century. Another suggestion is that phrase originally had to do with a beginning reader learning to distinguish the lower case letters p and q. Although the OED editors protest that interpretation conflicts with the meaning in the 1602 “Pee and Kue” quotation, it’s possible that “Pee and Kue” is unrelated to “P’s and Q’s." There is a quotation from Charles Churchill, dating from 1763, that conforms to the sense of knowing one’s alphabet and, by extension, proper behavior: “On all occasions next the chair He stands for service of the Mayor, And to instruct him how to use His A's and B's, and P's and Q's.” That fits to a T.

Sources: Access Newspaper Archive; Artificial Face; "Cosmetics," "Health and Medicine in England: 17th and 18th Centuries," "Male Clothing in England: 17th and 18th Centuries," "Skin Care Practices," Daily Life through History; Google Books Ngram Viewer; "History of Make-up," Oxford English Dictionary Online; Slang: The Topical Dictionary of Americanisms.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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