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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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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