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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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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