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Currently Used Everyday Phrases Need Explaining

Here in rural Ireland in particular, we use English everyday phrases with little understanding of their age or initial origin. So where did these, often descriptive, phrases originate?

“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs”: How often have you heard the phrase, “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs outside”.  This saying is associated with the days, back when a large amount of homes had thick thatched straw or reed roofs, supported strongly with thick, wooden branches underneath. (Pic. 1 hereunder.)   Same straw/reed thatched low roofs would often become home to domestic animals on cold winter nights; all attempting to keep themselves warm against freezing conditions, e.g. cats and dogs.  When it rained the reed or straw would become slimy and sometimes the animals would slip and fall from the roof, particularly when cats went searching for mice, who also shared their thatched environment.

                (Pic. 1)                                                            (Pic. 2)                                           (Pic. 3)

“Dirt Poor”: The description “Dirt Poor”, came from the fact that floors in most labourer’s cottages were simply dry clay/dirt upon which the house had been originally built. Only those wealthy could afford flag limestone or slate floors.

“Carry a Bride Over the Threshold”: So too the phrase, “Carrying a Bride Over the Threshold”.  A threshold, as most people are aware, is usually a piece of timber planking or cut stone, forming the bottom of a doorway and crossed when entering any house or out-office. In earlier times floors coated in flag limestone or slate became greasy with muck and water carried in on boots and shoes. To avoid slipping, on wet well-travelled floors particularly in Inns, Hostelry’s and farmhouse kitchens; same were kept covered in threshed straw, with a board across the doorway to hold the straw back at the entrance, hence “Thresh Hold”.

To deviate slightly; the necessity to carry a bride over the threshold first began with the ancient Romans. The bride had to show, and even sometimes pretend, that she was not at all excited about leaving her father’s home, and so she had to be dragged across the threshold of her new groom’s house. Ancients believed also that evil spirits could curse the newly married couple, and would wait at the threshold of their new home.  To avoid this curse the bride had to be lifted up to ensure that the evil spirits could not enter her body through the soles of her feet. These days, this exercise is carried out just for fun; then again, based on a few brides I have met in the past, the custom could have some basic truth. 😉

“Sleep Tight and Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite”: “Sleep Tight”, which was later enlarged to “Sleep Tight and Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite”; comes from way back in the 1500’s and indeed long before, when middle and upper-class persons began sleeping on wooden bed frames to avoid sleeping on damp floors. These bed frames were strung from side to side with heavy lengths of rope, which in turn supported a stuffed mattress. These ropes would stretch over time, forming a hollow in the bed, so it became necessary to tighten them. Hence the saying, “Sleep tight.”

Later of course was added, “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite”, referring to the need for a canopy over the bed. (Pic. 2 above.)    It may have been “Raining Cats and Dogs” outside, but with straw or reed roofs, there was little to stop creepy crawler’s, dust, foreign matter and mice falling from non-plastered ceilings inside the house; messing up your bed linen. It now became necessary to construct bed frames with four tall posts at each corner, covered over with cloth to offer roof protection to sleepers. Curtains around the beds would be later added to cut down on draughts.  With the move to plastered interior ceilings, along came the ‘Half Canopy Bed’, (Pic. 3 above.) making sure to protect just the heads of those sleeping on their backs, snoring, with their mouths wide open.

Of course the belief that we all swallow, in our sleep, eight spiders on average each year is a total myth; flying in the face of both a spider’s intelligence and human biology, making it most unlikely that a live spider would ever end up in a mouth breathing out hot air in the first place.


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