Some idioms entered English almost 500 years ago!

By Professor Robert Wilde.                                  May 2009

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and were still smelling, well, not too bad by June. But even so, the bride carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any bad smells from her body. You see, having a bath caused a lot of work. The family would have to heat up a big tub of water, and a family could only afford to heat up one tub.  So the whole family used the same water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then the sons and other men, then  the women and finally the children, and last of all the babies. By then, the water was so dirty you could actually lose sight of someone in it! Hence the saying, Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. This means be careful what you throw out – check first to see there is nothing valuable hidden in it!

Houses had thatched roofs. Thick dried grass plants piled high with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets - dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats and insects lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would fall off the roof. Hence the saying, It's raining cats and dogs, to mean ‘it’s raining heavily’. We still say this even now!

Families cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables and didn't get much meat. Sometimes, if they were lucky, they could get some pork and would feel really special when that happened. When visitors came, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show how lucky they were. Bacon was a sign that you were rich and even today we say that a husband’s job is to bring home the bacon, i.e., to provide a good life for his family. Sometimes, the family would give some of the bacon fat to their guests and they all sat round the table chewing it – it was difficult to eat it because the fat was tasty but hard. As they chewed, they talked – and nowadays in America and in England, to talk with friends is often called chewing the fat.

What about bread?. People made their own bread and those who got the worst bit, the burnt bottom of the loaf, were the workers. The family got the middle, but the top, the best bit, called the upper crust, went to the guests. Upper crust has come to mean the top rank of society in modern-day Britain. Prince Harry and Prince William are very ‘upper crust’.

I’m not upper crust I’m afraid. Not yet, anyway!

Vocabulary Help

Hence =


Thatched  =

a traditional thatched roof is normally made of straw. A thatcher is the craftsman who makes it.

There are still many thatched cottages in England.

kettle -

nowadays a covered pot only used to boil water, found in nearly all British homes.

Crust =

The hard outer surface of a loaf of bread

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