Let’s chew the fat!

A bell to be saved by?

By Maggie Snyder, Vicksburg Historical Society

First of all, let me be honest with you. Not one speck of research was done by me for this article. I simply picked up an old issue of Antique Week and there it was – the answer to several linguistic questions bugging me for years, explained right there in an article from an Ohio genealogical association.

I had always wondered why we say certain things. Where did sayings and terms like “chew the fat” or “upper crust” originate, anyway? We all know what they mean today, but where did these sayings come from? I just knew the answers were buried somewhere in history – and this article explained ‘em all!

Since early America’s roots are firmly planted in European soil, it’s no wonder the true origins of many common sayings came over on the boat along with our ancestors, some as early as 1500. And, if the explanations for them are accurate, they give us a little glimpse into their daily lives in another time and place.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Now we use that phrase to caution someone not to get carried away and do something that will spoil everything else. But in an earlier time, the meaning was much more literal. Families took their yearly baths in May, filling a big tub with hot water to be shared by all. The men had the privilege of bathing first, followed by the women, followed by the children. Babies were bathed last. By then, of course, the water was so dirty you probably COULD lose someone in it, thus the caution: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

“It’s raining cats and dogs.” Many early European houses had thatched roofs – thick straw, piled high on the roof timbers. The roof provided a relatively warm hideaway during cold weather, so all the dogs and cats (and rats and mice) in the area tended to hole up in the roof. When it rained, the thatch would become slippery, and occasionally a cat or dog would slide off the roof, and it would rain cats and dogs. Things could fall THROUGH the roof as well, posing a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up a nice clean bed. Eventually someone came up with the idea of making a bed with tall corner posts from which a sheet could be draped over the top. And there it was – the beginnings of the four-poster bed with canopy.

“Chew the fat.” Most of us recognize this phrase as meaning to sit around and talk for awhile, but why chew fat? Why not chew the bread? In a very early day pork was expensive, and hard to come by for the common man. Since it was a sign of prosperity to have quantities of pork on hand, when guests came over sometimes the host brought out a hunk of bacon and hung it up to show it off, sort of like an expensive painting or a hunting trophy. It was a sign the man of the house could really bring home the bacon. The host cut a little off his hanging trophy to share with his guests, who would then sit around and chew the fat – ugh!

“Upper crust.” Bread, like bath water, was allocated according to status within the family. Workers or servants received the often-burned bottom of the loaf, the family ate the middle portion, and any guests present at the table got the top portion, or the upper crust.

“Saved by the bell.” We have all been saved by the bell – but not THIS way. When England was starting to run out of suitable places to bury their dead in the 1500s, the decision was made to dig up previously interred coffins, place the bones in a house designated for that use, and reuse the grave when needed.

However, in re-opening these coffins, one out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, suggesting that just maybe these unfortunates had not really been dead at the time of their burial. To avoid this kind of mistake in the future, they began tying a string to the wrist of the supposed corpse, running it up through the coffin and through the ground and then tying it to a bell. Someone was hired to sit out in the graveyard the night after a burial to listen for the ringing of the bell. While working the graveyard shift, he might hear a bell tinkle, meaning that someone’s life was about to be saved by the bell. If no sound was heard, well, the buried corpse was obviously a dead ringer.

Is any of this really true? Who knows? However, it does make one feel pretty sure that while its lots of fun to look back on the “good old days”, maybe they weren’t all that good after all.

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