My grandmother had a favorite expression that, as a child, I never understood. We had to do something, finished something, be somewhere “before the last dog is hung.” The phrase always made me uneasy, but not nearly as uneasy as when I found out where it originated. It seems Elizabethan England used the gallows to punish a number of crimes, from stealing a loaf of bread to murder. The gallows needed to be tested to make sure the prisoner didn’t…well…dangle. The testing involved hanging a number of dogs, one after the other, until the desired snap of the rope was achieved. London had plenty of stray dogs so I assume they were deemed expendable, but the whole idea still makes me shudder. I doubt my gentle grandmother knew where the phrase came from. I think that’s true of a lot of phrases we use today.
Keeping on topic, another more common phrase, spoken usually with hilarity, is when we tell someone, “I was just pulling your leg.” The origin isn’t quite so funny. When a prisoner was hanged, if the dogs failed to help the jailor get the rope tight enough and the poor guy was still alive, the jailor would pull his leg straight down to finish breaking his neck. Yuck.
Have you ever told someone to “sleep tight?” Do you know where that phrase originated? Beds in the eighteenth century didn’t have box springs. They didn’t have springs at all. They had ropes woven across the bed frame. Ropes loosen with time and with the weight of many bodies. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for travelers to find themselves sharing a bed when they stopped at a tavern for the night. You and your bedmates, whom you quite likely had never seen before, could expect to be issued a ropejack to tighten the ropes as they sagged through the night along with the admonition, “sleep tight.” You could not expect to be given anything to keep away the creepy crawly things that often inhabited the mattress stuffing, so you were on your own on how to obey the rest of that saying, “don’t let the bed bugs bite.” I’ll bet they did, and often.
Ever give someone the “cold shoulder?” Guests in the eighteenth century were frequent at the plantations, and usually welcome as they tended to bring news and provided vital social links. However, roads were bad, the next stop on a journey unpredictable, the food at the plantations better than the inns along the way and some folks tended to overstay their welcome. If so, the signal they should be on it was when they were served a slice of cold shoulder of whatever meat was left over instead of a hot meal. Most got the picture.
There’s lots more. I found many of these while doing research for Murder by Syllabub, much of it at Colonial Williamsburg. The book is set in that vicinity and, while it takes place in modern times, the references to the eighteenth century are crucial to the plot. The research was a lot of fun, and didn’t stop at old sayings. Do you know what a sippit was? No? Or even syllabub? All is explained, along with what to stuff a chicken with when you cook it over a spit, in the book.
Oh, and if you want to know how the term, “loose woman” came about, leave me a comment. I’ll be happy to explain. Website http://www.kathleendelaney.net/