POSTED BY: Pat Kinsley

Did you ever wonder? Origins of well-known phrases

23rd Jul, 2018

Did you ever wonder? Origins of well-known phrases

Do you ever wonder about the meaning behind certain phrases or sayings? I’m sure I’m not alone in using a number of well-known expressions in my daily conversations, yet never giving a moment to think where they come from or what they actually mean.

On a very recent trip back home to visit the folks in NYC, I found myself sitting at a funeral. While there I started to read through the church missalette, catching up and familiarising myself with the local goings-on. The publication included a piece that totally absorbed me – I wasn’t sure why it was included in a church read but as the day went on I realised that one of the core beliefs behind mass is focused around opportunities to reflect and learn.

This was certainly one visit to church that has enlightened me. I hope that the following enlightens you as it did me.

June weddings and carrying bouquets 

In the 1500s, most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour – hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Baths consisted of a tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children, Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it – hence the saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

It’s raining cats and dogs

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof – hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.” There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed – hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how the canopy beds came into existence.

Dirt poor

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt – hence the saying “dirt poor.”  The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing.

Thresh hold

As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until when you opened the door it would start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway, – hence the saying a “thresh hold.”

Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old

They also cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Stew had food in it that had been there for a while – hence the rhyme “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

Bring home the bacon and chew the fat

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.”  They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”

Upper crust

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of it to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous. Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle and the guests got the top, or “Upper crust.”


Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and wait to see if they would wake up – hence the custom of holding a “wake.”


When they started running out of places to bury people, they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to the “bonehouse” and reuse the grave.

Graveyard shift, saved by the bell and dead ringer

When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins was found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night “graveyard shift” to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer.”

Credit: Our Lady of Victories R.C. Church, Harrington Park, New Jersey


One of the original Brand Thinkers on this Island, Pat has spent the last 33 years extolling the virtues of branding as an essential commercial device that improves every company’s bottom-line. A native of New York City, he brought this passion to Dublin City and now it travels with him wherever he goes!