Historical Truths Behind Old English Sayings

ENGLISH: The History & Origin of Some Popular English Sayings

Do you ever use old English sayings such as “saved by the bell” or hear your grandmother squawk something like, “Heavens, it raining cats and dogs outside!” A lot of people still do yet have no idea where such phrases originate from.

I got a little history lesson the other day which explained the dark truth behind some of these popular figures of speech. I thought I’d share them with those of you who are interested in the English language. Slip them into conversation next time you’re at the pub, or tell granny what she’s actually referring to.


Wedding Bouquet (image: allgraphics123.com) Historical truths behind old English sayings

Old English Sayings: 1. Why brides carry a bouquet at weddings:

England back in the day was a smelly place to live. Most people only bathed once a year (usually in May). Thus most people got married in June because their BO (body odour) wasn’t too bad one month down the line. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any stench.

Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Old English Sayings: 2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater - Historical truths behind old English sayingsBaths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had first dibs on the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last to be bathed were 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.”The rule of thumb - Historical truths behind old English sayings

Old English sayings: 3. “The rule of thumb”

Women had it pretty tough in the old English days. Husbands were allowed to beat their wives by law for anything that they considered to be disobedient. The only condition was the phrase “rule of thumb” (derived from an old English law), which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything thicker than your thumb.

Old English sayings: 4. “It’s raining cats and dogs”

The majority of medieval Brits lived in hovels that had thatched roofs 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 off the roof.

Hence the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

Old English sayings: 5. Why the poor were “dirt poor”

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Besides having bugs, animal droppings and other crap fall from the roof the floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt such as thresh (straw) which was kept in place using wooden planks (hence the saying “threshold”). But for the poor it was plain dirt.

Hence the saying “dirt poor.”

Old English sayings: 6. “Bringing home the bacon”

nci_baconThe dirt poor mostly ate vegetables that they would stew and re-stew in a large cauldron over the fire. Often leftovers would remain in the pot for days on end. However, on special days they would sometimes obtain pork, and 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 on their dirt floors and “chew the fat.”

Old English sayings: 7. Food for thought… or possible death

  • Those with a little money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and often 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 guests got the top, or “upper crust.”
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers right 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 eat and drink, or chew the fat, and wait and see if the poor sod would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

Old English sayings: 8. “Saved by the bell”

This is a reference to boxing and quite literally means to be saved from a beating by the bell that signals the end of a boxing round. The saying does not originate from people being buried alive. However, this was not an uncommon occurance, and several people were so afraid of this happening to them, that they took measures against it – such as by tying a bell connected to a rope around their hands. Here’s how the urban myth goes:

Saved by the bell - Historical truths behind old English sayingsEngland is small – very small relative to the huge population at the time. But the death toll was high and gravediggers started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a “bone-house”, and reuse the graves.

When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, meaning 1 in 25 people had been buried alive. To prevent this from happening 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 (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell.

Thus, any unfortunate drunks could be “saved by the bell!”

  • If you know the origin of any other old English sayings please share them below and help spread a little knowledge!

Want more? See: Shakespearean Phrases: Historical Truths Behind Old English Sayings II


Galen (name), meaning: "Curious One". A lover of language, human ingenuity and the forces of the universe. Hugely drawn towards the mysterious and unknown. Regular laughter and escapism essential.

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9 Responses

  1. bla2222 says:

    what great fun. have shared with several others already.

  2. Sparkplugs says:

    why dont we win every quiz. not just a pretty face

  3. The term “Ceasarian Section” comes from a law
    passed during the rule of Ceasar that if a mother dies while giving birth or just prior to giving birth, an attempt must be made to save the baby. Before this rule was passed, no attempts were ever made to save the baby!

  4. Under normal rules of etiquette, one should always stand up and remove ones hat when a member of Royalty enters the room or some-
    one more senior than yourself. However, there is one exception to this rule. Captains of ships do not need to stand up or remove their hat as they are regarded as the most senior person on board the vessel, and in the old days, there was not enough room to stand up below decks anyway! Furthermore, hats offered protection to ones head in case one did stand up and you hit your head on the roof of the cabin.

  5. Galen says:

    Tapping the admiral

    Although the majority of sailors who died at sea were simply thrown overboard, seamen of higher rank (such as the captain, his first mate and admirals) were preserved in barrels of brandy. Using tubes of pasta (macaroni) as straws, several of the crew would discreetly sip away at the brandy with the bodies in them – a saying that became known as “tapping the admiral.”

    When ships finally reached the shore the cargo crew would often find these barrel-coffins completely empty! I guess months at sea would do that to a lowly sailor.

  6. Galen says:

    Murphy’s Law

    ‘Apparently’ Murphy’s Law can be traced back to a Captain Edward A. Murphy, an American engineer at Muroc, California (later named Edwards Air Force Base). In 1949 Murphy was working on a project to test the effects of sudden braking. Time after time his machinery failed. Exasperated he said unto his technician, “If there is any way to do it wrong, I’ll find it.” John Paul Stapp picked up on Murphy’s phrase and used it at a press conference, which is when it supposedly became a popular catch-phrase.

  7. Kevin Were says:

    You should check your facts. Most of these are discredited origins.

  8. Galen Schultz says:

    Would you mind sharing which ones are perhaps false so that they can be corrected? Afterall, this is a space for sharing and learning

  9. Galen says:

    “As Mad As A Hatter” – submitted by Megan Mckendry

    Back in the 1800’s, hatters used a process called carroting. The hatters would use an orange liquid (mercury nitrate) to help separate the fur. Because workshops and warehouses were so badly ventilated at the time, workers were literally slowly killing themself via mercury poisoning. They would go insane hence the term “as mad as a hatter”

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