12 Widely Repeated Phrase Origins, Debunked
In the 2010s, people often opened their inboxes to a chain email with the subject line “Life in the 1500s.” It included a collection of the incredible stories behind old sayings like throw the baby out with the bath water and chew the fat. “Incredible” is the operative word: The stories are amazing. Too bad they’re not true—and too bad they’re often repeated as fact. Here’s the real scoop behind the expressions.
1. To Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water
As tall tales would have it, baths in the 16th century consisted of a big tub filled with hot water; the man of the house would bathe first, getting the privilege of the nice clean water. After him, all the other sons and men would bathe, 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.
But here’s the truth: In the 1500s, when “running water” meant the river, filling a large tub with hot water was a monumental task. Something resembling a sponge bath was all most people could manage. In the 19th century, English writers borrowed the German proverb “Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten [to empty out the child with the bath].” The saying first appeared in print in Thomas Murner’s satirical work Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) in 1512. Judging from the woodcut illustrating the saying, mothers were able to fill a tub large enough to bathe a baby, but the child could hardly be lost in the dirty water. In reality, the phrase is unrelated to any actual babies or bathwater, and probably gained popularity because it’s much more evocative than other English phrases like “throw away the wheat with the chaff” or “throw the good away with the bad.”
2. Raining Cats and Dogs
In the 1500s, houses had thatched roofs—thick straw piled high over wood timbers. According to legend, this was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats, and other small animals (like mice, rats, and bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, the straw became slippery, and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, hence the saying it’s raining cats and dogs.
But while mice and rats (not cats and dogs) did burrow into the thatch, even they would have to be on top of the thatch to slide off in the rain. Etymologists offer several theories about the origin of the phrase, which first appeared in print in the 17th century, not the 16th.
Per one theory, the phrase could refer to the well-known enmity between two animals and so allude to the fury of “going at it like cats and dogs.”
Another hypothesis, posited by William and Mary Morris, is that the phrase arose from the medieval belief that witches in the form of black cats rode the storms and from the association of the Norse storm god Odin with dogs and wolves, but since the expression appeared so late, these seem unlikely sources. And to quote linguist Anatoly Liberman of the University of Minnesota (emphasis his), “In Norse mythology, Odin is not a storm god, his ‘animals’ are a horse and two ravens, cats have nothing to do with either Odin or witches, and rain is not connected with any divinity.”
Gary Martin, author of the Meanings and Origins section of the Phrase Finder website, states that there is no evidence for the theory that raining cats and dogs comes from a version of the French word catadoupe, meaning “waterfall.” He calls another possible origin—that rainwater carried the bodies of dead animals and other debris down the filthy streets of English cities in the 17th and 18th centuries—“purely speculative.”
Liberman, meanwhile, has proposed that a clue to the origin might lie with a variant of the phrase—“raining cats and dogs, and pitchforks with their points downward”—which might suggest the cats and dogs aren’t referring to animals. He points to a line from 1592: “In steed of thunderboltes, shooteth nothing but dogboltes, or catboltes.” As one 1918 text explained it, dogboltes and catboltes were terms that “denote, respectively, the iron bars for securing a door or gate, and the bolts for fastening together pieces of timber.” Liberman proposes that “one can imagine that people compared a shower (or better a hailstorm) to heavy instruments falling on their heads from the sky, with thunderbolt supplying a convenient model for the other two words.”
But not everyone is convinced about that explanation either. Pascal Tréguer of Word Histories points out that the dogboltes and catboltes line isn’t referring to the weather (and is instead partial to the fighting explanation). But perhaps these elaborate backstories are gratuitous. Raining cats and dogs may simply be an imaginative way of describing a pounding storm.
3. Bring Home the Bacon
As legend would have it, pork wasn’t available to everyone in the 1500s, so when a person could obtain the meat, it 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.”
There are a lot of stories about origins of the phrase bring home the bacon, and none of them is the one above. Some writers trace the expression to catching the greased pig at a fair and bringing it home as a prize. Others claim the origin is in a centuries-old English custom of awarding a “flitch of bacon” (side of pork) to married couples (or at least men) who could swear to not having regretted their marriage for a year and a day. Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” refers to the custom, which still survives in a few English villages. One problem, though: The phrase did not appear in print until 1906, when a New York newspaper quoted a telegram from the mother of a prizefighter telling him “[Y]ou bring home the bacon.” Soon, many sportswriters covering boxing picked up the expression.
4. Dirt Poor
One oft-repeated origin for this phrase is that, back in the olden days, floors were dirt, and only the wealthy had something other than dirt.
While people may have had dirt floors at the relevant period, that’s irrelevant for the phrase, which seems to have originated centuries later—on the other side of an ocean. The phrase dirt poor pops up repeatedly in the 19th century, but sometimes in odd places: In 1860, for instance, a type of guano is described as “nearly ‘dirt poor’ as a fertilizer,” while in 1865, it’s a mine that’s being called “dirt poor.” Things start getting closer to the current meaning in 1885, when a North Carolina newspaper discussed how cotton was impoverishing farmers and leading to foreclosed mortgages. This meant “the eastern merchants’ capital is being invested in real estate and they are becoming dirt poor.” WordOrigins.org speculates the phrase is related to the modern phrase house poor, and meant a farmer had land but little cash. But by the late 1880s, it began to refer to someone who had little cash, period.
According to tall tales, the word threshold can be traced back to wealthy homeowners who had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entry way—hence, a “thresh hold.”
Yes, rushes or reeds were used to cover floors, but that’s irrelevant. Though rushes were sometimes known as “thresh” in the Scots language, threshold has a different origin. It comes from therscold or threscold, which is related to German dialect Drischaufel. The first element is possibly related to thresh (in a Germanic sense, “tread”), but the origin of the second element is unknown. (Liberman suggests that it originally referred to a threshing floor—i.e., the place where grain was separated from the plant—but then, for reasons unknown, underwent a change in meaning.)
6. Chew the Fat
According to tall tales, the origin of this phrase can be traced back to social occasions when people would cut off a little bacon to share with guests. They would all sit around and “chew the fat.”
The Oxford English Dictionary equates chew the fat with chew the rag. Both expressions date not from the 16th century but from the late 19th century and mean “to discuss a matter, [especially] complainingly; to reiterate an old grievance; to grumble; to argue; to talk or chat; to spin a yarn.” In Life in the ranks of the British Army in India and on Board a Troopship (1885), J. Brunlees Patterson speaks of “the various diversions of whistling, singing, arguing the point, chewing the rag, or fat.” In other words, chewing the fat is an idle exercise of the gums. It has nothing to do with chewing actual fat.
7. Dead Ringer
As internet tales would have it, England is small and eventually started running out of places to bury people—so, at one point in history, it was common practice to dig up coffins, take the bones to a “bone-house,” and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside … meaning people had been buried alive. To prevent this, undertakers decided to 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. This led to people being “saved by the bell” or being considered a “dead ringer.”
It’s a catchy story, but far from the truth. It is true that for centuries the fear of being buried alive was very real, but it’s unclear how much it actually happened—in the 19th century, doctors attempted to verify some of the stories and continually failed. According to one 1897 report, a group of physicians who had been consulted on the matter “were unanimous in their opinions. None of them had ever known or heard of a duly authenticated case of burial alive.” But that didn’t stop lurid headlines, nor did it stop enterprising inventors in the very late 18th and early 19th century from creating signaling systems. And, yes, some of these did involve bells.
But all that has nothing to do with the origin of the expression dead ringer. Ringer is slang for a look-alike horse, athlete, etc. fraudulently substituted for another in a competition or sporting event. It comes from an earlier slang verb to ring or to ring the changes, meaning “to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item.” (Ring the changes harkens back to “change-ringing”: using a team of bell ringers to play tunes on church bells.) The ringer was originally the person doing the fraudulent swap; later, the word came to refer to the substituted competitor. Dead is used in the sense “absolute, exact, complete,” as in “dead ahead” or “dead easy.” So a dead ringer is an exact look-alike.
8. Saved by the Bell
Some peg the origins of saved by the bell to the above coffin contraptions, while others believe it’s tied to the ardent prayers of students to be spared of answering a tough question by the clanging of the end-of-period bell. But in reality, the classroom meaning is an extension of what’s believed to be the original source of the phrase: boxing. Saved by the bell originally meant to be saved from being counted out by the bell at the end of a round, and was first documented in the late 19th century.
9. Graveyard Shift
If the legends debunked above were true (which they’re not), it would follow that if a dead ringer was to be saved by the bell, someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for its ringing—which, according to legend, is the origin of the phrase the graveyard shift. But graveyard shifts have nothing to do with literal graveyards, just the lonesome, uneasy feeling of working in the dark silence of the midnight hours.
The expression first appears in the late 19th century. In 1888, a report on gambling houses mentioned “The after midnight early morning run is called the graveyard shift.” In August 1906, a piece entitled “Ghosts in Deep Mines” noted, “And of all superstitions there are none more weird than those of the ‘graveyard’ shift … usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.” Sailors similarly had a “graveyard watch,” usually from midnight to 4 a.m. According to Gershom Bradford in A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927), the watch was so called “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time,” but another source attributes the term to the silence throughout the ship.
10. Trench Mouth
According to legend, most people in the 1500s did not have pewter plates, but instead used trenchers—pieces of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often, trenchers were made from stale bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get “trench mouth.”
Here are the facts: Trencher, from Anglo-Norman, is related to modern French trancher, to cut or slice. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it appeared in English in the 1300s and could refer to a knife, a piece of wood where food was both cut and served, a “platter of wood, metal, or earthenware,” or “a slice of bread used instead of a plate or platter.”
Wooden carving boards can be breeding grounds for pathogens, but they have nothing to do with the origin of the phrase trench mouth. One of the earliest mentions of the term appears in the journal Progressive Medicine in 1917. If that date makes you think of World War I and trench warfare, you’re right. Trench mouth is ulcerative gingivitis caused not by worms or mold, but by bacteria, probably spread among troops in the trenches when they shared water bottles.
11. Upper Crust
Supposedly, in the old days, 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.”
An isolated source does hint at such a custom. One of the first printed books on household management, John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, circa 1460, says (summarized in modern English), “Take a loaf … and lay [a trencher] before your lord; lay four trenchers four-square, and another on the top. Take a loaf of light bread, pare the edges, cut the upper crust for your lord.” It’s not clear whether the upper crust was considered the tastiest nibble or the sturdiest substitute for a plate, but such instructions have cropped up nowhere else. Over the centuries, the phrase upper crust appears in reference to the earth’s surface, bread, and pies. But it’s not until the 19th century that we it came to be used to mean “upper class,” so the connection with the apportioning of a loaf is dubious.
In the 19th century, upper crust appeared as a slang term for the human head or a hat. In 1826, The Sporting Magazine reported, “Tom completely tinkered his antagonist’s upper-crust.” Most likely it’s simply the idea of the upper crust being the top that made it a metaphor for the aristocracy. Here’s how Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it in 1838’s The Clockmaker; or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville: “It was none o’ your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”
Back in the day, lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. According to legend, the combination of lead and booze would sometimes knock a person out for a couple of days, and 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 and wait and see if they would wake up—hence the custom of holding a “wake.”
But the truth is that while people had pewter cups, which contained lead, lead poisoning is generally a gradual, cumulative process. If anyone got knocked out from drinking mass quantities of ale from a pewter cup, they couldn’t blame the lead.
That lead part is bogus, but the practice in many world societies of holding a wake for the dead may have come about at least partly from the fear of burying them prematurely. But the word wake in this case doesn’t derive from the act of waking up—it’s more like “watch” or “vigil.”
Additional Sources: Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear; “Food and Drink in Elizabethan England,” Daily Life through History; Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed.); ”English Ale and Beer: 16th Century,” Daily Life through History; Of Nurture (in Early English Meals and Manners, Project Gutenberg; Domestic architecture: containing a history of the science; “Housing in Elizabethan England,” Daily Life through History Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 1971; New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd ed.
This story combines two pieces previously published in 2014 and 2016. It has been updated with new research for 2022.