The Rule of Thumb

I am fascinated to know the origin of sayings and clichés. I have several books on the subject. My grandmother and mother had a trove of sayings and my brothers and I use them frequently but I notice that most younger people do not “GET” them. One old saying I do NOT use is “RULE OF THUMB” because it stems from the fact that in old English law a man was allowed to punish his wife and children with a rod as large as this THUMB!

Some interesting ones:

“GOD WILLING AND THE CREEK DON’T RISE” is an ungrammatical rendering of “God willing and the CREEKS don’t rise”. It was written by Benjamin Hawkins, who was asked by the President to return to Washington from his diplomatic mission with the Creek Indians. He wrote: “God willing and the Creeks don’t rise.”, meaning Native Americans and not a body of water.

“IT WILL COST AN ARM AND A LEG”: Painters would charge for portraits based on the number of limbs in a picture as limbs, especially hands, are more difficult to render, thus artists would charge more for all the arms and legs in a picture. (e.g.: notice on a number of portraits of George Washington; one has him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms.)

“BIG WIG”: In the old days, people bathed just twice a year; women kept their hair covered and men shaved their heads (because of lice) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford nice wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs so to clean them, they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake for thirty minutes. The heat would make the wigs big and fluffy, hence the term “BIG WIG”.

“CHAIRMAN”: In the 1700s it was common to have just one chair in a room and a long wide board folded down for dining. The head of the household always sat in the chair while everyone else sat on the floor. Occasionally, when a male guest was there, he would be invited to sit in the chair. To sit in the chair meant that the person was important or in charge. The one sitting in the chair was the “CHAIR MAN”.

“CRACK A SMILE”, “LOSING FACE”, and “MIND YOUR OWN BEES WAX”: Women would spread melted bees-wax over their face to remove unwanted hair and pimples. If she smiled while the wax was on her face, it would crack the wax, thus, “CRACK A SMILE”; if she sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt, thus “LOSING FACE”; if someone said something negative she would say, “MIND YOUR OWN BEES WAX”!

“STRAIGHT-LACED”: A proper and dignified woman who required help lacing her corset in the back was said to be “STRAIGHT-LACED”.

However, I am NOT going to tell the derivation of “HAVING YOUR TURN IN THE BARREL”!

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