Word Origins

Published July 22, 2003

Reading time: 3 minutes.

(Source: WinBeta

In George Washington’s days, there were no cameras. One’s image was either sculpted
or painted. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a
desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms.
Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted,
but by how many limbs were to be painted. Arms and legs are “limbs” therefore
painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression “Okay, but
it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.”

As incredible as it sounds, men and women took baths only twice a year! (May
and October).Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved! their heads(because
of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from
wool. The wigs couldn’t be washed so to clean them, they could carve out a
loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat
would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term “big wig.” Today
we often use the term “here comes the Big Wig” because someone appears
to be or is powerful and wealthy.

In the late 1700s many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair.
Commonly, a long wide board was folded down from the wall and used for dining.
The “head of the household” always sat in the chair while everyone
else ate sitting on the floor. Once in a while an invited guest would be offered
to sit in this chair during a meal (who was almost always a man). To sit in
the chair meant you were important and in charge. Sitting in the chair, one
was called the “chair man.” Today in business we use the expression/title “Chairman..or
Chairman of the Board.”

Needless to say, personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result,
many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread
bee’s wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they
were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face
she was told “mind your own bee’s wax.” Should the woman smile, the
wax would crack, hence the term “crack a smile.” Also, when they
sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt and therefore the expression “losing

Ladies wore corsets which would lace up in the front. A tightly tied lace
was worn by a proper and dignified lady as in “straight laced.”

Common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied
when purchasing playing cards but only applicable to the “ace of spades.” To
avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most
games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because
they weren’t “playing with a full deck.”

Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was
considered important to the people. Since there were no telephones, TV’s or
radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs and bars
who were told to “go sip some ale” and listen to people’s conversations
and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. “You
go sip here” and “You go sip there.” The two words “go
sip” were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and
thus, we have the term “gossip.”

At local taverns, pubs and bars, people drank from pint and quart sized containers.
A bar maid’s job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming.
She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in “pints” and
who was drinking in “quarts.” Hence the term “minding your “‘P’s
and Q’s.”

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