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 then used to take
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. he 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
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, a guest (who was almost always a
man) would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal.
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
or 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".
In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many
freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round
iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near
the cannon, but how to prevent them from rolling about the
deck? The best storage method devised was a square based
pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine,
which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls
could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon.
There was only one problem...how to prevent the bottom layer
from sliding or rolling from under the others. The solution
was a metal plate called a "Monkey" with 16 round
indentations. But, if this plate were made of iron, the iron
balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting
problem was to make "Brass Monkeys".
Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and
much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the
temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would
shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off
the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, "Cold
enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".
(And all this time, you thought that was an improper
expression, didn't you?)
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