The Grammarphobia Blog

Lies, damn lies, and the 1500s

Q: My dad has sent me an email about life in the 1500s. It includes the origins of many sayings. Are they true? Just curious, as there are a lot of urban legends out there.

A: This list of so-called “Facts About the 1500s,” sometimes called “Life in the 1500s,” is a hoax that’s been floating around in cyberspace since 1999.

It claims to explain the origins of many common words and phrases, and occasionally a reader forwards it to us and asks whether there’s any truth in it.

The answer is no.

These “facts” are merely folk etymologies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a folk etymology as a “popular perversion” intended to make a word or phrase “apparently significant.”

Some common phrases (like “raining cats and dogs”) are simply idioms that can’t be interpreted literally. Nature abhors a vacuum, which is why people like to invent explanations for what can’t be explained.

“Raining cats and dogs” has nothing to do with domestic animals falling through thatched roofs. It’s merely a hyperbolic, semi-humorous idiom that has no literal meaning. We’ve written before on our blog about such idioms.

But some other common phrases are no mystery, since their true etymologies are well established. Yet the hoaxer who came up with this fictitious list has even invented fake etymologies for those.

An example is “saved by the bell,” which originated not in 16th-century graveyards but in 1930s boxing.

We won’t bother to go through the list and refute each point, since researchers at Snopes.com, the Phrase Finder, and elsewhere have already done so.

But we’ll address one of the folksier of the folk etymologies, the claim that “piss poor” originated in the practice of collecting urine to tan hides.

It’s true that urine was used in tanning in olden times, but the phrase “piss poor” wasn’t recorded until the 20th century, according to the OED, and tanning had nothing to do with it.

As the OED explains, the word “piss” is sometimes “prefixed to an adjective (occas. to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.” This usage originated in the United States in the 1940s, Oxford says.

The dictionary defines “piss-poor” as meaning “of an extremely poor quality or standard,” and its written examples begin in 1946 with “piss-poor outfit” and “piss-poor job.”

The OED also cites more general uses of “piss” prefixed to adjectives, including “piss-rotten” (1940); “piss-elegant” (1947); “piss-bad” (1970); “piss-chic” (1977); and “piss-easy” (1998).

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