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Saturday, March 19, 2005

High Muckymuck, and more

We use them every day, but where in the world and in time did some of our more colorful descriptive phrases originate?
by Eric Blair

A mountain man stood in the longhouse of a Pacific NW Indian tribe, staring at the banquet site. Noticing that all the food was piled up in front of one of the attendees, he pointed at the man and asked who he was. At least, that's what he thought he asked. The mountain man's native companion heard a different question. Supposing the white man was asking about the comestibles, he answered, "Hiyu mukamuk," which in Chinookan trade jargon means, "lots of food."

It was a simple mistake. The frontiersman asked about the man and the Indian described what was in front of the man. That mistake has circled the globe, since then. Refer to anybody as a "high muckymuck," these days, and people will know you are calling somebody a big shot. And, in a sense, you are, since that big pile of food was put in front of the tribal leader, and then distributed to the diners, as a symbol that all good things originate from the leader.
Here are some other phrases you've heard - and probably used. You may be surprised at what they actually mean. Like "high muckymuck," they date back many centuries. Judge for yourself if they make sense or are simply colorful stories.

During the 1500's, most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath late in May, and the weather was not yet warm enough to generate a serious sweat. Nevertheless, the church was filled with flowers, and brides carried a bouquet to hide the body odors.
Baths equaled a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all came 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."
Houses were often single rooms dug out of hillsides, and had thatched roofs - thick straw, piled high, with little in the way of rafters underneath - that reached all the way to the ground. There were no barns in those days. Animals and people lived together. All the small farm birds and mammals burrowed into the thatch to keep warm. They lived in the roof. When it rained, the thatch became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall through. Hence the saying, "It's raining cats and dogs."
This might also explain the origination of canopy beds -- as protection against drips, the animals, or both.
The floor of these ancient dwellings was normally just dirt. Only the wealthy had something better - hence the saying: "dirt poor".
The wealthy had wood or slate floors which would get slippery in the winter when wet. Thresh (grain stalks) was spread on the floor to warm it, and improve the footing. A piece of wood or stone was placed at the entry way to keep the stalks from spreading out to the porch, hence the term "thresh hold".
Cooking was done in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Refrigeration didn't exist. Every day they added things to the pot. Meat was expensive, so the pot contained mostly vegetables. Dry wood was not always available during the winter, so the fire was started only once a day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been in there for more than a week.. Hence the rhyme: "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."
When company came over, people would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of success that a man "could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."
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 the "upper crust".
And now the most colorful, and ghoulish, of them all.
Grave robbing was a common crime. Late at night, the poor would dig up the rich to see if they were wearing anything that could be sold. Guards were set in cemetaries -- thus we have the term "graveyard shift."
Legend has it that the term "dead ringer" refers to cord tied to the wrist of the deceased, and run up to a bell above the grave. This custom is said to have originated when, after a grave robbery, scratch marks were found on the inside of a coffin lid. A bell ringing meant a living person had been unintentionally buried and should be dug up. "Saved by the bell," is also connected to this tale, but more likely refers to the communications system in early hospitals, which actually did involve strings and bells.

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Wow that was interesting, I think that our ancestors were kings comparing to those.

I never gave much thought to these sayings before, i just thought some of them were wierd.. this info is really interesting :)

Eric Blair as in Eric Blair who uses the pen name George Orwell wrote this?

No Mohammad, it isn't the famous Eric Blair who wrote this...

re: High Muckymuck

Now you are getting subversive! Spreading American Indian culture on the Internet! Unheard of. Bush will come after you! Odd though, I come from the Chinook speaking area of US/Canada and that was a normal term in our vocabulary but spoken in the Indian way: Hiyu mukamuk. But then I'm half Indian myself, (mother) so I suppose it isn't so surprising.


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