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English idioms about family life and conjugal felicity

Several friendly comments urged me to continue the series on English idioms I started last week (see the post for August 12, 2020). That post was devoted to naval phrases. The comments suggested all kinds of topics, sewing and cooking among them. However, not all subjects are equally easy to tackle. Though in the shoreless sea of English idioms, one can find more than enough examples about anything, the material on which I can draw is limited. I depend on my database, which is fairly representative, but, contrary to that sea, not shoreless. Also, over the years, I have been collecting only the phrases whose meaning and origin cry for an explanation. This means that the likes of a stitch in time saves nine or too many cooks spoil the broth have not made it into my database. My choice of examples is limited, but I’ll try to select such as are curious and perhaps memorable.

Vasily Tropinin (1776-1857), “The Lace Maker”: A stitch in time… Image via Wikipedia.

Many idioms at my disposal are local and never had wide currency. Some were discussed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and I have no way of knowing when they were coined and whether they are still current. Quite a few are witty, sometimes rude, and often truly enigmatic. Below, I’ll be indicating the dates on which the phrases were recorded, and their localities, to the extent that they are known.  Family life does not look too rosy in this area of folklore. “As queer as Tim’s wife looked when she hanged herself” (queer of course means “strange, odd”; 1870). Who was Tim? Don’t worry: he has a double in “As throng [“busy”] as Throp’s wife” (1828; still current a century later). The reference must have been opprobrious, but the correspondent who sent the simile to the journal did not dare disclose the reference, and we don’t care. I face the same questions as last week. Was throng selected to alliterate with Throp, a character in some tale, or did Throp appear, in order to alliterate with throng? Most such names are puzzling: as busy as Batty (1850), as busy as Beck’s wife (1889; Devonshire), and the rest (busy here was said to mean “bustling, making a parade of one’s activities”).

Feed the brute. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A few husbands did not fare much better. In Scotland, a henpecked husband is called John Thomson’s man. John is an absurd alteration of Joan. I know the phrase from an 1849 letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine (a wonderful periodical), but the OED has an early sixteenth-century citation! Some such phrases show enviable longevity. How do you make your husband happy? Have no illusions and feed the brute (1904). Yet women could defend themselves quite well. Unhappy unions and violent quarrels are as old as Adam (and Eve). Read the post on hanging out or putting out the broom (February 10, 2016).

But oh, don’t forget sweet, innocent maidenhood! “A maid’s knee and a dog’s nose are the two coldest things in creation” (1870, Scotland). We remember from The Taming of the Shrew that the younger sister (Bianca) could not marry until somebody married Kate. The problem was not Shakespeare’s invention. Older sisters watched with unconcealed jealousy the progress of their more fortunate younger siblings toward matrimony. The idiom or rather the custom recorded in Devonshire (I have an 1889 note on it) is to dance in a pig-trough “to marry before one’s older sibling.” Allegedly, on the wedding day, the unmarried elder siblings were expected to dance barefooted over furze brushes on the floor. Furze instead of pig-trough may have a similar origin. Humiliating and cruel but not tragic.

Much sadder is the end of the phrase to braid St. Catherine’s tresses (1876 and 1916 in my database). This is a translation of a French saying meaning “to remain a virgin until marriage,” which is not a calamity even by our standards. But read on! The reference is to St. Catherine of Alexandria. “The expression is said to come from the sixteenth or seventeenth century. According to the received French tradition, it became the custom of certain churches in France in which there was a statue of St. Catherine to dress the head of the statue afresh for the saint’s feast-day, and the service was rendered by young women between the ages of 26 and 35 who were unmarried. There is a modern saying that at 25 a maid puts a first pin into St. Catherine’s head-dress; at 30 a second; at 35 the coiffure is finished.”

St. Catherine. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

We should remember that in the Middle Ages and even quite some time later, everybody who reached the marriageable age was expected to start a family. Survival depended on having many children. Both men and women who for some reason did not follow the trend aroused contempt, but women suffered more from this attitude; hence the offensive words and phrases like old maid, spinster, and the like. Poor, suffering unchosen women or those who had a reason to remain single! And if you have never seen the word wallflower, look it up! Similar demeaning words for “an old bachelor” don’t seem to exist in English. The Russian word (bobyl’) is condescending rather than offensive. The status of an unmarried woman was much lower than that of an unmarried man: men could pretend to remain single by choice.

One of the most curious proverbs is old maids lead apes in hell. A late sixteenth-century tale in which ape can be understood as meaning a dishonest bachelor trying to marry a widow does not go too far toward explaining the saying. In one of the books I found mention of the monkish story that women married neither to God nor man will be given to apes in the next world (no reference to the source), and here we seem to be on the right track. The proverb was widely known in Shakespeare’s days, and, since Shakespeare used it twice, a good deal of discussion followed. Apparently, the proverb means that those women who refuse to marry good men while they are alive will go to hell and have sex with apes.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Image by Jesus Arias via Pexels.

Much later, in the nineteenth century, mentions of sex and ribaldry went underground. Innocent, decent people married and one day (as a rule, very soon) had children. Even references to pregnancy had to be veiled. One of the euphemisms for “pregnant” was in (sometimes on) the straw. The phrase emerged in print in the 1660s. Why in the straw? From the use of the farmyard? From the supposed practice of making beds of straw? Or was the reference to laying straw before a house in which a woman was confined? The OED doubts the last explanation. Very well-known is the idiom in an interesting condition. The French and the Germans have the same circumlocution. The most amusing part of the correspondence about the English phrase (1902) was that no one dared write “pregnant” and explained being in an interesting condition as in a delicate state of health, in the family way, brought to bed of a child, and even with the help of a French synonym: “as applied to a woman enceinte.”

What a depressing array! Now, what can to have all one’s family under one’s hat mean? Ah, the old story! It means “to be single.” The idiom was known in several regions of England (my source is dated to 1897). But let us not despair. Here is a good phrase: “That’s the chap as married Hannah.” It means “That’s what I need” (Nottingham, 1900). No one could explain it, but there must have been a story about some modern-day Darby and Joan behind it. Enjoy life while it lasts, and apes, well, apes can wait.

Featured image by Roger W. via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    On marriage to Hannah.
    Hotten’s 1864 Slang Dictionary (p. 151) says “the man as married Hannah” is “a Salopian [Shropshire] phrase to express a matter begun.”
    The British Newspaper Archive gives an (unchecked ORC) snippet from an 1869 Staffordshire newspaper. Charley Knight tells that he is “the man that married Hannah,” but his hearer is puzzled: “but to what good lady the said knight alluded remains to me a mystery….”
    Rather than referring to a forgotten individual named Hannah, I suggest it may be that someone knew Hebrew and meant that marriage to Hannah brought grace, favour, because that is what her name means.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    On Hannah again. Perhaps I should have written that the phrase-maker either knew Hebrew or knew the Hannah account in the Bible (1 Samuel 1) or both.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    It turns out that “The Chap Wot Married Hannah” is also a ballad title, with text given here on two broadsides:
    http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/view/edition/10227

  4. Celia Nyamweru

    Not directly suggesting a hen-pecked husband – but maybe implying it: ‘The grey mare is the better horse’ is one of my favourites – how far back can this be traced?

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