When the tools of your trade are words, you often use them without thinking about certain strings of words that make a familiar phrase and what the phrase originally meant.
I find it delicious to see how common phrases morph from their original underlying meanings and survive in our language today.
English has come down to us from an island country, so it is not surprising that the greatest naval power for 400 years has given us some colorful nautical phrases which we use to this day. But their nautical meanings have faded away as boats gave way to planes, trains and the automobile.
We all know what it means to stick it out until the bitter end, don’t we? Perhaps not. Two hundred years ago, the only way to keep a boat or a ship moored was to tie up at a dock. To do that, you need posts on board to which one can wrap the rope (or line). That post was called a bitt, and bitters were turns of the line around the bitt. So originally, the last turn of the rope was the bitters’ end. When a rope is played out to the bitter end, it means there is no more rope to be used.
We still find it a useful way of expressing something as having nothing left.
And of course, many phrases in this country refer back to our pioneer beginnings. When Pa went a-hunting, he was likely to run up on an angry bear, a moody moose or a hostile Indian who viewed Pa as a trespasser.
With powder and shot at a premium, it was good to know at all times just how much gunpowder you had at hand. That is why frontiersmen used a powder horn. When aged, a cow horn will take on a translucent property so that when gunpowder is poured in it, you can hold it to the light and see how much you have.
Along comes a new settler who sees the efficacy of a powder horn, but he is not so nuanced to the ways of frontier life, and he doesn’t take the time to use an aged horn with its translucence. Now out in the forest at a tense time, he can’t check his powder, and he has to hope he has enough for another shot.
Old hands just shake their heads at the neophyte. They know newly cut logs (the building material of choice at the time) must be seasoned. Green wood would not do. It was easy to apply the same to newcomer’s powder horn. He had used a green horn, and thus such newbies were known as greenhorns.
Once the Roswell Funeral Home made a display of 19th century funerary objects. These included a “cooling table.” Morticians came to the house to ply their trade, and the deceased was placed on the table for embalming.
It was a small step to arrange the funeral at the home. The first collapsible chairs were used to set them up in the deceased’s parlor for the service. Then an enterprising undertaker had the idea to have the funerals in his place of business. No more hauling all those chairs, cooling tables and coffins.
But to make folks feel at home, the front was decorated like someone’s parlor, hence a funeral parlor. Keeping up with the times, they now employ a funeral chapel.
But getting back to the old days, the mortician would have to bring his wagon to the home to fetch the body. Roswell Funeral Home also displayed a coffin-shaped wicker basket they used to remove the body with some decorum. It was light, functional and reusable.
No doubt when neighbors saw his wagon draw up to a house where there was sickness and haul out his basket, they knew what it meant. So when someone took sick in those pre-penicillin days, and acquaintances would discuss the unfortunate’s chances, someone would say, “Oh, he’s a basket case all right.”
Then it meant a lost cause. Today, no one uses such baskets, and we are often sent off to die in hospital rather than at home. So the meaning has shifted, and a basket case is someone at wits’ end.
So there is always a bit of history in those comforting sayings and phrases we use, and they link us to our past, if only we take the time to discover it.