Posted by: Andrew Skelton | 05/11/2012

Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag

Asiatic Lion, originally uploaded by

I’ve mentioned before how I had a certain dislike of cliched phrases, I suspect it’s because I tend to have an aversion to the populist view, however I do have a guilty pleasure when it comes to phrases, I love finding out the meanings to idioms, those phrases that don’t mean what they say directly, such as “A Piece of Cake”, “Curiosity Killed The Cat” or “The Last Straw”. Seemingly meaningless phrases which are commonly used actually have more of a tale to tell than you might first think – if you’ve ever wondered, as I have, about them at all.

I did learn the suspected meanings to two such idioms last week and very plausible they were too. The first was recounted when viewing the interior of the house where Shakespeare was born in the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon. William, or Bill as he prefers to be called down the pub, was one of five children from a fairly well to do family, his father as well as serving as town mayor at one point also made and sold leather gloves, a skilled trade. Up to around the age of 5 years old, all children would sleep in the same room as their parents, until they were able to be trusted to walk around the house unchaperoned at night with a burning candle, not so much out of safety to the child as to the house who’s wattle and daub construct would easily catch alight. This could often mean two or three siblings sharing a pull out bed which at the time, as with their parent’s bed used a rope lattice to support the mattress, these being the pre-Industrial Revolution days before metal bed frames. As you might appreciate, with between one and three children sleeping in the same bed, the frame would vary in it’s load – to ensure a good nights sleep it was possible to increase the tension of the ropes to produce a firmer support, which is where we get (and I know you’re way ahead of me on this one, Dear Reader) “Night Night, Sleep Tight”.

Good that, wasn’t it? The second idiom is equally as pleasing and was once again gleaned whilst visiting one of the buildings associated with Shakespeare, this time the house where his prospective wife, Anne Hathaway, was born and brought up. Her parents were wealthy tenant farmers, who lived in a thatched cottage on the outskirts of the town, though in those days the town hadn’t expanded as far as their locale. Initially the building was divided into two rooms each room being a single storey of what is now a two storey house. With open fires and no chimneys, the extra height was used to dissipate the smoke from the fire, which had the added bonus of fumigating the thatched roof which would otherwise play host to all manner of bird, insect and rodent life. With the advancement of building technology, chimneys and a new first floor space being added to buildings of the time, the benefits of the smoke was lost and so other ways of ridding the thatch of nasties that could potentially ruin the integrity of the roofing material had to be found. With the straw extending down to roughly head height on most homes, cats and small dogs were used to patrol the roof, chasing away all the unwanted critters. The straw used for thatching has incredible thermal and water resistant properties, and it’s this last fact where the phrase has come from; we witnessed, whilst there, how during a heavy downpour water droplets simply cascaded down off the straw roof. In such conditions the domestic animals sent up on the roof to scare away interlopers would not be able to gain firm purchase on the root and would simply slip off.. yep, you’re there aren’t you Dear Reader, the heavy rain resulting in it “raining cats and dogs”. See, I said they were interesting didn’t I… what… just me?!


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