This has taken me a loooooong time to write. Namely, because I have had literally no spare time within which to do it. However, I’ve finally got around to it.
1. Daft as a Brush
This is a phrase which has its origins lie where one would least expect. Many would assume that the type of brush being referred to here would be a hair brush, or at the very least a brush with which to do sweeping. However, it actually concerns a fox’s brush – that is, its tail, chimney sweeps, and Northerners.
Let’s start with the first definition of ‘brush’. Fox tails and stoles were increasingly popular with ladies who could afford to purchase them in the Victorian era and early 20th century. Largely because they are very soft to the touch, despite the fact that these animals were considered vermin and lived in wild conditions which would lead to the pelts of most animals becoming matted. Also,whereas many animal furs would be coarse and uncomfortable to the wearer (although necessary for the purpose of making fashionable and social statements), fox tails did not itch or irritate the skin when worn.
The second definition concerns the young boys who would be employed as chimney sweeps, and encouraged to scurry up and down chimneys all day in order to earn a few pence with which to help support their families. It goes without saying that this job was a dangerous one; the inhalation of the coal dust alone would have been enough to send one into coughing fits. However, one of the greatest dangers was presented by the threat of being dropped. On many occasions, those who would be charged with ensuring the boys did not fall down the structures would be overcome by weight and let go of the ropes which were attached to the waists of the boys. Due to the positions that they were often lowered in this would mean that when they eventually landed, they would more than likely land on their heads. In a number of cases, this would cause severe brain damage which would lead to the common societal misconception that these chimney sweeps were stupid. Or, by the Northern definition, ‘soft’.
Therefore, it could be reasonably ascertained that this phrase originated in the Victorian era, although it does not appear to have been used in print until 1956 in William Morgan Williams’s The Sociology of an English Villiage: Gosforth in which he wrote “The wives of two members of a kin-group locally thought to be eccentric and extremely unsociable were pointed out by several people as ‘gay queer’ and ‘daft as a brush’.” By this time, however, the use of young boys in chimney sweeping practices had all but died out, and the wearing of furs beginning to be considered morally reprehensible.
2. Dark Horse
This is a racing parlance, and one which was – and still is – used to describe an unexpected horse winning a race. These horses would not be previously known to those who wished to place bets, and as such they would often be ruled out as potential winning candidates. It is also possible (but wildly speculative and there is not much credibility in this theory) that, due to lighter coloured horses being considered superior (grays and bays), punters would not ‘waste’ bets on the darker coloured horses which would be raced as these were identified with working horses. As such, if one of these horses won, there would be much surprise on the faces of the spectators.
This phrase would seem to first appear in Benjamin Disraeli’s The Young Duke, which was first published in 1931. I’ve always been a fan of Disraeli’s writings, and believe that this description of a race from the novel is just superb: “A dark horse, which had never been thought of … rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.”
3. Dock your pay
This is a phrase which I don’t think anyone would be particularly pleased to hear. Nobody wants to think that their performance has been sub-par, or that someone would try to swindle them out of their earnings. Unfortunately, this used to be common-place until laws were brought into play to protect the rights of employees.
Most people would associate the word ‘dock’ with shipyards or marinas, as it is a term which is most commonly used in association with all things nautical. However, in this case, it has a much more unusual association; animals. The Old English term ‘dock’ means “to cut short, particularly of the hair or tail of an animal”. In Britain, this was a practice which usually extended to shortening the tails of dogs – particularly breeds such as Dobermans and Boxers. Nowadays, it is very uncommon and very few people are willing to practice it due to restrictions and animal rights.
I bring you back to one of my favourite books again for this one, which I’ve mentioned previously: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. This time, the phrase relevant to the trimming of the fur and appendages of animals can be found in The Reeve’s Tale. Chaucer wrote that “His heer was by his erys ful round yshorn; His top was dokked lyk a preest biforn”. It isn’t until 1783-7 though that the phrase appears in print to have been attributed to the practice of docking wages. Interestingly, this appears in the writings of James Madison, and individual who is recognised as one of the Founding Fathers. In The Writings of James Madison he writes “They…will not only be docked of their half-pay, but will run great hazard of being put off with regard to a great share of their other pay.”
4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
This is an expression I absolutely love, but one which actually has some quite horrific history attached. It is well known that our ancestors weren’t the cleanest of people, as many references are made even in Victorian times to ‘yearly baths’. In these instances, a family would have one bath tub, the same water of which every individual in a family would be expected to bathe in.
As the head of the household, the father would bath first, followed by any grown or working sons. The next turn would be that of his wife, and then any younger sons and daughters would follow her according to their age. Naturally, the last to bathe would be the baby. By this point, due to the amount of dirt which would already have washed off the bath’s previous occupants, the water would be horrifically filthy. So filthy, in fact, that any objects which were dropped or lost in the bath would not be found by merely looking at the water. They would usually only be found when the tub was emptied. There are some who dismiss this theory as complete nonsense, however it is a proverb which has been in existence in Germany since the 1500’s and indeed appears in Thomas Wurners Narrenbeschworung in 1512, as “Schuttet das Kind mit dem Bade aus”. It was also a phrase which found itself being used in joke form among the mining families of Wales and the Northern England.
The alternative theory, is that of being an analogy to slavery which derives from Thomas Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question which was published in 1843. In it, he writes “And if true, it is important for us, in reference to this Negro Question and some others. The Germans say, “you must empty-out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.” Fling-out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careering down the kennels; but try if you can to keep the little child!” Many have wrongfully thought that here Carlyle has been advocating the abolishment of slavery, but instead merely means that he approved of the hiring of servants for life as long as they were paid.
Both arguments to have some credibility, however it is up to the individual to decide whether this expression relates merely to dirty bathing water or the more awful topic of slavery.