Off topic: Where did "piss poor" and other sayings come from?
Thread poster: Luisa Ramos, CT

Luisa Ramos, CT  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:10
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
Apr 27, 2010

I received this today. I don't know whether it is true but I found it entertaining and fun.

Where did “piss poor” and other sayings come from?

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery.....if you had to do this to survive you were "piss poor"

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot......they "didn't have a pot to piss in" and were the lowest of the low

Baths consisted of 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, 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 had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, "dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth 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”.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would
sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of “holding a wake”.

England is small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a “bone-house”, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive... So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (“graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer”.


patyjs  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:10
Spanish to English
+ ...
Fascinating! Apr 27, 2010

As an English woman, born and bred in the North, I grew up with these phrases and had only known the origin of one or two.

Thanks for sharing!icon_biggrin.gif



Charlie Bavington (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:10
French to English
piss poor Apr 27, 2010

I always thought piss poor was an adjective/qualifier of relative (lack of quality) rather than wealth. Such as "he is a piss poor translator" or "that film was piss poor".

I'm always a bit suspicious of explanations that involve people being buried aliveicon_smile.gif I always thought saved by the bell came from boxing. Since the boxing has to stop when the bell rings at the end of the round, if someone is getting a right pasting, they can be saved by the bell in the sense there is a brief respite between rounds.

I'm not entirely sure I find the idea of slicing bread horizontally entirely plausible either, but as you say, it's all entertaining stuff. I just wouldn't quote iticon_smile.gif


David Russi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:10
English to Spanish
+ ...
Critique Apr 27, 2010

While amusing, some of these things really got me wondering, and I came across this critique, which is worth reading:

Reinforces what we should all know about the web: there is much out there to be skeptical about...icon_wink.gif


Luisa Ramos, CT  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:10
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
I quote myself Apr 27, 2010

Of course nobody should believe or quote these "expert" explanations and urban legends.

To quote myself: "I don't know whether it is true but I found it entertaining and fun."


Brian Young  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:10
Danish to English
a pot to piss in Apr 27, 2010

In the good old days Danish (and probably other nation's) farmers would wash sheep by picking them up and placing them in a large tub with warm water and some lye, The sheep would piss, as it's an almost automatic reaction (like when you step into a shower, but who will admit that?). The acid in the urine combines with the base in the lye to form a type of soap, and that helped to wash the wool.
Eskimoes used to save urine, and use it for washing hair. I knew a lady in Denmark with two children born in Greenland. They actually used to do this. So maybe there is another aspect to pissing in a pot.
With respect to dirt floors: Some of the finest and most expensive houses in Santa Fe, NM, have dirt floors. I used to live there, so I know. But they werent just simple mud floors. A real high quality dirt floor is the result of a lot of careful trowling, filling in cracks as the mud dries, and then soaking in linseed oil. In the good old days they used ox blood. A well done dirt floor is very much like linoleum. You can sweep it, and even wash it.
I like the one about raining. When my wife (Danish) first came to the USA, we first visited my mom in Ohio. It was raining like crazy, and my wife (who actually speaks English very fluently) said- "look at all of the poodles in the street". My mom said- "Of course, it's been raining cats and dogs". So that memory has become part of our family lore.
I enjoyed your post. Thanks!


Henk Peelen  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:10
Member (2002)
German to Dutch
+ ...
Beer Apr 27, 2010

In The Netherlands, some ages ago, workers at a wool factory at the end of each work day got a stone bottle of beer home and were expected to bring it the next morning back to the mill filled with ... urine.
Nowadays, at the supermarket you still get 10 cents for your beer bottle, but be sure it has to be empty. Unfortunately this doesn't make you rich. The harder you try, the poorer you get!

The times they are a changing, but beer stays the same!
No idea about that piss poor saying. You could be right, but I won't rule out the reason simply is alliteration.

As to the rain saying, in Dutch we say "het regent oude wijven" (it's raining old wives / bags") when it's raining hard. I think for the cats and dogs counts the same as for the old wives ... people just say somthing odd to make clear it's raining harder than on average.

Generally, I don't know whether the hypotheses you metion are right or wrong. Etymology and the background of sayings is ver interesting and does raise your eye brows very often.

[Bijgewerkt op 2010-04-28 12:33 GMT]


lexical  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:10
Portuguese to English
I don't believe a word of it... Apr 27, 2010

The Internet is full of these primitive 'explanations'. When it rains hard, the Portuguese say it's raining knives and forks - is that because they used to keep their cutlery in the thatch of their roofs and it slipped out when it was wet and stabbed them in the head? Come on!

If this goes on, someone will restart that old hare of the word POSH being derived from 'Port Out Starboard Home', or Pom standing for 'Prisoner of Her Majesty' (what happened to the H, by the way?).


madak  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
Swedish to English
+ ...
You don't say? Apr 27, 2010

lexical wrote:

The Internet is full of these primitive 'explanations'.

I read somewhere on the Internet that the moon landing I personally viewed on a TV in 1969 never actually happened. Are you trying to tell me this is wrong, and the landing actually did happen? Unbelievable!

If this goes on, someone will restart that old hare of the word POSH being derived from 'Port Out Starboard Home.

This one, of course, has to be really, really true, because my daddy (naval officer) told me about is long before the that new fangled invention, the Internet, was actually invented. Unless you want to call my daddy a liar...


Brian Young  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:10
Danish to English
moon landing a hoax Apr 27, 2010

Relax Madeleine
I watched that charade as well. It was a big hoax.
But the thing about POSH is true. I learned that while reading a biography about Winston Churchill. Anyone who has ever sailed that route- England to India- on a vessel without modern air conditioning would know how much extra it would be worth to have the sun in the cool mornings, and the shade in the hot evenings. Port out, starboard home was the only way for a gentleman to travel.


Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:10
French to English
+ ...
Dispelling urban myths... Apr 28, 2010

In general when you get these kind of explanations of the "origins" of expressions, be very very skeptical unless an actual historical quote or pointer to a first-hand source is given to back up the claim.

Otherwise it's hard to distinguish between the likely origin and "facts" of the type "Eskimo has 400 words for snow"...


juvera  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:10
English to Hungarian
+ ...
"..there is much out there to be sceptical about..." May 1, 2010

Like the critique David was quoting:
David Russi wrote:
While amusing, some of these things really got me wondering, and I came across this critique, which is worth reading:

Reinforces what we should all know about the web: ...icon_wink.gif

The author of the above website believes that medieval Europe was a fab time and place to live in, everybody was squeaky clean, even the poor had a healthy diet and they all lived in harmony!

According to the author threshold came from the middle English verb threshhen, - but I am more likely to believe the OED where the origin is Old English therscold, threscold - and Santiago de Compostela is Santiago de Compestella, San Gimignano is San Gimignamo, Penshurst Place is Penhurst Place and Kellerei is a town in Germany.

If only he got the names right!


United States
Methinks... Sep 1, 2015

Methinks, if I recall correctly,
I am quite old, that the term "Dirt poor" comes from
the situation when a farmer has all their resources, no
cash on-hand - non-liquid, tied-up in the land/crops/livestock.

So, the person could've had a large farm or plantation and still have
been considered "Dirt Poor."

My family, the Hershmans, were dirt poor during the American Great Depression but
never went without anything.
Heck, they didn't even know, from personal experience, that there was a depression
'cause they could trade a pig or cow or crops for coffee, salt, sugar or any sundries
that they couldn't grow.

No one else had any money to buy stuff from them so they couldn't sell it.

[Edited at 2015-09-01 15:50 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-09-01 15:51 GMT]


Jonathan Norris  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:10
Spanish to English
+ ...
Gym class May 6, 2016

Whenever my 7th grade gym teacher was disappointed or frustrated with us, he used to say "this is piss poor, gentlemen!" Only he spoke with a lisp, so when he said it, it sounded more like "pith poor." If you listened closely, you might have heard it being mimiced in the hallways around campus by other bad-mannered urchins. But I had no idea there was any background to it at all, it seems so straightforward in meaning, but good to know. Thanks for sharing!



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