In discussions with Kate about the origins of some words and phrases, some differences merged between us on some had come about. I said that I would look them up, plus a couple more from our discussions.
“Living high on the hog”
The best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper leg:
Hence to eat from high on the hog denoted wealth, unlike those eating the belly pork and pigs trotters.
The earliest recorded usage of the term in print is from the New York Times, March 1920:
Southern laborers who are "eating too high up on the hog" (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who "eat too far back on the beef" (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.
Although the phrase has come to denote eating well in a more general sense and from there to mean living well, it has also come to mean someone living extravagantly or beyond one's means.
“The upper crust”
Aristocracy, the higher levels of society.
This is one of the phrases which Kate and I could not agree upon. Kate maintained that it originated from the gentry being served the top part of the bread. This was the better, unburnt part of loaves from medieval kitchens. I said that I had read somewhere that that was a furphy, although I couldn’t recall the precise origin. Kate said that she had seen the above explanation on a BBC program.
Most etymologists accept that there is no factual basis for the supposed connection between aristocracy and the top of the bread. Instead, they point out that the slang terms “top crust” and “upper crust” referred to the head and/or hat. Prior to that the term had also referred to the top of the earth’s surface.
In 1823 Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue contained an entry:
“...but to hear it from the chaffer [mouth] of a rough and ready costard-monger, ogling his poll from her walker [feet] to her upper crust [head].”
Also in 1823 John Badcock’s Slang: a Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, etc contained an entry using the phrase in the people sense:
“One who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-Crust.”
Hence it appears likely that the phrase “upper crust” was extended from hate and head to those at the top or head of the social strata.
Paris at my feet
Paris in the dust
And here I'm breaking bread
With the upper crust!
- Les Miserables - Beggars At The Feast Lyrics
I’m not one to gloat or laud it when I am right, I’m bigger than that. So I won't give Kate a nyahh nyahh
“Below the salt”
Salt has been an important commodity of society throughout history, reflected in phrases such as “worth one’s salt”, “take with a grain of salt” and “salt of the earth”. Even the word salary comes from the Latin word “sal”, meaning “salt”, in that Roman soldiers received an allowance to purchase salt.
In the Middle Ages the nobility and those of wealth sat at the “high table”, with the poorer people and the servants sitting at lower trestle tables. Salt, a valuable and precious item, was placed in the centre of the high table and only those sitting at that table had access to it. The less favoured at the lower tables were below (or beneath) the salt.
“Sent to Coventry”
Ignored, ostracised shunned, often by not being spoken to or listened to and treated as if the person did not exist.
It is believed that the origin of the phrase has a connection with the English Civil War of the 1640s. play a part. Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon in his work The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, recounts that Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry, which was a Parliamentarian stronghold. These troops were often not received warmly by the locals and were shunned.
By 1811, the meaning of the term was defined in Grose's The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
To send one to Coventry; a punishment inflicted by officers of the army on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial. The person sent to Coventry is considered as absent; no one must speak to or answer any question he asks, except relative to duty, under penalty of being also sent to the same place. On a proper submission, the penitent is recalled, and welcomed by the mess, as just returned from a journey to Coventry.
The phrase, and the actions it stands for, was common in industrial disputes in Britain in the 1950’s. Persons not supporting the trade union movement, especially by not going on strike, would be sent to Coventry and become virtual non-persons. Richard Attenborough made a 1960 film, The Angry Silence, in which he plays a worker so treated after refusing to take part in an unofficial strike. Funnily enough, the sending of workers to Coventry was particularly prevalent in the British car industry. British Leyland, based in Coventry, gave rise to people being sent to Coventry if fell foul of union members, notwithstandng that they were already there.