Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Why We Say: #13

Today we learn about earning our salt, eating humble pie, and listening in on conversations.

“He’s worth his salt.”
“Oh, she earned her salt today, that’s for sure.”

Hear of these expressions? If so, then you know it’s in reference to someone who is worth the amount of money they are being paid. In fact, the word “salary” is derived from the Latin word “salarium” which refers to the old Roman practice of providing soldiers their daily salt allowance. A soldier earning his salt ration was earning his keep.

This soldier is looking forward to his salting his paycheck away for a rainy day.image: morguefile




Have you ever had to eat humble pie? You know what I’m talking about–that moment when you’ve been humiliated or had to admit you were wrong. Not a great feeling, but it beats having to eat real humble pie, which is actually the “umbles” or the liver and organs of deer. Yummy–right? Yup, back in the day when English noblemen trotted around bagging deer while hunting, they saved the best for themselves and left the less desirable umbles for the servants. The servants wanting to make their leftovers a bit more tasty would pack the dear bits of deer into a pie. I suppose it would be rather humbling to eat this culinary fare.

“I wonder if Radio would be saying ‘Where my pie?'” on this flavor of the day?” image:morguefile


Eavesdropping has taken on a more sophisticated form of listening these days due to the Internet and its penchant for hacking in on conversations. Yet, in the way old days, going back to England, a law existed where houses had to have enough room for the eaves to drip on the owner’s property. It was quite easy to stand in these spaces under the eaves to listen in on inside conversations. People got the inside scoop by being outsiders. Not much has changed, has it?

Not everyone is interested in the wayward tidbit that comes floating by. image: morguefile


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15 thoughts on “Why We Say: #13

  1. These tidbits of information make me a formidable small talker with regard to social intercourse, and I appreciate having them. Thank you for sharing!

    Now, where did dressed to the nines come from? Or, the full nine yards?

    • I will get to that one, if I can find it in my quaint little book. If not, I will search for it–it’s an oldie, but goodie.

      • I like oldies and goodies. I resemble them!

      • Ah, dressed to the nines is actually a dialectal mistake. It should be dressed to eyes, which makes sense since one dresses from to the feet to the head when putting on the Ritz. Oh, another saying to look up😊

      • Cat got your tongue? Oh, that’s another kne!

      • Meant that to mean: Oh.

      • My sister just sent me these:

        Hell on wheels. During construction of the Trans Continental railroad, the construction crews were closely followed by a train containing establishments that could be quickly built for the liquor and prostitutes leapfrogging progressively behind the construction crews. In this book these shady establishments with the train that transported them were referred to by Ambrose as “Hell on Wheels”. Makes sense to me, but probably not to the vets of the 2nd AD.

        In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink.
        This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

        American fighter planes in WW2 had machine guns that were fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held belts that were 27 feet (9 yards) long. If the pilot used up all his ammo he was said to have given it the whole nine yards.

        This is synonymous with dying. During WW1 soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm so if you died you “bought the farm” for your survivors.

        This came about from the ironclad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

        Most men in the early west carried a jack knife made by the Buck knife company. When playing poker it as common to place one of these Buck Knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn’t want to deal he would “pass the buck” to the next player.
        If that player accepted then “the buck stopped there”.

        RIFF RAFF
        The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive so most people used rafts. Everything had the right of way over rafts which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a “riff” and this transposed into riff-raff, meaning low class.

        The Old English word for “spider” was “cob”.

        Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after states. To this day cabins on ships are called staterooms.

        Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep.

        These were floating theaters built on a barge that was pushed by a steamboat. These played small town along the Mississippi River.Unlike the boat shown in the movie “Showboat” these did not have an engine. They were gaudy and attention grabbing which is why we say someone who is being the life of the party is “showboating”.

        In the days before CPR a downing victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in a effort to empty the lungs of water.It was rarely effective. If you are over a barrel you are in deep trouble.

        BARGE IN
        Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats. People would say they “barged in”.

        Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless “hog wash”.

        The word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu”, which means “cover the fire”. It was used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles.It was later adopted into Middle English as “curfeu”, which later became the modern “curfew”. In the early American colonies homes had no real fireplaces so a fire was built in the center of the room.
        In order to make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night it was required that, by an agreed upon time, all fires would be covered with a clay pot called-a “curfew”.

        When the first oil wells were drilled they had made no provision for storing the liquid so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons.

        As the paper goes through the rotary printing press friction causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grab the paper right off the press, it was hot. The expression means to get immediate information.

      • Wow! What a treaury of sayings. I thought Truman originated The Buck Stops Here as his way of saying he’s the one who is in charge.

  2. Always fun to learn the origin of words and sayings. Thank you! But I’ll be passing on the humble pie… 😉

  3. Don’t think I want any umbles in my pie! I’d rather have pecan pie or chocolate. Mmm.

    Fascinating tidbits about salary, eavesdropping and humble pie! Well done, CM!

  4. I, for one, don’t mind liver, so perhaps an umble pie would hit the spot. Especially if it had bacon. I would rather earn bacon than salt.

    If the Romans paid their soldiers bacon, the empire would never have fallen. The empire would’ve needed bypass surgery, however.

  5. So do little pitchers capture drops of conversation under the eaves? 😀

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