Revisited Myth # 137: “Sleep tight” refers to tightening the ropes on a bed.

December 9, 2017

Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”  

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 

 

Previous comments

  1. Do you have any other source for this than that “tight” can mean soundly or securely? And how does it relate to “sit tight”? I have never heard “sit tight” nor understand its relation to sitting securely or soundly. Just the sound of it would make me think it was related to “hold your horses” or sit still or be patient. I can vouch that if your ropes on your bed aren’t tight, you don’t sleep well. Just wonder if there is more proof for your reasoning.

    • Mary Miley says:

      No, historians pretty much defer to the OED, although there is some more information from England at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/sleep%20tight.html

      As for the “sit tight” reference, I probably shouldn’t have thrown that in, but I meant to show that this other use of the word tight did not mean anything to do with ropes, it meant securely, in other words, sit still.

      • Evelyn Noyoga Zak says:

        Interestingly I just was binge watching a bedroom series by Lucy Worsley on History of the Home the Bedroom. and they reference this very phrase tightening the ropes and also don’t let the bed bugs bite using wormwood sprinkled on the straw “mattress”. Could it be our friends across the pond have it wrong? (or right)

      • Mary Miley says:

        I clicked on your link and enjoyed watching the show. A wonderful British series! At around minute 10, the museum docent told Lucy that “Sleep tight” meant tighten the ropes. I believe they are mistaken, and that it sounds so logical that no one bothered to check with the OED on word origin.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Sit tight’ was a phrase my mother used when we were children to mean ‘sit in this spot and don’t get up until I tell you you can.’

  2. Uh, oh I told that to someone a few days ago. I was told it meant to make sure the ropes were tight when I was on a tour of an historical home years ago. Guess I’d better tell my friend it’s an urban legend! Thanks for this blog. It’s really very interesting!

  3. Stephen Herchak says:

    Hi, Mary– loved the bed post (little pun, there) and while I always took it in the sense you mention (sit tight) when I was growing up I began hearing the tight rope version from docents when I was a volunteer at a Colonial home, so thanks for setting that one straight.

    Speaking of which (sort of), it immediately reminded me of another one I heard having to do with Colonial home furnishings — that the rooms were more multipurpose back then than they are now, furniture would be moved from room to room as needed and when a room was not in use would be pushed back against the walls (leaving the center of the room clear) and it is from that moving of chairs/furniture against the sides of the room after using it is where we get the expression and notion of “squaring a room away”.

    Other than the general notion we carry of four corners indicating order and having “everything covered” (going to the four corners of the earth even when it is not rectangular) no other connection jumps to mind for me so my natural inclination of giving the benefit of a doubt to a plausible story wants to believe this one is so.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks again so much — hope you have a great weekend.

    Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments.
      You are aware, I’m sure, that the pushing-furniture-against-the-walls story is long established as true. But I’ve never heard the expression “squaring a room away,” so I can’t comment on whether or not it stems from this practice. I think looking that up in the OED is unlikely to help . . . what word would you look up? Room? Square? I tried to look the phrase up in my two slang dictionaries, English Through the Ages and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but nothing resembling “square a room” was there. Even checked Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then I googled the phrase and came up with no hits. Sorry I can’t help.

  4. Dave E. says:

    Words and sayings from history usually have a practical background to them. Therefor to wish someone to sleep well would possibly refer to the bed set up properly, such as having the ropes properly tightened. A simplified dictionary definition often leaves out the historic and practical reason for the saying or term.

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Revisited Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

December 3, 2017

(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 

 

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.

4 http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/tabMS-2.pdf


Revisited Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

November 26, 2017

According to legend, courting candles were used by fathers to set a time limit when his daughter’s suitor came courting. He would adjust the candle in the twisted holder and when the candle had burned to the top twist, it was time for the young man to leave. One manufacturer of reproduction candle holders elaborates imaginatively on this myth, “Rich or poor, the courting candle was used by fathers from all economic backgrounds. It taught daughters to respect their parents’ judgment. The candle also taught the suitor to defer to the father’s ability to judge a man . . . the courting candle served as an important boundary line in the family and social fabrics.” Wow! A real necessity in every household! 

But Henry Prebys, curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Michigan, says the term courting candle is more folklore than fact. The Chicago Tribune debunks this legend nicely in a June 28, 1998 article, so I’ll quote:

Although the candleholder indeed may have been used as a time-keeper for suitors, it was not intentionally made for that purpose. Origin: The candleholder with its spiral shape was popular in Germany before being introduced to the American Colonies by the early Pennsylvania-German settlers. According to Prebys, the appeal of the spiral shape was its practicality. The candle easily could be twisted into the holder. If the candle was soft, the shape of the holder prevented it from falling over. A slide connected to the holder also helped move the candle up or down, thus utilizing as much of the candle as possible. This was important because candles were costly.

Prebys notes that candles were not the preferred source of lighting during the Colonial period because of their cost. Most households used fat lamps, small dishes containing fat or oil and a wick. Fat lamps were more practical and far less costly than candles. Prebys explains that candles were expensive because they required certain skills to make and were labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The article concludes by noting that there are probably more reproduction courting candles today than there were originals made during the colonial era. 

Thank you, Anna Schaad Chappelle, Executive Director of Marble Springs in Tennessee, for forwarding this myth.

9 Responses to Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Interesting side issue: Honey bees, the type that give honey and wax were NOT native to America and were brought starting in 1622, but they did not spread that fast or far. Indians called them English flies. See:
    http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agcom/newscolumns/archives/OSL/1999/November/111199OSL.htm
    Wax, therefore, was in short supply, thus tallow candles.. If you want to see how a candle made of tallow works, form the wax you get on cheese around a string and light it. It will burn but most of it will melt and that is why there are large wax collectors on some candlesticks..Gather it up and re form it!

  2. Gerry Barker says:

    There probably were more beef and deer tallow candles than beeswax. Tallow candles were softer and definitely would be aided by the spiral holder. If you are going to try it, however, you have to keep the flame an inch or so above the metal otherwise the heat travels down the spiral and melts the candle. The logistical problem with beeswax is that until modern hive technology, it was hard to get enough wax to light a dwelling for any length of time. A few years ago we found a bee tree. As an experiment we went back in late winter and harvested it. The hive ran about ten feet up inside the trunk. We brought back ten pack baskets of hive. Cooked down we got abut a quart of honey and a dozen candles. It would have been impossible for the average household to rely on candles for lighting. That is why grease lamps (kitchen lamps, cruzies, etc.) were the most common.

  3. Liz says:

    Our local “living history” museum very adamantly touts “courting candles” as part of their tour of several pioneer cabins from the 1850s, mostly because they sell quite a number of them in the gift shop. Romance sells more candle holders than practicality, I suppose, but it still bothers me. They are handsome and perfectly functional without the story attached and would probably sell well without the myth attached.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I believe you are correct, Liz, that the myth sells reproductions in the gift shop. That is the basis for many myths being repeated. At Colonial Williamsburg, product literature and salespeople continue to repeat the myth about the pineapple being a symbol of hospitality–they sell loads of pineapple bookmarks, trivets, door knockers, etc.–even though historians in the Research Department have said this wasn’t true. Money often trumps the truth, I’m afraid.

  4. As a docent/volunteer at the Parks service venue at the Arch in St Louis I have told the romantic story of the Courting candle stick many hundreds of time. Usually use it in conjunction with pioneers and marriage proposals and how they were accomplished back in the Day. I add a little caveat at the end simply because it teaches human interaction principles between married couples.

    The caveat takes the fun little story about the courting candlestick, the prairie diamond horse nail ring, which was used in medieval France, the proper protocol in asking for a mans daughter hand in marriage, and brings interactions between man and woman to life into a powerful realm. Across the board the story is well received. It is fun to watch married couples smile at each other and acknowledge many times the male spouse did go to the wife’s father and ask permission to marry his daughter.

    I do understand these principles of this article, the spiral candle stick holder and the basic reasons to actually hold a soft candle upright. So the question is, as a docent am I to present the facts and only the facts ( Boring?) or am I part entertainer providing a fun and thought provoking experiences? I have nothing to sell and is there conclusive proof the adjustable candle stick was not used as a timer in a courting setting? Have seen the lights come on in many a young persons face especially the young single men when teaching some principles of courtship. I suppose though the courting candle stick story is hardly any worse than a story about buffalo dung/chips being used as fuel to cook the first batch of spicy now called Buffalo chicken/wings. Drummies?

    Part of the beauty of our common history is we have story’s out there which are no doubt fabrications, tall tales, and outright myth’s, Paul Bunyan and babe, the Blue Ox, Calamity Jane, the White Buffalo, Pecos Bill and the Blue Lake Monster to name a few.

    Now a true story about the courting candle stick in our time. Two to three years ago a young mother in her early thirties came past my station in the museum under arch on a Sunday afternoon. What struck me about her was she gasped when she saw my courting spiral candle stick holder which has a beeswax candle, in which my wife and I burned another once, lasting two and one half hours. The woman laughed and said with emphasis, “My parents did this to me”.

    I prefer the fun light hearted approach to romance and so will divine a caveat to use with my Courting Candle stick holder so as not to lead anyone astray.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the insight, Charles. I, myself, would not be comfortable spreading stories I could not document, and in my time as a “hostess” for Colonial Williamsburg, I did not knowingly do so, although I did do so unknowingly! In some cases, if the myth or story has value, I might consider relating it with the explanation that it is a legend or tall tale or undocumented story–whatever seems appropriate. But that’s just my opinion and neither here nor there. At your site, of course, it’s up to your superiors to establish guidelines.

    • Jake Pontillo says:

      I’m opposed to relaying information that one KNOWS to be false or undocumented merely because it is cute or entertaining. That is absolutely 180 degrees away from what a museum or historic site should be doing… if someone wants to relay such information, please preference it with the notice that “there is a cute and entertaining story about this, but it is not true, but I will tell you for your enjoyment.”


Revisited Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

November 26, 2017

According to legend, courting candles were used by fathers to set a time limit when his daughter’s suitor came courting. He would adjust the candle in the twisted holder and when the candle had burned to the top twist, it was time for the young man to leave. One manufacturer of reproduction candle holders elaborates imaginatively on this myth, “Rich or poor, the courting candle was used by fathers from all economic backgrounds. It taught daughters to respect their parents’ judgment. The candle also taught the suitor to defer to the father’s ability to judge a man . . . the courting candle served as an important boundary line in the family and social fabrics.” Wow! A real necessity in every household! 

But Henry Prebys, curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Michigan, says the term courting candle is more folklore than fact. The Chicago Tribune debunks this legend nicely in a June 28, 1998 article, so I’ll quote:

Although the candleholder indeed may have been used as a time-keeper for suitors, it was not intentionally made for that purpose. Origin: The candleholder with its spiral shape was popular in Germany before being introduced to the American Colonies by the early Pennsylvania-German settlers. According to Prebys, the appeal of the spiral shape was its practicality. The candle easily could be twisted into the holder. If the candle was soft, the shape of the holder prevented it from falling over. A slide connected to the holder also helped move the candle up or down, thus utilizing as much of the candle as possible. This was important because candles were costly.

Prebys notes that candles were not the preferred source of lighting during the Colonial period because of their cost. Most households used fat lamps, small dishes containing fat or oil and a wick. Fat lamps were more practical and far less costly than candles. Prebys explains that candles were expensive because they required certain skills to make and were labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The article concludes by noting that there are probably more reproduction courting candles today than there were originals made during the colonial era. 

Thank you, Anna Schaad Chappelle, Executive Director of Marble Springs in Tennessee, for forwarding this myth.

9 Responses to Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Interesting side issue: Honey bees, the type that give honey and wax were NOT native to America and were brought starting in 1622, but they did not spread that fast or far. Indians called them English flies. See:
    http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agcom/newscolumns/archives/OSL/1999/November/111199OSL.htm
    Wax, therefore, was in short supply, thus tallow candles.. If you want to see how a candle made of tallow works, form the wax you get on cheese around a string and light it. It will burn but most of it will melt and that is why there are large wax collectors on some candlesticks..Gather it up and re form it!

  2. Gerry Barker says:

    There probably were more beef and deer tallow candles than beeswax. Tallow candles were softer and definitely would be aided by the spiral holder. If you are going to try it, however, you have to keep the flame an inch or so above the metal otherwise the heat travels down the spiral and melts the candle. The logistical problem with beeswax is that until modern hive technology, it was hard to get enough wax to light a dwelling for any length of time. A few years ago we found a bee tree. As an experiment we went back in late winter and harvested it. The hive ran about ten feet up inside the trunk. We brought back ten pack baskets of hive. Cooked down we got abut a quart of honey and a dozen candles. It would have been impossible for the average household to rely on candles for lighting. That is why grease lamps (kitchen lamps, cruzies, etc.) were the most common.

  3. Liz says:

    Our local “living history” museum very adamantly touts “courting candles” as part of their tour of several pioneer cabins from the 1850s, mostly because they sell quite a number of them in the gift shop. Romance sells more candle holders than practicality, I suppose, but it still bothers me. They are handsome and perfectly functional without the story attached and would probably sell well without the myth attached.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I believe you are correct, Liz, that the myth sells reproductions in the gift shop. That is the basis for many myths being repeated. At Colonial Williamsburg, product literature and salespeople continue to repeat the myth about the pineapple being a symbol of hospitality–they sell loads of pineapple bookmarks, trivets, door knockers, etc.–even though historians in the Research Department have said this wasn’t true. Money often trumps the truth, I’m afraid.

  4. As a docent/volunteer at the Parks service venue at the Arch in St Louis I have told the romantic story of the Courting candle stick many hundreds of time. Usually use it in conjunction with pioneers and marriage proposals and how they were accomplished back in the Day. I add a little caveat at the end simply because it teaches human interaction principles between married couples.

    The caveat takes the fun little story about the courting candlestick, the prairie diamond horse nail ring, which was used in medieval France, the proper protocol in asking for a mans daughter hand in marriage, and brings interactions between man and woman to life into a powerful realm. Across the board the story is well received. It is fun to watch married couples smile at each other and acknowledge many times the male spouse did go to the wife’s father and ask permission to marry his daughter.

    I do understand these principles of this article, the spiral candle stick holder and the basic reasons to actually hold a soft candle upright. So the question is, as a docent am I to present the facts and only the facts ( Boring?) or am I part entertainer providing a fun and thought provoking experiences? I have nothing to sell and is there conclusive proof the adjustable candle stick was not used as a timer in a courting setting? Have seen the lights come on in many a young persons face especially the young single men when teaching some principles of courtship. I suppose though the courting candle stick story is hardly any worse than a story about buffalo dung/chips being used as fuel to cook the first batch of spicy now called Buffalo chicken/wings. Drummies?

    Part of the beauty of our common history is we have story’s out there which are no doubt fabrications, tall tales, and outright myth’s, Paul Bunyan and babe, the Blue Ox, Calamity Jane, the White Buffalo, Pecos Bill and the Blue Lake Monster to name a few.

    Now a true story about the courting candle stick in our time. Two to three years ago a young mother in her early thirties came past my station in the museum under arch on a Sunday afternoon. What struck me about her was she gasped when she saw my courting spiral candle stick holder which has a beeswax candle, in which my wife and I burned another once, lasting two and one half hours. The woman laughed and said with emphasis, “My parents did this to me”.

    I prefer the fun light hearted approach to romance and so will divine a caveat to use with my Courting Candle stick holder so as not to lead anyone astray.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the insight, Charles. I, myself, would not be comfortable spreading stories I could not document, and in my time as a “hostess” for Colonial Williamsburg, I did not knowingly do so, although I did do so unknowingly! In some cases, if the myth or story has value, I might consider relating it with the explanation that it is a legend or tall tale or undocumented story–whatever seems appropriate. But that’s just my opinion and neither here nor there. At your site, of course, it’s up to your superiors to establish guidelines.

    • Jake Pontillo says:

      I’m opposed to relaying information that one KNOWS to be false or undocumented merely because it is cute or entertaining. That is absolutely 180 degrees away from what a museum or historic site should be doing… if someone wants to relay such information, please preference it with the notice that “there is a cute and entertaining story about this, but it is not true, but I will tell you for your enjoyment.”


Revisited Myth #69: The first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621.

November 20, 2017

The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration or a meal shared with heathens. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.

An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.

All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. And Texas believes it has claims on an earlier event. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .

The truth is, there were many official days of prayerful thanksgiving in colonial America.

 

Previous comments:

informationforager says:
November 19, 2011 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Thanks for the info. I always like to find and realize real history. Mankind has such a propensity for misaligning the truth and making it totally self-serving. Recently I finished some books on the founding Fathers original religious views. That was very good. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

P.S. I’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida and it’s beautiful.

Reply
marymiley says:
November 19, 2011 at 9:55 am (Edit)
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine but it’s definitely on my short list!

Reply
Jamie says:
November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am (Edit)
I believe George Washington also proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for Thurs, Nov. 26 in 1789 (see http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html), more of day of prayer than a feast. My understanding is it didn’t quite catch on (and where it did was mainly in the North?) but set the stage for Lincoln’s national holiday, late in November (though, did I read that originally Lincoln’s holiday was the fourth Tuesday? and FDR moved it to third and later the fourthThursday?).

Reply
Saraspondence says:
November 21, 2011 at 4:07 am (Edit)
Thanks! I like the idea of multiple events in different geographical locations involving shared harvest and thanks to God!

Reply


Revisited: Thanksgiving Myths

November 19, 2017

A couple of years ago, I tackled the main Thanksgiving myth (see #69) about the first Thanksgiving and also the one about popcorn and Pilgrims (see #70). This year I’ll send you to another site where Eric Thompson of Texas has tackled several Thanksgiving myths. I learned something from his site–I hadn’t known of a First Thanksgiving claim of 1541 from Texas. Really, many states point to an early feast and prayer event and claim it was the earliest Thanksgiving, but the truth is, our holiday began when Lincoln made it a holiday during the Civil War. 

http://www.officespaceforrent.org/blog/6-myths-about-thanksgiving-revealed/


Revisited Myth #134: Fried cornmeal bits were thrown to dogs to keep them quiet, hence the name Hush Puppies.

November 12, 2017
Rhonda Florian wrote, “I have a question about hush puppies. I’m sure you have heard the tale that the slaves threw small pieces of cornbread to the dogs to quiet them and that’s how they became known as hush puppies. I also heard that soldiers (not sure which side) threw them to Confederate dogs to quiet them. Since I am doing a great deal of Civil War living history now, I want to be certain that I am not repeating any history myths. I want to do the best job I can, and history myths just don’t cut it with me.”

Rhonda Florian at work

Bless you, Rhonda! You are a museum director’s dream come true. 

Hush puppies are bits of fried corn meal. Many dictionaries will define this but none I could find offered any etymological information. Even the venerable OED is silent on this term. I checked several slang dictionaries — no luck. The best I could find was in the American Heritage Dictionary, which defined the term and then used the words “perhaps from” in relating the story about dogs. 

I believe this is not a myth. I think the playful term has its origin in the practice of tossing scraps to dogs. Its origins are Southern, not because Northerners didn’t throw scraps to their dogs, but because fried cornmeal is a Southern staple, like spoonbread and grits. Whether these cornbread bits were called hush puppies during the Civil War, I do not know. Perhaps someone out there has seen a period reference to them in a letter or diary??? That would go a long way toward easing your conscience about using the term and telling the story. I think that you can tell the supposed origins as long as you cover yourself by using the term “probably” or “perhaps,” as the American Heritage Dictionary did. 

 

Thank heavens! From the title I was afraid you were going to debunk this one!

One teensy quibble: Would it not have been some kind of corn meal mush or batter that is fried, not simply corn meal, which doesn’t hang together very well by itself?

Keep up the good work.

  1. R M Bragg says:

    For whatever it may be worth, the Online Etymological Dictionary gives the date of the first attested use as 1899 here: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=h&p=32&allowed_in_frame=0

  2. Mary Miley says:

    Interesting. That would suggest that Rhonda shouldn’t use the term in her Civil War-era presentations.

  3. Mike Henry says:

    In The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms
    by Robert Hendrickson, he cites a similar tale but says it originated with soldiers in World War I instead of the Civil War.

 


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