Saturday, May 22, 2010

Old Memes Never Die

Recently, during some of my readings about life in the American colonies, I stumbled across the long forgotten origins of certain phrases we tend to take for granted in modern times. Four Five in particular struck me as interesting, so I thought I'd share them with you here.

"To and fro" -- Possibly handed down from the practice of using a tool called a froe to fashion roof shingles, siding shakes, or flat stock for cutting pegs, from cross-sections of trees called billets. A froe was a long, flat blade with an eye forged at one end, into which a handle was inserted. A mallet drove the blade into the billet and the woodsman's back and forth ("to and fro") rocking of the handle eventually freed a flat section of wood from the round billet. [Source: C. Keith Wilbur, "Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America", Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT]

Illustration of a froe from Eric Sloan's "Museum of Early American Tools"

"One Fell Swoop" -- Most likely originated from the practice of clearing fields for planting by felling trees using a method called girdling. Instead of cutting trees down individually, the woodsmen would save time by cutting bands around each of a large number of trees, removing just enough wood to weaken them. The girdled trees formed a pattern called a swoop. A single tree at one end of the swoop was then felled, and if all went right, the remaining trees would topple like dominoes. [Source: This was my own conclusion, after reading the article "The Chopping Bee" in the April 2010 edition of Early American Life magazine]

Felling axe and silver maple

"Square Peg in a Round Hole" -- Or more precisely, "A square peg in a round hole makes for a poor fit". We often use this expression to refer to an ill-conceived idea or an improbable undertaking. However, it originates from timber frame construction and the use of large wooden pegs (trunnels, or tree nails) to tighten a joint between two large framing timbers via a process known as drawboring.

Pegs were generally cut from square stock that was in turn cut from billets using a froe (as previously described). The pegs were then rounded by using a drawknife to cut some number of sides to the peg. For instance, most pegs were made not completely round, but usually octagonal. Finally, a hatchet was used to put a taper on one end of the peg.

Were the peg left square, its edges would tend to cut into the opposing surfaces of the interiors of the drawboring holes, and not completely align the holes together. This would result in a joint that was less than optimally tight. [Source: C. Keith Wilbur, "Home Building and Woodworking in Colonial America", Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT]

My home seems to have an abundance of trunnels of varying degrees of roundness and squareness....

[Added on August 25, 2010]
"Dead as a Doornail" -- Old colonial batten doors were usually assembled by driving nails through the battens and boards and then clinching (or clenching) the nails on the other side of the boards. Clinching refers to bending the exposed portion of the nail shank over and then into the side of the board by striking it with a hammer. This was done to achieve the tightest possible fit, ensuring that the door would never loosen up. Soft, malleable iron nails, sometimes called clinch nails, were used for this purpose.

Old clinch-nailed batten door in the Hawkins house. You can see the clinched nails just below the top of the door, covered by layers of paint.

Recently, I learned from an article published by The Old House Web [Mark Clement, "Dead as a Doornail"] that the term "dead as a doornail" originated from the old practice of recovering nails and other precious hardware from the remains of burned-down buildings. Most nails sifted from the ashes could be re-used, but the door nails were not reusable, having been clinched. Hence, they were "dead" nails.

You can read further about the history and interesting properties of old iron square nails in my article "Yes, Virginia, They Really Do Still Make Those Old Square Nails", in the Building Moxie daily blog.

For an excellent illustration of the process of clinching (and the associated difficulties), see "Clinching Nails (Sometimes Teeth)" by Lost Art Press.

[Added on October 4, 2011]
"Basement" -- The massive bottom section of an old chimney column, which was situated, of course, in the cellar, was known as a "basement" in its day. Over time, "basement" became a synonym for cellar.
[Source: This was a bit of trivia related to us by Jim DeStefano, during his excellent presentation at the Timber Framers Guild's Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group (TTRAG) Spring Symposium, in early April of 2011.

When the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first hypothesized the concept of a meme as the unit of cultural propagation and descent (gene being its biological counterpart), he posited that some memes had better long-term survivability than others.

It's interesting how, in the particular case of the examples cited above, some memes survive by acquiring increasingly abstract, yet still accurate, meanings over the course of time and cultural evolution. By largely casting off their original, concrete meanings, these memes have establish a fecundity that ensures their continued use, not only in the present, but possibly even well into the cultural future.

So perhaps the moral of this posting ought to be "Old memes never die, they just abstract away..." :-P


Shelley said...

I learned some new things today - it's neat to know the origins of the sayings!

Cassie said...

One fell swoop is one I use regularly.

Hey cousin, I've been thinking about you alot lately, because I bought a reel lawn mower for our place up here in Idaho. I LOVE it. It is so smooth and is just the right thing for the small areas of grass (weeds?) I want to keep cut low. I got it on line and give it a 5star rating.
Hope all is well with you. It looks like you were going to do a post and them took it back today. Miss reading you!! x-c

John Poole said...

Shelley ~ Yes, definitely was fun stumbling upon the origins of these old sayings. Glad you enjoyed the posting!

Cassie ~ Hey, cuz! How are you? So glad to hear about your reel mower and that you're happy with it! Have been trying to get others on board with the reel mower..varying success. But glad to hear about yours! And regarding writing, I have three articles in the works right now...should be out in the next few days. Will also stop by and see what's new on your blog in just a bit...