Then and Now

A Living History Skills series by Colonel Jerry Tubbs

Our forefathers used phrases and sayings in their everyday life that through time has either been forgotten or the original meaning has change to suite today's life style. In this article a few of these saying will be looked at. I will first give the modern explanation and then the original meaning.

Lock, Stock and Barrel: This phrase is generally associated with farming. It was said that in the depression of the 1930's, when a man sold his entire farm, he was selling out "lock, stock and barrel". In other words he was selling all of the possessions he owned. The phrase has changed very little if any in today's world still alluding to the meaning of "everything".

In past times this phrase was used in the building of a rifled gun or pistol. If a person had the money and needed an entire weapon built, he had the gunsmith build it, firelock, wooden stock and gun barrel. In other words, lock, stock and barrel.

By Hook or By Crook: Is a modern phrase used in the meaning of obtaining something by any means. A person might say, " I will buy that new car by hook or crook".

This statement harks back to a time when farmers used a hooked stick to prune dead branches from trees. Very early house leases forbade the tenant to cut trees for firewood, although he was always allowed as much wood as could be taken by: "hook or crook."

Plumbing: This word is used today to describe the piping used to bring fresh water into or remove wastewater from our homes. The word plumber is used today to describe a person that works on our home's piping.

"Plumbing" did not mean what it would mean today; because plumb was the word for lead, and a plumber was a man who worked with lead. Because all of the first metal pipes were made from folded lead, the water-pipe makers became known as lead men or "plumbers". Plumbing was a term used to mean getting an object perfectly vertical. This was accomplished by using a brass weight on a string held next to the object to made vertical. Today it would be called a Plumb bob.

Mad as a Hatter: Although not used very much in today's modern society, this phrase was used until early part of the twentieth century. This term was used to describe someone with a mental disorder or in other words: "mad".

When felt hats were being made by hand in older times, one of the chemicals used in production was mercury. After many years of making hats, the Hatter would have absorbed dangerous levels of mercury into his system. After years of exposure, the mercury would poison the brain and he would become mentally impaired or "mad". If a person was seen acting strangely, it might be said he is: "Mad as a Hatter".

Don't go off half-cocked: This expression is used now days meaning not doing anything rash or get mad at someone quickly. An example would be," Boy, Jon sure went off half cocked at Bill before he knew all of the story."

Until around the mid 1800's, military weapons were of flintlock design and loaded in a manner considered unsafe today. A soldier would have carried with him at least twenty pre-made rounds in his cartridge box. When the order to load was given, he would with draw a cartridge. The first step would be to bite open the cartridge and prime the flash pan. Then he would close the frizzen over the priming powder and continue to load the rest of the powder and ball down the muzzle of the musket. He then would pull out the ramrod and ram the powder and ball down the barrel to the breech. If the lock of the gun had any defective internal parts that held the hammer in the "half cocked" position, the hammer would fall forward and cause the gun to discharge while the soldier's hand was above the muzzle. The poor soldier generally lost his hand in the process. Thus the term, "don't go off half cocked" got its origin.

A flash in the pan: This is a term associated with the firing of a flintlock rifle or musket. When the touchhole in the side of the barrel became blocked with powder fouling, the priming powder; when ignited would burn but not be able to reach the main charge. All that would occur would be a "flash in the pan".

This is another phrase not readily used in modern society, but was popular in the 18th and 19th century. It was used to describe a person who may have talked boldly about something that may have occurred to him, but was only lying to perhaps impress someone. If the truth were known about this braggart, it would have been said that he was just a flash in the pan. It would have also been used to describe someone's plan or idea to do something, but was not likely to carry out their plan or idea. It may have been said," Don't listen to him. His ideas are just a flash in the pan".

These phrases only represent a small number of the way English was spoken by our forefathers. Try using these sayings or ones that you may know in conversation with fellow re-enactors or with the public. Share with the public how these phrases originated from everyday life of the 1830's.

Creating a Character

Is That Gun Real?

What's in the Bag?

You need an Edge

What's Cooking?

Lighting up the Night

Keeping an Eye on the Sky

Getting Started

Then & Now

What type of Primitive Shelter is best for you?


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