The Voice of Experience: Keeping our brains sharp

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Attention seniors! Becoming forgetful? Recent research has discovered that learning a second language could really keep our grey matter tuned up. Why not study in greater depth the language spoken by more than 300 million people around the world, English? In spite of all its illogicality, there are more students of English in the world’s next superpower, China, than there are people in the U.S.

A look at the history of our language reveals the origin of some colourful expressions, some dating back to the 1500s.

In England, the peasants at this time could only afford to bathe once a year (incidentally this was probably the main reason brides carried a bunch of sweet smelling flowers to the altar). Water was heated and the menfolk were the first. Then all the sons, then the women and finally the children, last of all, the babies. By then the water was so dirty they could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Another example was caused by the thatched straw roofs with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall into the house. Hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

A third example is rather gruesome. When burial plots became scarce, gravediggers would often unearth the “occupied” coffins. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive! So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (“the graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell; thus, some lucky soul could be “saved by the bell.”

Interestingly, our generation of seniors may be the last to use these expressions. Although our kids might understand the meaning, they are unlikely to use them in their active speech. No doubt they are already replacing them with new words like “tweckle” (heckling using a Tweet) or expressions like “born on the wrong side of the blanket”(born out of wedlock) and “kick the can down the road” (delaying the resolution of a pressing problem).

So along with all the other habits to keep your brain sharp, be curious about our language, ancient and modern. It might help to avoid that questions we all ask: “Honey, where did I put the car keys?”

Phil Thomas is a longtime Creston resident and volunteer.