By Joseph Xavier Martin
I have always been fascinated by the use of idioms in the English language. Usually, there is no literal correlation of the words spoken to the meaning conveyed. The phrase is just an assemblage of words that have come together, by popular usage, to represent a certain meaning.
Usually, the meaning is transitory and the phrase lasts but a generation. “Wrong way Corrigan,” “23 skidoo” and a dozen other once popular idioms would only bring a look of puzzlement to modern listeners, hearing them perhaps for the first time.
There are many phrases that survive the centuries, reinforced over and over again by ensuing generations until the meaning is crystal clear, even if the outward verbal utterance is less than socially acceptable. One of those time-tested and colorful phrases is, “They were so poor that they didn’t have a pot to pee in.” I can remember hearing this rather earthy appraisal, regarding a family’s economic status, on any number of occasions while growing up.
I never really knew the source of its provenance. I figured that it was just one more colorful idiom that had arisen in the American vernacular, much to the horror of our British cousins.
In fact, it turns out the phrase is actually British in origin, originating from Elizabethan London. At the time, the leather tanneries had their principal factories placed deep in the bowels of the poorer sections of greater London. These wily manufacturers had found that human urine was of great use to them in the tanning of hides and making quality leather products. I don’t know the nature of the chemical reaction, just that it helped the leather makers turn out a leather product with a smoother finish.
As a consequence, the thrifty makers of leather offered the surrounding populace a penny for a pot of their nightly discharge. The citizens had to collect said leavings and carry them to the factory daily for their penny.
It was a good source of income for them. But, like all such groupings, there were people in their midst who had not the financial wherewithal to even afford the humble pot that was necessary to garner the needed nightly leavings. The other citizens, not too charitably, had sneeringly referred to these poorer neighbors as someone who was so poor that “they didn’t even have a pot to pee in.”
Thus, one of the more colorful idioms of the English language was born. Naturally, it was carried across the ocean, by arriving immigrants, to the United States. It has survived these several centuries and is still in colloquial use today.
“Crying crocodile tears” is another favorite idiom, referring to insincerity. Crocodiles, like humans, have lacrimal ducts that produce droplets (tears) to clear their eyes. When a crocodile is getting ready to take a chomp out of someone, he compresses his jaws, getting ready. The compression puts pressure on the lacrimal ducts, forcing liquid “teardrops” through them.
Thus, even though a croc might appear to be crying, he is getting ready to take a bite out of someone. The misinterpretation of the motion, causing the tears, gives us the phrase, “he is crying crocodile tears.” It means someone expressing false sincerity.
The treasures of English language idioms are a delight to the ear.
Joseph Xavier Martin, of Williamsville, is on cloud nine when he hears a new idiom.