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Owen Historical Society News: A glimpse into the origins of phrases

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By Bonnie Strassell

He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not…
Many a young girl recites these words as she pulls petals off a flower. The purpose is to reveal the true intent of an admirer.
Sayings, superstitions and old wives tales were tucked away in the memories and embedded in the culture of early Owen County settlers. Most were of Scotch-Irish, German and English descent, and along with their few belongings, they brought a rich legacy of these sayings  from Europe to the New World.
Someone who that’s talkative it is said that she or he can sure bend your ear. The admonition to be patient may be expressed by saying, “hold your horses.”
Horse races were a common pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries and many times a horse would start running before the beginning gun sounded. Thus the riders would be cautioned to hold their horses. Look before you leap was another way of stating that one needs to be patient and cautious before making an important decision.
Shake a leg and hop to it are both phrases that mean get moving.
Dead as a doornail denotes that something or someone is irrefutably, undeniably dead.
When doors were constructed in early times, it was a common practice to hammer the nail through the door frame then bend the protruding end over to secure it. Because nails were hand forged and therefore valuable they would be removed and reused when a building was destroyed. These bent doornails were not usable and therefore they were “dead” and thus dead as a doornail became a common saying.
Good lucks and bad lucks were part of everyday life of the early pioneers.
Black cats were said to associate with witches and therefore if one walked across your path it would bring bad luck. To offset a possible disaster, you could spit in the road.
Since ancient times spitting was thought to bring good luck. Even today, baseball players are seen spitting on their bats or gloves to help them win the game.
Throwing salt over one’s left shoulder was thought to keep bad spirits away and knocking on wood goes back to early times when fairies were believed to inhabit the trees. Knocking on the wood let them know you acknowledged them and their magic.
One fellow stated that his family was so poor they “had dried beans for breakfast, drank water for dinner and swelled up for supper.”
When visiting Southern States in Owenton Gary Duvall who was assisting me had squatted down to get something off a bottom shelf. Standing up too quickly caused the blood to rush to his head resulting in momentary blindness. Laughing, Gary informed me that his father referred to this phenomena as “the blind staggers.”
All wool and a yard wide is a compliment given when you admire someone. Wool has always been considered the most desired fabric to buy; and the best material is 100 percent wool. When bolts of fabric were first introduced in America they were only 30-32 inches wide. Therefore if you bought wool that was a yard wide-36 inches, you had made a excellent purchase.
In his reminisces from the 1800s Ebenezar Stedman, papermaker on the Elkhorn in Franklin County, wrote an old saying in reference to Monterey steamboat captain Dennis Byrnes.
In one of his letters, Stedman described Dennis as “in the prime of life, near six feet in high, of a Sandy complexion, bilt from the ground up, a pleasing face as much as to say, ‘I never leave the Latch String inside’.”
Early cabins had latch strings which ran through a hole in the door from the outside to lift the latch on the inside. If the latch string was outside the door it meant that visitors were always welcome. Ebenezer Stedman wanted to illustrate the hospitality he was shown by Dennis Byrnes.
Stories, songs, sayings, and superstitions all join together to weave the fabric of our families. They are part of our genealogy and history. We need to share them with our children and grandchildren, and in doing so, we will continue to preserve the rich traditions of our ancestors.
A board meeting will be held tomorrow evening, 6:30 p.m. at the I.O.O.F. hall. All board members are requested to attend as we have many important matters to discuss. Committee members are also welcome.
A new exhibit will soon be forthcoming at the historical society museum. Owen countians in WWI is dedicated to all those whose service to this country was instrumental in establishing freedom in the world.
If you haven’t paid your yearly dues please remember that these funds are necessary to pay our expenses to keep the museum open for the public. The dues are $25 a year. Please help us continue to preserve Owen County history.