We’ve been saving our bacon since the 16th century by “escaping injury” or “avoiding a loss.” Given how bacon was such a precious commodity, elaborate precautions were always taken in storing it for the winter — especially keeping it out of the reach of house dogs. Meanwhile we continued to bring home the bacon — simply earning a living and providing our family with the necessities of life. It also helped us “succeed in a given enterprise” or “win the prize” (1925). This from county fairs and their greased pig contests, where whoever caught the pig, got to keep it—literally bringing home the bacon. The story that gets the prize, however, dates back to the first years of the 12th century and Dunmow, a village in Essex, England, which had a unique custom called “the awarding of the flitch.” A flitch, or side of bacon, was offered annually to any person who would kneel at the church door and swear that he and his wife had not quarreled at any time during the preceding year nor had they during that time ever wished themselves unmarried. Records show that from 1244 until 1722 when the contest ceased — a period of almost 300 years — couples had brought home the bacon a grand total of five times.
Though ours is the era of the strong-willed woman, there’s little talk of the henpecked man. Centuries ago, however, writers were obsessed with him. Butler noted how “The henpeck man rides behind his wife and lets her wear the spurs and govern the reins.” Poor Dryden bemoaned his own fate, “Was ever poor deity so hen-pecked as I am!” And Steele proclaimed Socrates “the head of the Sect of the Hen-Pecked.” Henpeckery was first validated in a famous study done by W.C.Allen in the 1920s showing how stronger birds asserted their authority over the weaker ones. Once a chicken established its position in the pecking order, it had to submit to those above, but could peck freely at the others below. Hens rarely peck at the rooster. He is, after all, the cock of the walk. His fighting instinct has been honed to perfection, and he knows it. Many men model themselves after him, hoping to emulate his cocksure attitude. Most end up just out-and-out cocky. If you’re looking for a marriage that’s impeccable, “ free from faults” — from the Latin im, “not “and peccare, “to sin,” you have only to stay away from affairs and those tasty peccadilloes.
Another weekend dining out, indulging yourself, eating high off the hog (late19thC). Why not? That’s where you’ll traditionally find the choicest cuts of meat — high up on the hog’s side. You say you ate like a bird, thinking birds don’t eat very much. In truth, relative to their size, they eat considerably. The moment of truth comes when you step on the bathroom scale. Your bravado crumbles, and a sumptuous breakfast gives way to eating humble pie (early 19thC). You are absolutely mortified. The umbles were the heart, liver, and entrails of the deer, a little something left for the servants while the Lord and Lady feasted on the venison. Having to eat the umbles suggested poverty, a humble status, and your current humiliation. The only thing left to swallow is your pride. The call to a hearty breakfast, however, still beckons. “But a morsel,” you say, from the Latin mors , a “bite,” from mordere, “to bite.” You hesitate for a moment. Adding re, “back,” leads to a “biting again and again,” something “vexing” you, creating remorse (1385) — that gnawing feeling that can only leave you eating your words (1550s).
You know you’ve been into one cup too many during this holiday season, when the Latin bria, “cup” leaves you inebriated. Refraining from that same cup, however, could also have sobered you up. All you had to do was remain so, “apart from” it.
Though too many cups can leave you out of your skull, a more accurate designation would be “in your skull,” there being a time when skulls and shells served as drinking cups, the Old Norse skal being the source of the popular toast. Skoal later became a popular expression among English speakers in 1589 when Scotland’s James VI’s marriage to a Danish princess provided the rationale for much drinking and toasting.
Skal is also the source of our scales, originally a pan or bowl hanging from each end of a beam, horizontally suspended at its center. So weigh your actions carefully, especially when it comes to drinking and driving. Those skals also are the scales of justice, one of its principal attributes being that you can never outweigh even a little right with any quantity of wrong.
Facing the music is never easy. It does, after all, require confronting unpleasantness and the consequences of one’s own errors. For actors, their moment came when facing the pit orchestra as they looked out towards the audience— a time to owe up to their mastery of the role and the reaction of the theater goers. For soldiers, it was being mustered out in full battle regalia for a call to inspection — often initiated by a bugle, or on the occasion of their formal dismissal from service — a ceremony also often accompanied by band music. Politicians also take it hard. When Margaret Truman, daughter of the President, gave her first public concert in August of 1947, music critics found her performance wanting. Unwilling to face the music as to Margaret’s limited talents, the President lashed out publicly at the critics, noting how their opinions were not worth a song (late 1500s) — a phrase originally alluding to the meager earnings of street singers — often nothing more than pennies or a few scraps of food. Better yet, Baron Burleigh who remarked on being ordered by Queen Elizabeth to give Edmund Spenser an annuity of 100 pounds for having composed The Faerie Queene, “All this for a song?”