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It’s All About the Riff Raff


by Jonathan van Bilsen


I have always been fascinated with the origin of phrases in the English language. Here is my latest contribution to the list:

In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, and so did a glass of whisky. If a cowhand was low on cash, he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a ‘shot’ of whisky.

This is synonymous with dying. During WW1, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm, so if you died, you ‘bought the farm’ for your survivors.

The Mississippi River was the main way of travelling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive, so most people used rafts. Everything had the right of way over rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a ‘riff’, and this transposed into ‘riff-raff’, meaning low class.

Travelling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after states. To this day, cabins on ships are called ‘staterooms’.

Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then ‘tighten the ropes’ to get a better night’s sleep.

In the days before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel, and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you are ‘over a barrel’, you are in deep trouble.

Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad, they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless ‘hog wash’.

The word ‘curfew’ comes from the French phrase ‘couvre-feu’, which means ‘cover the fire’. It was used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles. It was later adopted into Middle English as ‘curfeu’, which later became the modern "curfew". In the early North American colonies, homes had no real fireplaces, so a fire was built in the center of the room. In order to make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night, it was required, by an agreed upon time, all fires would be covered with a clay pot called a ‘curfew’.

Lastly, as the paper goes through the rotary printing press, friction, causes it to heat up. Therefore, if you grab the paper right off the press, it’s hot. The expression ‘hot off the press’ means to get immediate information.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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