Crusts, hogwash and turnspits

On the BBC Four programme If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home, that I watched last night, they discussed the possible origins of a number of expressions, including by hook and by crook, upper crust, hog wash, turnspit and so on.

By hook and by crook – by whatever means necessary.
In medieval times peasants were only allowed to take wood from the trees – any wood on the ground belonged to the lord of the manor – and they gathered the wood with reapers’ billhooks or shepherds’ crooks. According to The Phrase Finder, this is the most likely origin of this phrase, though there are other suggestions: that it comes from Hook Head and Crooke, villages on opposite sides of the Waterford channel in Ireland, and Cromwell apparently said that Waterford would fall ‘by Hook or by Crooke’, i.e. by a landing of his army at one of those two places. Another possibility is that the phrase comes from two judges from the early 17th century, called Hooke and Crooke, who were called on to solve difficult legal cases.

Upper crust – the aristocracy.
The folk etymology of this phrase is that only the nobility were given the upper, unburnt part of the bread, while the peasants got the bottoms of the loaves that had sat on the oven floor and got burnt. According to The Phrase Finder though, there is no evidence for this explanation. They cite one reference from The boke of nurture, folowyng Englondis gise by John Russell (circa 146): “Kutt ye vpper crust for youre souerayne.” (iCut the upper crust [of the loaf] for your sovereign). The term upper crust wasn’t used to refer to the aristocracy, at least in writing, until the early 19th century and previously referred to the outer crust of the Earth’s surface and, more frequently, a person’s head or hat.

Hogwash – nonsene.
In Victorian times, and probably before, any food waste that couldn’t be made into soup or otherwise reused was called ‘wash’ and was sold to farmers to feed their pigs or hogs, hence ‘hogwash’, which is also known as pigswill. By the later 19th century and mainly in the USA hogwash came to mean nonsense, especially ridiculous, worthless or nonsensical ideas.

Turnspit – a person whose job it was to keep a roasting-spit turning, or a dog that kept the spit turning by running in a wooden tread-wheel to which it was attached. Such dogs were also known as turnspit dogs or turn curs and a breed (now extinct) was developed specifically for such work. Such a dog first appears in writing in Of English Dogs in 1576 with the name Turnespete. Other names for them include the Kitchen Dog, the Cooking Dog, the Underdog and the Vernepator.

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This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Language, Words and phrases.

One Response to Crusts, hogwash and turnspits

  1. “was called ‘wash’ and was sold to farmers to feed their pigs or hogs, hence ‘hogwash’” – in Portuguese we have “lavagem” for pig/hog feeding. Lavagem means “washing”. Very curious!