This continues an occasional series of tour guide etymologies. This is
from the New York Post, 12 August 1997, pg. 56, cols. 1-6, "Rule of thumb: a
Tudor-ial in the origins of English" by Nadine Godwin of Travel Weekly:
(...) We collected the following during our house tours:
. Bed and board. Tabletops were simply boards laid on top of wooden
supports, and so, as the place where food was laid out the word board came to
mean food, too. In addition, the boards were moved to the floor to serve as
beds for guests. Hence, guests were offered bed and board.
. Bonfire. Graves were emptied after about 20 years and the bones burned on
a "bon fire."
. By hook or by crook. People could have any food from public lands that
they could extract from the ground with a hook or from trees with a crook.
. Chairman of the board. This comes from the fact the head of the household
was the only person to have his own chair, making him the chair man, and,
sitting at the table, or board, he was chairman of the board.
. Cold shoulder. This referred to a cold piece of meat, usually the shoulder
of a carcass, that was served to an unwelcome guest.
. Lick the platter clean. Diners literally licked their plates clean for
reuse because the dishes were never washed.
. Sleep tight. Several mattresses were stacked on the bed and supported by
ropes strung from a wooden frame. One tied the ropes tight to keep from
falling through to the floor.
. On the shelf. Children slept on a braod shelf, and because they slept
there until marriage, unwed daughters were still on the shelf.
. Rule of thumb. A husband was encouraged to beat his wife, but was not to
use a stick any wider than his thumb. (One more "rule of thumb" and I'll
bring out the three words ending in "-gry"--ed.)
. Square meal. Meals were square because the wooden trenchers that served as
plates were square.
. The dead of the night. These were the victims of the black plague, carried
away at night for disposal.