While it is difficult to remember every class a person had while in high school there are, of course, some that stick out. One for me was an English lesson when we were discussing Shakespeare and our teacher told us how many common traditions and sayings have roots back to the 1500s.
For example, the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” dates back to when a family would have their yearly (yes, that’s right, yearly) bath. Logically, the cleanest person would jump in the communal (yes, that’s also right, communal) tub first.
But no, the father — the head of the house — would get clean first. And if the father was a blacksmith … well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. Oldest to youngest would then get a turn to wash, so by the time it was the baby’s turn the water would be so dirty they’d have to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
And speaking of a yearly bath, that was also the reason behind brides carrying flowers. By the time May and June came, the flowers would help the wife-to-be smell more appealing on her special day.
Other common phrases that date back to Shakespeare’s time include “the graveyard shift” and “saved by the bell.”
Back then, scant medical knowledge would lead to people being presumed dead when they were, in fact, still alive.
So, as a precaution, the deceased would be buried with a string tied around their wrist which would then travel through a hole in the coffin and up to a bell beside the tombstone. That way, if someone woke up while underground, he or she could signal for help.
Of course, someone would have to spend time in the graveyard at all hours, even at night, to listen for those bells, hence the term “graveyard shift.”
It’s strange how much of what we do nowadays has roots that are downright archaic. Thankfully, we have progressed beyond yearly baths and mistaken corpses.
With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder what we will leave behind for generations hundreds of years beyond our humble 21st century.
Will people still extend their thumb and pinky to mime talking on the phone? Will people ask, “Why does that weird gesture mean phone? Phones are flat little squares!” (Who knows, maybe phones will be transplanted directly into our hands by that time. Isn’t that a scary thought?)
Or, maybe people will ask, “Why is it, when we want someone to roll down their car window, we twist our hand in the air, like we’re turning something?” And then, maybe they’ll ask, “Why do we call it ‘rolling down a window?’ You push a button! Shouldn’t it be called, ‘Push down the window?’”
How much of what we do now will eventually fuel funny little mysteries of the future? How sad in some ways … but also, how remarkable.
Every person hopes, as they go through their life filling each day with Little League games, take out dinners, and prime time TV, that they will leave something behind and that they will have some impact.
That is a question we all face at one time or another. We look at all the billions of people with whom we share this earth, and the countless others who lived here before us and who will live here after us, and we wonder how one person can ever have a lasting influence.
We face the question most, I think, when we first embark into the “adult world,” fresh out of high school after being told the world is our oyster. (I can’t help but wonder where that phrase comes from, too).
But I think these echoes from long ago – these little sayings and traditions – prove that however we might advance, we never lose what we once were. Inevitably, we hold on to what was in the past.
It makes sense then that in some small way we hold on to each idea, each dream, and each person.
After all, if something like “the graveyard shift” can stand the test of time, then surely a person who lived, and laughed, and loved, will too … at least by someone, somewhere, at some time or another.
Of course, that is a lofty idea. But it’s one that I can’t help but think is true. If you don’t believe me, consider this quote by Anita Roddick: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-402-2571 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.