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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Get Me To the Church on Time

Many of today's phrases have their origins in the religious life-styles of our ancestors. This article examines some of the terms from various religions and belief systems and how they are still in use in the 21st Century.


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Getting our ancestors to the church on time was not always an easy task . . . many lived far from their preferred places of worship and going to services was often not a weekly event. This, of course, did not mean that our ancestors lacked religious conviction, only that they had challenges that precluded regular church attendance. But this piece is not about how religious our ancestors were, or about their irregular church attendance; this is about the terms that they, and we, employ that have their roots in the religious fervor of both America and earlier civilizations. We tend to forget how many phrases have their origin in church communities or religious beliefs, which may or may not indicate that, as a society in general, we are not as close to our pious roots as our ancestors. Just the use of certain phrases, such as "by George," "golly," and "gosh darn it," are simply cover-ups for terms that involved taking the Lord's name in vain (Martin). Some would not consider any of these innocuous utterings to be anything even slightly "profane," another term that has its origin in early religious behavior.

The area directly in front of the temple - the area that was pro ("before") faunum ("temple") - was not considered sacred or reverent. As a result, other things that were similarly non-reverent (or even irreverent) were considered "profane." Over time, this term was extended to words and behaviors that treated sacred things with disdain, eventually the very act of using the name of Deity as an expletive. Therefore, using "profanity" is to take that which is holy and treat it with disrespect (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 52), something that we hope our forebears would never knowingly do.

We tend to perceive our ancestors as having been shining examples of good, religious families, yet sometimes we come across stories and evidence that portray these folks as having done things that we, as their descendants, may not have been proud of. We would hope that they eventually attempted to "turn over a new leaf." These new leaves, however, had no connection to the many trees that dotted their landscapes: they were the leaves of that Heavenly tome in which our sins are being dutifully recorded. Many believe we will need to answer for our transgressions, but if we turn over the new leaf of the book and amend our conduct, we will surely have an easier time of it in the hereafter (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 61).

The concept of an all-powerful Deity has been part of societies throughout all the ages; it fills us with awe. And the thought that in the future we, so much less than the All Powerful, will face our Lord on Judgment Day is "awe-filled" or "awe-full." Over time, the concept of "awe-full" has been adjusted, through various Bible translations, to "awful." What once meant "awe-inspiring, great," was altered (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 60-21). As we continue to do research on our family history, we are frequently awe-struck by the information we find while, at other times, we might declare that a priest's bookkeeping was "awful" (meaning anything but "awe inspiring")!

Let us look a moment at the pioneer ancestors who headed west across America into an uncharted wilderness. People had different reasons for leaving the civilized East to face unknown dangers and situations; sometimes it was to leave behind a life (or family) that was unsatisfactory. Many of those who were escaping such lives "never looked back" at what was left behind. These pioneers were seeking a better life for themselves. This behavior of "never looking back" comes straight from the pages of the Bible, where Lot was given that same admonition when departing from Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course, Lot's wife failed to follow the directives and her fate is well known (Mordock & Korach, p. 76)! We hope that, as we continue our family history quest, we never find a notation that reads, "This person looked back and has been reduced to a pillar of salt in the family records."

Most of these pioneers of the west had one thing in common: they "girded up their loins" for the challenges and hazards ahead. This Biblical phrase refers to the act of preparing for work (or battle) by tucking "the long skirt of his garment into his girdle or belt" (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp.61-62). Now, our pioneer ancestors probably didn't have such a garment to "tuck," but most did prepare themselves for the journey by having the necessary supplies, hiring a knowledgeable guide, or joining a well-outfitted wagon train, and having a basic understanding of the dangers that awaited. These sojourners were wise if they figuratively "girded their loins."

Crossing the plains and the mountains was no easy task for the early pioneers. Often they relied on providence, offering prayers for safety and survival. Perhaps those who were less pious added a little reliance on superstition - "knocking on wood," for instance - looking for a little "luck" instead of divine intervention. What a shock it would be to those folks to learn that the wood upon which they rapped their knuckles was an allusion to the Cross of Jesus Christ (Holt, p. 154)!

The Cross has a great deal of religious significance that continuously crosses over (no pun intended) into secular society. As we research old records, it is not uncommon to come upon a document signed with an X (and often labeled as the "mark" of the person authorizing the statement). Regardless of the religious affiliation, that mark has been associated with Christ and the belief that the "X" is sacred: the one who signs in that manner does so in honesty; it is considered a "sign" that the document to which he affixes his name is true and binding. For that reason, as more and more of society became literate and knew how to write their names, it was still given the term "sign" and "signing," from its religious background (Garrison, Why You Say it, p. 191).

Some of our ancestors were educated and even attended institutions of higher learning; but whether or not your forebear was one of those people, you may have had an ancestor who insisted on things being done with precision, always working "to a T," seeking perfection in every endeavor. This phrase also has its origin in writing and religion: some of the earliest literate individuals were the Hebrew scribes who wrote with brushes, creating letters that resembled a horn. This was called a "titil" and, later, "tittle." It was imperative that the letters were carefully formed and that "every jot and tittle" was done properly, hence the phrase "to a T", "T" being short for "tittle" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 66-67). While some believe that the origin of the phrase has a less religious background, referring, instead, to the "T-square" of the carpenter, the use of the phrase pre-dates the use of that carpenter's tool [Funk, Hog on Ice, pp. 194-195].)

As the West was settled, history records many different types of folks populating the towns and surrounding areas. There were ranchers, lawmen, merchants, blacksmiths, renegades, and more. We can readily see where some of those folks got their titles (another word that originated with "tittle"), but what about the "renegade"? That term comes from the Crusades when, on occasion, one of the Christians would desert and change allegiance to side with the Muslims, converting to Islam in the process. These deserters were called renegados, from the Latin term "to deny" (as in, "denying the faith"). Along with immigrants to the new world came their words and "renegade" was soon part of the western vernacular, referring to a white man who forsook his comrades to side with the Native Americans (no doubt to save his own scalp) (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 65). Exactly what a "renegade Indian" is, however, this writer is not exactly certain.

We admire our ancestors for their tenacity and sacrifice. We like to imagine what their lives were like: If they were awful or profane, did they turn over new leaves without looking back at renegade lifestyles, girding up their loins and becoming model citizens to a T? Did they stand behind their signature (whether they used an X, or were literate and could sign their name)? As we seek the answers to these questions, we might knock on wood and look for a little divine assistance in finding out just a few more details of their lives. At least we know where some of their expressions originated!


Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Charles Earle. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1948, 1985.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Garrison, Webb. Why You Say it: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover Publications, 1936, 1961.

Martin, Gary. Meanings and Origins of Phrases, Sayings and Idioms. Retrieved February 12, 2008, from

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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