by Laurel Mills
Back when we were in preschool, there were only a handful of sensible options for the career-minded 4-year-old: doctor, plumber, fireman and astronaut. Clearly, had we heard about “sin-eating” or any of these other fine ways to make a living, we would have eaten more paste and focused a little less on our permanent records.
Long before the term “filibuster” came to be associated with elected officials, it was actually associated with violence and trickery. (Wait a second …) In the 1600s, pirates known to the Dutch as vrijbuiters pillaged the West Indies, and eventually, the word was assimilated into the English language as “filibusters.” Between 1850 and 1860, the name was used to refer to the American mercenaries who attempted to revolutionize Central America and the Spanish West Indies. The most famous of these filibusters was William Walker, a U.S. citizen who succeeded in gaining control of Nicaragua in 1856 by overthrowing the nation’s administration. Walker became president of Nicaragua, but only until May 1, 1857, when a coalition of Central American states ousted him. Because filibusters of previous centuries strove to interfere with foreign regimes, the term evolved to refer to anyone who attempted to obstruct the government, as our legislators occasionally see fit to do when a particularly troublesome bill comes before them.
Perhaps the cruelest case of naming irony in history, anyone employed to fan the fire in an alchemist’s workshop was known as a “lungs.” And because most alchemists were constantly trying to make gold out of lead and other such base metals, you can only imagine what kinds of dangerous materials were floating about in the labs. As a result, the actual lungs on a lungs gave out relatively quickly, leading to a profession with widespread early retirement.
No matter how much you loved Grandma and Grandpa, you can probably admit your forebears weren’t perfect. So, if you ever had a loved one that passed on before his or her last chance at absolution, it makes sense that you might want to call in reinforcements. Fortunately for the fretful and grieving of yore, there was the town sin-eater. For a small fee, the sin-eater would gladly scarf down a meal (usually bread and ale) that had been placed on the deceased’s chest. By letting the food lie atop the dearly departed for a while, it was believed the vittles would absorb the last transgressions. And, once the food was gobbled up by the sin-eater, Grandma or Grandpa could get into heaven without any major roadblocks.
In British towns of yore, particularly those with a mine or mill as the center of commercial activity, knocker-ups were responsible for going from house to house to wake workers in the mornings. The title, not surprisingly, came from the sound they made rapping on windows. As for the evolution of the term “knocking,” it also denoted a collision of sorts, and in the 17th century, it was used in reference to childbirth. Even poet John Keats wrote of “knocking out” children in some of his odes. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that Americans began using the phrase as slang for getting a woman pregnant.
Ain’t it grand to live in a world where the Black Death isn’t a daily concern? Fortunately, when it was an issue, a ratoner was there to lend a helping hand. A ratoner was a rat catcher, who served a vital role in maintaining the health of the villagers. Those of us accustomed to modern pest control techniques might be a bit surprised to learn about the disposal method employed by a typical Victorian-era ratoner, though. After capturing the rodents, he would set out for the town pub, where dogs made a sport of devouring the day’s catch. This earned extra cash for the ratoner and was considered great entertainment by saloon regulars. The most famous ratoner, Jack Black, was appointed Royal Rat Catcher in the mid-19th century and bred some of his more interesting and colorful finds as household pets. In fact, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter is said to be dedicated to her personal rat, one of Jack Black’s progeny.
In merry olde England, an alnager was a sworn officer of the court who garnered much esteem. He was responsible for ensuring that woolen goods were of the highest quality and that no one was being cheated on the amount of fabric ordered. The job was important not only because the king earned taxes from wool sales, but also because goods approved by the alnager carried the town’s seal of approval. But, as the textile trade grew, it became nearly impossible to hold all wool to the same standards of size and density, so the king abolished the position. Today, you might know the alnager’s modern incarnation best in sticker form, a.k.a., “Number 6.”
Odd as it may sound, badgers were part of the rat race in prior centuries, serving as intermediaries between the producers of goods and the consumer. Most often, they traded in corn and other foodstuffs, buying from farmers and reselling the goods at markets in town. And if you think the salespeople at Macy’s are tough, some historians think badgers were so persistent in pushing their products that the term came to be associated with an often annoying and forceful adamance—i.e., “badgering” anyone in sight to buy from you instead of another vendor.
Not unlike The Gong Show, a gong farmer was far from being the cream of the crop—and even that might be the understatement of the year. In Tudor England, a gong farmer’s job was to empty the town toilets. But the job did have its perks. Typically, a gong farmer would “mine” the waste for any items of value that might be found amongst the city’s excrement—a penny here, a button there—before it was used as manure or thrown into the river. For a while, it was falsely believed that gong farmers were immune to the plague, but you can’t help wonder if that was more of a pity belief, like the whole idea that being hit by bird droppings is good luck.
Making textiles hasn’t always been such a streamlined process. Once upon a time, there were spinners to spin the thread, weavers to weave the cloth, and fullers to finish the goods once they came off the loom. Almost Lucy-and-Ethel style, fullers walked on the back side of the cloth to bind the fibers together and give cohesion to the newly woven fabric. But stomping alone wouldn’t accomplish this feat. Instead, fullers soaked the cloth in a mixture of clay (“fuller’s earth”) and urine while it was being trampled. In fact, medieval housewives often earned extra cash by saving the family’s urine and selling it to the fuller, and some schools even had children use one bucket as a toilet for the same purpose.
It sounds like Lewis Carroll came up with this word around the same time he was writing “Jabberwocky”, but a bullocky was actually a person who drove cattle to market. Yet, the bullocky and the Jabberwock might share something in common—nonsense. According to some historians, to say bullocks swore like sailors would be an insult to sailors. In fact, it was the bullocks’ foul mouths that led the term to be associated with bastardized speech. That, combined with the fact that they worked with “bull” (which had the same connotations we know today), could have helped bullocky evolve into a term for ridiculous or dispensable speech.