I hope we’re all taking notes, because these are the old days of the future.
Dear Word Detective: Is it true that in the “old days” the “threshold” was to help hold in the stuff on the floor of a dwelling? — Decee Ray.
Ah yes, the old days, land of mystery and strange customs. Has anyone noticed that, as the far corners of the world have become more familiar through tourism and technology, we’ve started attributing to our own ancestors the sort of weird customs that previously would have been credited to inhabitants of, say, the remoter precincts of Borneo?
What brings that to mind is the fact that your question repeats a small fragment of a much longer essay, entitled “Life in the 1500s,” which has been circulating on the internet since about 1999. Apparently prompted by the release of the film “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998, this anonymous “believe it or not” description of the “quirky aspects” of life in 16th century England asserts dozens of absurd “facts,” such as cats and dogs routinely living in the roofs of thatched-roof dwellings.
Worse, the focus of the essay is to use these fabrications to explain the origins of common English words and phrases, such as “raining cats and dogs,” which, the essay confidently explains, comes from those roof-dwelling household pets losing their footing during a downpour. It doesn’t, and, as I said when I first read this pile of nonsense ten years ago, even the parts that are not overtly insane are still breathtakingly wrong. I don’t have room here to dissect the whole essay, but the folks at www.snopes.com have done a good job. Just search there for “1500s.”
Onward. Midway through this cavalcade of bunk, the authors announce that it was common to spread “thresh” (presumably reeds or rushes) on the floor of one’s house to prevent slipping, necessitating the addition of a piece of wood in the bottom of the doorway, called a “threshold,” to keep the “thresh” from “slipping outside.” Voila, our modern word “threshold” for the bar of stone or wood at the base of a doorway.
It is true that floors of the period were sometimes covered with a layer of rushes or reeds (known as “thresh” in the 17th century — Snopes is wrong on this one point). But “threshold” has nothing to do with “threshes” on the floor. The word “threshold” first appeared in Old English as “therscold” or “threscold.” The first part of the word carried the meaning of “to stamp with the feet, to stomp noisily,” which is, of course, what one does when entering a room with mud or snow on one’s shoes. The second part of the word is a mystery, but it is fairly certain that it was something other than our modern word “hold,” and it was transformed into the more familiar “hold” over time.
Interestingly, “thresh,” which we use today to mean “to separate grain from husks and chaff,” originally meant “to beat or stomp,” because the earliest method of separating wheat from the chaff, etc., was simply to stomp on it, like crushing grapes for wine.