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shameless pleading






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 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.

8 comments to Threshold

  • words1

    from Peter Christopher Franck:

    The Danish word for “threshold” is “tærskel” (“æ” being a particular Norw. & Dan. diphthong consisting of “a” & “e”). The last part of this word may be derived from “shield”, albeit uncertain. See ODS (Dic. of the Dan. Lang.):

  • bigjohn756

    In modern China they thresh rice by placing it in the roadway in the morning to let the traffic run over it. In the evening they are out in the street sweeping up and bagging the grains. At least they were doing that near Wuhan ten years ago when I was there.

  • Andrew

    In modern China 2015 they still do it in small villages.

  • Andy Mackey

    When corn was Threshed by manually beating it on the threshing floor they needed a light breeze to carry away the light husks. Modern combines use blown air to separate wheat from the chaff (husks). A threshold will on a day of light breezes ( the day they would pick for threshing) stop a lot of dust and thresh blowing into houses. I presume the threshing area chosen would be downwind of houses and workers. Notice the dust cloud next time you see a cereal crop being harvested.

  • Ruth Steeves

    Hi Margaret and thanks for thinking of me with this ‘bit’ of history. Love it and welcome any further info you care to send me!! I hope you’re enjoying this beautiful time of year..fresh green grass, trees and I don’t think anyone will complain about the warmer temperatures….Lovingly, in Him Ruth

  • Peter Firrh

    With all respect, I think even you are not quite right. After the stalks of wheat had been picked (reaped), they had to be threshed: thrashed against the (internal, therefore dry) walls of a building. The kernels would fall on the floor, and what remained in one’s hand was thrown out. Of course the kernels would build up during the day, so people would put a piece of timber across doorways – a Threshold

  • In modern-day Icelandic a threshold is called “þröskuldur”, and apparently this word developed from the word “þrepskjöldur”, where “þrep” means a tread (as in stairs), and “skjöldur” means shield–*treadshield*.

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