Posted by R. Berg on September 04, 2002
In Reply to: Threshold again posted by Shae on September 03, 2002
: I say 'again' because I searched the archives and see the word has been discussed already. One definition says it's a 'sill' beneath the door, but doesn't explain the purpose of the sill. My understanding is that typical medieval house floors, at ground level, consisted of bare earth that was covered with straw, reeds, rushes, or whatever. The most readily available material was 'threshings,' the straw left after grain was threshed. So, the threshold was the sill under the door that contained the thresh within the domicile.
: Positioned there, it was/is liminal - the transition between safety (home and hearth) and the uncertainty of 'out there!' So, 'crossing the threshold' was stepping from security to uncertainty, from one state to another.
: Anyway, that's what I've been telling visitors to the museum when they ask about the 15/16th century earthenware watering cans. They were used for watering the floor, to dampen the thresh so it wouldn't blow around the place and get in the beer, and stuff. I hope nobody can prove me wrong!!
Wet straw goes rotten so quickly that I have my doubts about any custom of watering the floor. It's slippery, too.
A threshold is called that because people step on it (= pound it, beat it, with their feet), not because it was associated with threshed straw (beaten to separate the grain from the stalks). The "'threshold' from straw" story probably comes from an essay on medieval daily life that has made the rounds of the Internet for years and is full of imaginative explanations of words and phrases, disguised as historical fact. A more reliable source, the Oxford English Dictionary, says of "threshold" that "the first element is generally identified with THRESH v. (?in its original sense 'to tread, trample')."
"Thrash," to beat, is a variant of the earlier "thresh."
Once in a while somebody posts a query here passing along a false explanation of the origin of some phrase and says "The tour guide told us that" or "I went to a museum and the docent said so." The suspicion is strong that tour guides and docents aren't always so careful about research.