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Re: Threshold

Posted by R. Berg on September 05, 2002

In Reply to: Re: The threshold of plausibility. posted by Shae on September 04, 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.

: : However, given that the derivation of second element of "threshold" is unknown, it's as good a theory as any other.

: I did not say that the water was used to wet the thresh. I said its purpose was to dampen it. Underfoot, dry straw is very slippery. Moistening it makes the individual stalks adhere to each other, thereby providing firmer footing. It doesn't make them rot! However, it does help to prevent the fibres becoming brittle and breaking up into small particles that become airborne and inevitably settle on top of the beer!

: As for mis-information from tour guides and museum docents, none of us is infallible. Not even the OED!!
I posted the material from the OED as a caution, showing that it isn't at all certain that "threshold" comes from "thresh" meaning straw. The source I've seen for that idea is a highly untrustworthy one, an anonymous Internet essay that's been posted on many sites and gives no evidence for the derivations it proposes. Be warned that the derivation of "threshold" from "thresh" (as the straw on floors rather than as the action of feet in stepping on the wooden strip across a doorway) isn't established. People may have told you that's where "threshold" comes from simply because they saw that essay on some website.

Earthenware jars have many possible uses. If you know for sure that they were used to dampen the "carpet," fine; but "I hope nobody can prove me wrong" in the original posting suggests you're not sure that what you've been telling visitors is correct (my interpretation; maybe you didn't mean it that way). The burden of proof is on the person who makes a positive assertion.