I used the phrase, “priming the pump”, the other day and was met with a blank stare. It got me to thinking about the origins of the words we use. Folks under forty probably wouldn’t know what priming the pump meant let alone how to do it. Now you oldies put on your thinking caps and send me some obsolete phrases of your own.
Priming the pump referred to activating the old hand-operated pumps, usually atop the well platform, where we got our water. Before electricity and plumbing came along, the only way to get water from the well was by pumping it. There were windmills on many farms which did this for us, but most folks did it the old fashioned way. An iron pump stood about three feet high; had a ‘mouth’ or faucet near the top and a long handle which was pumped up and down by whoever was sent to fetch the water. A good stream of water came from the faucet and filled the water pail set beneath it.
When not in use the water drained back into the well, leaving the pump dry. Another pail was always sitting on the well platform, unused except by a thirsty cat or dog. Before the pump would give water, the extra pail would be emptied into the top and the handle pumped vigorously to get the water started up the pipe. Pity the kid who forgot to fill the priming pail!
There is an old story told about a prospector walking through the desert who came upon such a pump. His canteen was almost dry and the pump was a welcome sight. A note hanging on the handle read, “Buried beside this pump you will find a jug of water. Do not drink it. Use it to prime the pump and you will have as much water as you need. Then refill it and bury it for the next person.”
Nowadays, the term usually refers to putting money into a new venture or making a statement that will bring a return compliment. Primed any pumps lately?
Another term is “That place really needs a shake down!” This comes from the days when houses were often heated with base burners. These were tall, stately stoves made of iron and often decorated with a lot of chrome. The midsection of these burners was composed of small windows filled with isinglass. They burned coal mostly with some wood if necessary, and those little isinglass windows would glow with the most beautiful light in a darkened room. Many a child woke to the sound of dad “shaking down the stove”. A “shaker” made of iron and about twelve to eighteen inches long, was shaped something like a skinny shoe spoon. A flat end was made to fit into a mechanism on the bottom of the stove. The shaker was grasped tightly and shaken back and forth to bring the burnt coals down to the bottom and make what remained heat up all the more.
It made a lot of noise and worked like an alarm clock for the kids who knew how warm and cozy it would feel! So, shaking something up really meant getting rid of the burned out cinders and making the space workable.
So, get out there and prime the pump and shake up your day! And let me know about your own antique words!