The Christian Rats
Here’s an interesting example of how language and its idioms change through the passing of years and movement between different cultures.
In Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) there was a common expression, “to be as hungry as a church mouse”. This expression came about because in those days churches had neither kitchens nor storerooms, unlike eating places and homes, so a mouse that tried to live in a church could literally starve to death.
During the next few hundred years, however, the saying became “to be as poor as a church mouse”. This change is easy to explain, for the poor of every nation have always struggled to get enough food to eat well.
Then, in the nineteenth century, when Christian missions began to spread throughout the world, establishing churches and the English language, this revised expression naturally travelled with them.
Fast-forward to our era, and the expression has changed again. I came across this interesting passage recently in the introduction to a book discussing the proper Christian approach to wealth:
‘Once upon a time, an extremely poor person used to be likened to a church rat. The expression was ‘as poor as a church rat’. This meant that the Church/believers were so poor that they barely managed to survive and so could not have anything left over for the rat in the Church to feed upon.’
Here, not only has the mouse become a rat but through personification the rat itself has become a Christian!
This is yet another fascinating example of language change. I hope you found it as interesting as I did.
© Kenneth Rowley 2015