Living Ovver t’brush

Living Ovver t’brush (living out of wedlock)

I read a frightening stat recently. The average cost of a wedding in the UK has now passed the £30,000 mark and is still rising, a trend which shows no sign of slowing. Given the phrase in the title of this blog post, the nation’s brush retailers must be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought; surely they’ll be able to really clean up (apologies, there aren’t that many brush related jokes out there it seems – but at least I didn’t just give up and sweep it under the carpet). Sadly, the cost of marriages has not become any easier for young couples (or indeed couples of any age) to meet in the years since this phrase first appeared.

This is the third Yorkshire-ism in my series and, according to most definitions, the phrase originated when young couples couldn’t afford a church marriage ceremony and so instead jumped over a besom or broom. It’s fascinating to think of a young couple, perhaps in the home they’ve just about managed to afford, perhaps in their parents’ house, having a brush held by two older relatives, the girl and her beau then jumping over it to cement their partnership, to applause from the assembled family members, and then them just getting on with their lives. Perhaps she picks up the brush and begins to sweep with it, or maybe the man offers it to his mother-in-law as a means to get home…

Of course, even the term ‘wedlock’ now has some outdated and negative connotations – that marriage means a lock is probably something that many couples can attest to, but it doesn’t always now mean the bond and servitude that perhaps it once did. Indeed, it is rare nowadays to hear the ‘obey’ vow in the marriage ceremony.

There are in fact several variations of the etymology of the phrase, as often seems to be the case with idioms. Some say it originated in the American Deep South when slaves or the poor folk of the county hadn’t the money to get officially hitched and would have risked incurring the disapproval of the local bigwigs, so they ‘jumped the broomstick.’ Others say it originated in the north of England and never made it across the pond; still others claim it has Welsh heritage, and came with strict instructions that neither of the couple should touch the doorframe during the jump (I guess it depended on how their dieting was going). It seems the Welsh were no fools in this department though, and even went as far as including a handy clause (though probably not committed to small print anywhere) that said if any marital strife arose, one or both of them could replace the broom, jump backwards over it, and be no worse off.

But in some parts of Yorkshire, to say that a woman has jumped over a besom means she has an illegitimate child, so to call a woman a besom is an insult. Moreover, if a girl accidentally steps over a broom handle, she will be a mother before she is a wife. Mischievous males have apparently been known to put brooms in places where girls would be likely to step over them without noticing.

Superstitions seem to have largely fallen out of favour now, although they still have a small but fervent following amongst some classes of the population. Some religions actively discourage them. Personally, I wouldn’t miss them if they did become obsolete – they can become no more than obsessive-compulsive habits that we do out of fear lest something bad should happen. I’d be glad not to have to ever throw a magpie over my shoulder if I see a pinch of salt again (have I got that one right?)

With grateful thanks to the wisdom of the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions by E. & M.A. Radford, edited and revised by Christina Hole, Barnes and Noble Books, 1996. First published 1948.