Myths About the Origins of the Term "Dirt Poor"

People dressed in Medieval peasant clothing carry a jug
People dressed as Medieval peasants.

John van Hasselt / Getty Images

A popular email hoax has spread all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." Here we take a look at floors and straw.

The Email

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying "dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway-hence, a "thresh hold."

The Facts

Most peasant cottages did indeed have dirt floors. Some peasants lived in homes that sheltered animals as well as themselves.1 When livestock was enclosed in a peasant home, it was usually partitioned off in a separate room, sometimes at right angles to the family's living space. Yet animals could still occasionally find their way into the house proper. For this reason, an earthen floor was a practical choice.

However, there is no evidence that the term "dirt poor" was used in any context before the 20th century. One theory suggests that its origins lie in the Dust Bowl of 1930s Oklahoma, where drought and poverty combined to create some of the most horrific living conditions in American history; but direct evidence is lacking.

In castles, the ground floor might be beaten earth, stone, tile or plaster, but upper stories almost invariably had wooden floors,2 and the same pattern likely held true in town dwellings. Straw was not needed to keep people from slipping on wet slate, but it was used as a floor covering on most surfaces to provide a modicum of warmth and cushioning. In the case of tile, which was likely to be the most slippery, straw was seldom used to cover it, because it was usually designed to impress guests in the castles of more powerful nobles and in abbeys and churches.

On wood or stone floors, reeds or rushes were sometimes supplemented with aromatic herbs like lavender, and the entire floor would usually be swept clean and strewn with fresh straw and herbs on a regular basis. Old straw was not simply left down when fresh straw was added. If such were indeed the case, it might be logical to think of the little raised strip in a doorway as an item intended to "hold" in "thresh," except for one significant detail: There's no such thing as "thresh."

The word "thresh" is a verb which, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means "to separate seed" or "to strike repeatedly." It is not, and never has been, a noun used to designate floor rushes. The word "threshold," like "thresh," is Old English (OE) in origin and dates to before the twelfth century. Both OE words appear to relate to the movement of one's feet; thresh (OE threscan) meaning to stamp or trample3 and threshold (OE therscwold) being a place to step.4


1. Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Village (HarperPerennial, 1991), pp. 90-91.

2. Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Castle (HarperPerennial, 1974), p. 59.

3. Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins, accessed April 12, 2002.

4. Larsen, Andrew E. []. "REPLY: Interesting and Educational Stuff?" In MEDIEV-L []. 16 May 1999.

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Snell, Melissa. "Myths About the Origins of the Term "Dirt Poor"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 28). Myths About the Origins of the Term "Dirt Poor". Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Myths About the Origins of the Term "Dirt Poor"." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).