One-Minute Essays
The Millers’ Tale Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening
If one stops to consider the many familiar sayings that punctuate and enrich everyday conversation, it may come as a surprise that the truth of their origins is sometimes fundamentally different from what is implied. The work of the miller has lent itself to several such figures of speech. The expression “grind to a halt” is frequently used to refer to any process that will stop as a result of a lack of materials or due to a breakdown in machinery. This expression was a frequent experience for millers, as their millstones would literally grind to a halt. The miller would stop the milling process when there was no more grain to grind to flour, or when the day’s work was done. Another familiar expression is to “show one’s metal”. This figure of speech has more than one present-day interpretation. To some it is that form of courage displayed by knights as they draw swords and charge into battle, while to others it means to demonstrate an inner strength of character in the face of adversity that is also regarded as courageous. To the miller whose grindstones had worn down it was a challenge made to itinerant stone dressers. The craft of dressing a millstone involved resurfacing the grinding face of the stones so as to improve the quality of the milling process and thereby ensure the quality of flour the mill produced. The technique of dressing the stones required the grinding surfaces to be chiseled, planed, picked, and carved to improve the effectiveness of the stones. It was not a skill practiced by the miller. To determine the quality, and sometimes honesty, of these traveling craftsmen, the stone dresser was challenged to show his metal or display his tools and his hands for the miller’s inspection. The stone dresser’s tools are specific to the task of dressing millstones and are made of iron, while the back of his hands and arms would be blackened by the multitude of fragments of embedded metal and grit from the labor of resurfacing the stones. Similarly, a stone dresser may be challenged to “show your grit”. Even the tools employed by both the stone dresser and the miller produced a saying still widely heard today. The concept “sound as a bell” is often thought to express that an object is solid and well made, that it is sound. To the miller, if a tool was struck sharply with a hammer and that tool made a clear ringing sound like that of a bell, it was in good condition and free of damage or cracks. It made a sound like a bell. Conversely, if a tool did not ring clear, but rather rang flatly or with a dull tone, it was deemed unsuitable and in need of repair or replacement. Millers may no longer be working stones to grind grain, but their words and those of their industry are still a part of our everyday lives.