We have to eat. We have to talk. So of course we have lots of food phrases and idioms. Some of them even have something to do with eating. A lot of times, though we use food as a metaphor for something else entirely.
I have assembled an entire menu of foods from main course to dessert and the way they influence our language. Sorry, you’ll need to provide your own drink this time.
Food phrases and idioms from meats
If we don’t like something, we beef about it. So what does that have to do with roasts or hamburgers?
In the Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxons raised animals, including cows. Their Norman overlords ate the meat, but since they all spoke French, they called it boeuf. About the time of Henry IV, the nobility decided to start speaking English, but they kept the distinction between the animals that the peasants raised and the meat from them that they ate. Thus beef.
Fast forward to the 19th century. Lower-class Londoners developed a rhyming slang. If a thief ran off with what he had stolen, passersby didn’t yell, “Stop! Thief.” Instead, they yelled “hot beef!” Soon enough, beef became a verb, at first meaning to shout, and eventually to complain. And then, of course, beef reverted to a noun that meant the complaint itself.
Back to the animal we get our beef meat from, it is very strong and muscular. “Beef” is attested as a slang term for muscle power by 1851. To “beef up” in the sense of adding strength comes from college slang of the 1940s.
Someone who earns a living, and especially someone who supports a family, brings home the bacon. This idiom comes with a lot of bogus origin stories.
Bringing home the bacon, in the sense of earning a living and supporting a family is another idiom where most of the stories are bogus.
I have seen numerous references to the “Dunmow Flitch,” where a prior in Essex gave a flitch (side of bacon) to a couple as a reward for marital fidelity in 1104. That act led to a contest held every four years, which actually continues to this day, to reward similarly devoted couples. Chaucer referred to it in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in about 1395. But he never used the phrase “bring home the bacon.”
Its first appearance in print comes in the description of a boxing match between Joe Gans and “Battling” Oliver Nelson in New York City in 1906. The Post Standard reported
Before the fight Gans received a telegram from his mother: “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.”
She might have heard the phrase somewhere. She might have made it up herself. Joe won, by the way.
Most of us, I suppose, trim the fat off of our meat and leave it on the plate. Historically, that was not the practice. People, especially poor people who couldn’t afford to waste anything, ate it.
I have seen a few different explanations for how chew the fat came to mean chattering without any particular subject. I don’t have a whole lot of faith that any of them are correct.
One suggests that in the 1500s, pork was expensive. If someone was rich enough to serve it to guests, everyone would chew the fat at the end of the meal while continuing their conversation.
Perhaps more plausibly, sailors were fed a ration of dried meats and fats and beefed about how hard it was to chew and how long they had to chew before they could swallow.
Maybe it’s more rhyming slang, based on the rhyme between fat and chat. Certainly chewing dried fat and idle chatter both involve flapping the jaws for a long time.
The expression to toss or throw someone a bone must have been around for a long time. No one quite knows when or why people started using it, but the meaning is clear enough. If a dog is howling or otherwise being annoying, throwing it a bone will make it quiet down and enjoy the bone. It’s not a nutritious meal, and the intent is not necessarily to be nice to the dog.
Metaphorically, someone in a position of power does a small favor for someone in a position of less or no power to placate him and get rid of him for a while.
When dogs chew on a meaty bone, they work on it until they have picked it clean. In the 16th century, people started using having a bone to pick as a metaphor for an issue or subject that required considerable attention. If it resulted in an argument, then by analogy with two dogs fighting over the same bone, it became a bone of contention.
More recently, the expression of having a bone to pick has come to mean that someone is offended by what someone else did or said and demands a satisfying explanation and apology.
Food phrases and idioms from cheese
Yes, those stories about the flitch of bacon or chewing the fat have more holes than Swiss cheese. But I haven’t found any stories at all that even try to explain that idiom. It means something deeply flawed, undependable.
Swiss cheese (which is made in the US, unlike the similar Emmental, which is made in Switzerland!) has large air bubbles that become large holes when it’s sliced. You can enjoy eating it, but you wouldn’t want to risk walking on anything like it.
You might be cheesed off if someone tries to sell you something like that. Cheesed off means annoyed or angry. It’s mostly the British who use it. Americans are more likely to say pissed off. Both expressions originated as soldier slang during World War II.
According to Culture: the Word on Cheese, based on OED, it first appeared in print in 1941. People must have been using it in speech sometime earlier. Unfortunately, the OED makes no attempt to explain the connection with cheese and annoyance. I’m a little cheesed off about that. But soldiers in World War II certainly contributed a lot of colorful idioms to our language.
A different phrase, cheese it, means stop what you’re doing or shut up. James Hardy Vaux included it in his A New and Comprehensive Dictionary of Flash Language (1812). Flash language meant the language of such lowlifes as thieves, tramps, prostitutes, or people involved in boxing or other disreputable sports. It’s too much to expect that they would explain themselves.
Cheese it might be a variant of cease it, but that seems too highbrow for criminal slang. There’s also an old expression “after the cheese comes nothing,” but that comes from a time when cheese was the last course served in a meal. Would lowlifes know that one?
Food phrases and idioms from fruits and veggies
After that, it’s nice to turn to couch potato. We don’t have to sort through a bunch of dubious stories and try to pick something that makes sense.
Sometime in the 1970s, Tom Iacino called a friend, whose girlfriend answered. He asked, “Is the couch potato there?” In a later interview in Bon Appetit, he said he just thought of it off the top of his head, but the friend was actually lying on the couch at the time. Everyone got a good laugh.
Iacino mentioned it to cartoonist Bob Armstrong, who asked permission to use the phrase in a series of cartoons. They depicted sedentary characters watching TV as a form of meditation. The idiom caught on.
We can also be confident of the meaning of drop like a hot potato. A baked potato, fresh from the oven, is very hot and retains its heat for a long time. Anyone who picks one up with their bare hands is likely to drop it immediately. The expression originated in the 19th century.
Since then, “drop” has been dropped. We are likely to refer to any uncomfortable or controversial topic or issue as a hot potato. In sports, hot potato means a ball thrown or kicked so hard the receiving person can’t catch it.
We speak of a calm, unruffled, imperturbable person as cool as a cucumber. After all, cucumbers are cool to the touch.
In 1732, John Gay published a poem called “A New Song of New Similes,” which starts:
My passion is as mustard strong;
I sit all sober sad;
Drunk as a piper all day long,
Or like a March-hare mad.
Round as a hoop the bumpers flow;
I drink, yet can’t forget her;
For, though as drunk as David’s sow,
I love her still the better.
Pert as a pear-monger I’d be,
If Molly were but kind;
Cool as a cucumber could see
The rest of womankind.
The poem goes on for more than a dozen more stanzas, each with at least two similes. “Cool as a cucumber” is among several that have survived. “Pert as a pear-monger” is among many more that live only in the lines of the poem.
The movie King Kong appeared in 1933. The expression “go ape,” meaning become uncontrollably excited or angry, appeared around the same time. Now, we all “know” that apes love bananas. In the 1960s, American college students began to say, “go bananas” instead of “go ape.”
The refrain of a popular song a few years back proclaimed, “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat.” How can something that provides such tasty flavor to so many dishes be such a sour disappointment by itself? Maybe that’s why we call something that never works right a lemon.
Shakespeare had fun with the lemon’s unfitness in his Love’s Labours Lost (1598). In Act V, Don Armado does his best to put on a pageant, but he keeps getting interrupted.
The armipotent Mars, of lances the almighty,
Gave Hector a gift—
A gilt nutmeg.
Stuck with cloves.
Worthless gifts all, sure to disappoint poor Hector.
By the 19th century, “lemon” had taken on a couple of new meanings. It could refer to a person of sour disposition or a loser that people easily take advantage of. By the early 20th century, the sense the lemon as a disappointing purchase that doesn’t live up to promises became firmly attached to used cars that, once someone bought them, didn’t run well. This usage has been enshrined in the legal system, with “lemon laws” regulating the sale of used cars.
Food phrases and idioms from desserts
Pie in the sky refers to something pleasant to imagine but that can never happen in real life.
Joe Hill, a Swedish-born itinerant laborer in the US, became a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, perhaps the most radical labor union in American history. He wrote many satirical songs. “The Preacher and the Slave” appeared in 1911. Hill accused the Salvation Army of trying to save the souls of poor people instead of feeding them. In fact, the Salvation Army had been feeding and housing the poor for decades by that time.
The song parodies the gospel song “In the Sweet By and By.” The chorus goes
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
I thought that putting this post together would be as easy as pie. It took more time and work than I expected.
Pie is not easy if you’re making it, but once it’s on your plate it’s easy to eat. A book called Which: Right or Left, published in the US in 1855, refers to a lovely young lady as “nice as pie.” That’s the earliest pie simile I have found. The May 1886 issue of Sporting Life claims, “as for stealing second and third, it’s like eating pie.” Finally, in an issue of The Newport Mercury (June 1887) used our phrase in a comic story about two down-and-outers.” One of them explains how he steals silverware. “An’ I gets two or three dollars for it. It’s easy as pie.”
“Her picture’s in the papers now. And life’s a piece of cake.”
The ancient Greek comedian Aristophanes used the phrase “take the cake,” but he is not the origin of our current idiom. Millenia later, William Trotter Porter issued a book A Quarter Race in Kentucky (1847). It includes the sentence, “the winning horse take [sic] the cakes.” The phrase does not appear in print again until the 1870. It probably originates in a slave celebration called the cakewalk.
An Irish couple dance called the Grand March became the traditional first dance at a wedding or other celebration. Sometime in the middle of the 19th century, it became a popular ballroom dance in the US. Slaves on Southern plantations noticed and started to parody it to make fun of their owners. Dressed in their finest clothes, they added all kinds of kicks, shuffles, and twists to the fairly simple Grand March. Their version became known as a cakewalk. Judges would determine which couple performed the best moves and award a cake to the winners.
Although plantation owners attempted to wipe out every vestige of African culture, much slave music and dance preserved it. With their innate sense of superiority, the owners believed that their slaves loved them and enjoyed their lives. As a result, they hardly ever caught on to the various ways the slaves mocked them. So when they noticed the slaves performing such elaborate movements, they stayed to watch the fun. Some of them, asserting their authority as masters, even took over the judging and awarding the prize. And, of course, no matter who judged, the winning couple would take the cake.