Each month, starting March 2017, a food-related proverb will be added to this page.

  1. Once in a blue moon. Meaning: very rarely. In most years, there are 12 full moons during the year (one in each month) and in American folklore these moons had names, often seasonal and farming related. For example, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox was called ‘the harvest moon’. In around a third of years, however, there are 13 full moons and, from the early 1800s, this extra full moon became popularly known as ‘the blue moon’ (it can come in any season so its name couldn’t be seasonal or farming related). At roughly the same time, the phrase ‘once in a blue moon’ was coined to mean very rarely (even though there is one roughly every third year!). Incidentally, the monks in the middle ages didn’t like the extra full moon as it upset the regular arrangement of church festivals and it may be for this reason that 13 came to be considered an unlucky number. Perhaps related to this, some people think that the ‘blue’ in ‘blue moon’ is a corruption of ‘belewe’, which mean ‘betrayer’ in Middle English.
  2. The moon is made of green cheese. Meaning: a complete impossibility; the same as when pigs can fly or when Hell freezes over. These are all ‘adynatons’, which is where a hyperbole is magnified to such an extent that it is totally infeasible. Note that the phrase ‘green cheese’ refers to ‘young cheese’ rather than to the colour green. So, perhaps more technically correct is the moon is made of cream cheese. The reference is to a simple soul who sees a reflection of the moon in water and mistakes it for a round cheese wheel. The phrase was originally formulated in 1546 by a man called John Heywood. Mr. Heywood apparently made his living, at least in part, by collecting/inventing proverbs, including: out of sight, out of mind; look before you leap; two heads are better than one; beggars can’t be choosers; all’s well that ends well; the fat is in the fire; I know which side my bread is buttered on; a penny for your thoughts; Rome was not built in a day; better late than never; the more the merrier; you can’t see the wood for the trees; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth; and you can’t have your cake and eat it.
  3. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Meaning: the same set of rules remain applicable to both men and women (a ‘gander’ is a male goose); alternatively, if something is acceptable for one person, then it is (or should be) equally so for another. Literal meaning: the same sauce applies equally well to cooked geese regardless of their gender. The proverb dates back to the 17th century but there were similar expressions going back a further 100 years (e.g. “As well for the coowe calfe as for the bull”, from 1549). Incidently, barnacle geese are so-called because it was thought, in medieval times, that they were the adult form of goose barnacles. This was apparently because barnacle geese were never seen to nest in Europe (unbeknownst to the medievalists, they breed in places like Greenland) and have similar colouration to goose barnacles. Since barnacle geese were thought to be “neither flesh, nor born of flesh”, they were allowed to be eaten on days when eating meat was forbidden by Christianity.
  4. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Meaning: it is more worthwhile to teach someone to do something (for themselves) than to do it for them (on an ongoing basis). Whilst the general principle of alleviating poverty by facilitating self-sufficiency has a long history (e.g. Maimonides wrote about it in the 12th-century), this proverb apparently only dates back to 1885 when it was included (in slightly different form) in a novel by someone called Anne Ritchie. Incidently, Ms. Ritchie was the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair. From the picture right, it appears that she lacked glasses and badly needed them!
  5. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Meaning: one cannot accomplish something without causing adverse effects. The earliest citation in English is a 1796 publication which translated a French quote by someone called François de Charette. Monsieur Charette led a rebellion in France and his ‘broken eggs’ were dead human beings. In 1897, The Times used the same metaphor when discussing why so many local support personnel died when the British army quashed a rebellion in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ditto a sidekick of Stalin in 1932. And ditto again by Colonel Mustard in the 1985 film, Clue (Cluedo is called Clue in North America). So, a rather macabre history, particularly given that there is nothing actually adverse in breaking eggs to make an omelette. Incidently, three different versions of Clue were released, with three different endings: in one, Miss Scarlet was the murderer; in another, Mrs. Peacock; and in the third, all bar Mr. Green.
  6. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Meaning: the real value of something can only be judged from practical experience or results, not from appearance or theory. The proverb dates back to at least 1605, when it appeared in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine. Note that the pudding in question wouldn’t have been from the sweet trolley; rather, The Oxford English Dictionary describes the medieval pudding as “the stomach or one of the entrails of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc, and boiled.” In other words, haggis.
  7. It’s no use crying over spilt milk. Meaning: there is no point worrying about a mistake or bad situation from the past. First known from a publication entitled Proverbs in 1659 by someone called James Howell. That publication also introduced to the world the famous proverb All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  8. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Meaning: revenge is more satisfying if enacted when unexpected or long feared. As per the Klingon proverb from Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn (1982) (also, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Godfather (1969) and Kill Bill (2003) – where you first heard it all depends on how old you are).
  9. Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs. Meaning: think long-term and look after future generations. From the 17th Century and obviously based on the supposedly long time before pear or walnut trees bear fruit. The contemporaneous he that plants trees loves others beside himself arguably has a similar meaning. Incidently, “apples and pears” is cockney rhyming slang for “stairs“. So, they (the apocryphal, archetypal cockneys) then drop the “and pears” and say “I’m going up the apples” to mean “I’m going up the stairs“.
  10. Fine words butter no parsnips. Meaning: nothing is achieved by empty words or flattery (cf. buttering someone up). The phrase dates back to the mid 17th Century, which is after potatoes had largely replaced swedes, turnips and parsnips in the British diet. It refers to the erstwhile British habit of mashing up their parsnips with butter, suggesting that they still didn’t taste good.  Incidentally, this buttering habit led the Japanese to refer to the English as ‘butter-stinkers’. Here is a very funny video which features the phrase.

 Leave a Reply