Each month, a food-related proverb/adage/aphorism/idiom (or just a phrase) is added to this page.
The differences in meaning between proverbs, adage, aphorisms etc are rather subtle and nuanced and, in practice, they are often used as synonyms. Here is how I heard someone explain them:
- Saying: Short, memorable words.
- Aphorism: Short, memorable words of wisdom.
- Adage: Short, memorable words of wisdom that are well-known.
- Proverb: Short, memorable words of wisdom that are well-known and often come from folklore.
- Maxim: Short, memorable words of wisdom often related to morality or the sciences.
- Idiom: Short, memorable words whose true meaning does not come from their literal interpretation.
And then, of course, there are apophthegms, epigrams, mantras, mottos, paraprosdokians, quips and witticisms!
- A baker’s dozen.
- A watched pot never boils.
- As alike as two peas in a pod.
- As cool as a cucumber.
- As keen as mustard.
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
- Bread always falls butter side down.
- Butter wouldn’t melt in his/her mouth.
- Curate’s egg.
- Curry favour.
- Cut the mustard.
- Eat humble pie.
- Fine words butter no parsnips.
- Forbidden fruit.
- Good egg.
- Grist to the mill.
- In a nutshell.
- It’s no use crying over spilt milk.
- Jam tomorrow.
- Just deserts.
- Man does not live by bread alone.
- Not for all the tea in China.
- Once in a blue moon.
- Parsley seed goes nine times to the Devil.
- Pie in the sky.
- Plum job.
- Revenge is a dish best served cold.
- Sour grapes.
- Spill the beans.
- Storm in a teacup.
- Take the cake.
- Take the gilt off the gingerbread.
- Take with a pinch of salt.
- The apple of my eye.
- The apple never falls far from the tree.
- The hair of the dog.
- The moon is made of green cheese.
- The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
- The toast of the town.
- Too many cooks spoil the broth.
- Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs.
- What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
- You are what you eat.
- You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
- You’re not as green as you’re cabbage looking.
- Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
We are indebted to The Phrase Finder website as the source for much of the material.
A baker’s dozen. Meaning: thirteen. In 1266, Henry III of England revived an ancient statute that regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat, with bakers who gave short measure being potentially fined, pilloried or flogged. But the vagaries of yeast meant that the weight of a loaf was a bit unpredictable. So, to be on the safe side, bakers got into the habit of adding something extra to every order, and providing 13 loaves when 12 were bought is just an example of this.
[Editor’s note: my local baker still does this! In reaction, I (cleverly?) started ordering one less roll than I actually wanted. In reaction, they then started only giving me the precise number that I ordered! So, we went back to me wanting X rolls, ordering X rolls, and receiving X+1 rolls.]
- A watched pot never boils. Meaning: time seems to go slower when you are anxiously waiting for something to happen. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1785 (with slightly different wording). As a scientist, Franklin would, of course, have known that watching a pot has no effect on how long it takes to boil. And, as a wit (or pedant) from the Washington Post once pointed out: pots never boil, only their contents do. So, of course, the proverb is meant to be poetic rather than literal. Franklin was famous for many things, not least the proverb fish and visitors stink in 3 days..
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Meaning: eating fruit helps to maintain good health. The original phrase, first found in print in the mid 19th Century, was ‘eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread‘ but then a few years later someone decided that this didn’t scan well and therefore re-worded the phrase as used nowadays.
There is some ambiguity as to whether the reference to ‘apple’ should be taken to relate specifically to ‘apples’ or more generally to ‘fruit’. This reflects a longstanding ambiguity in the English language where the word ‘apple’ used to refer to any round fruit that grew on a tree. So, for example, whilst Adam and Eve’s forbidden fruit is now often depicted as an apple, it is just called a fruit in the King James Version of the Bible. According to Wikipedia, it could have been any of fig, grape, pomegranate, banana, mushroom or wheat. And Michelangelo painted the Tree of Knowledge as a fig tree (e.g. see picture right).
Whilst everyone agrees that eating fruit, including apples, is good for you, it appears to be a matter of scientific dispute whether or not eating an apple a day does actually have any significant health benefits. A 2015 study found that adult consumers of one small apple per day had the same number of doctor visits as those who did not eat apples but it also found that people who ate an apple a day used fewer prescription medications. They suggested that the phrase be amended to an apple a day keeps the pharmacist away but this doesn’t scan well and has therefore not caught on. There seems to be general agreement that obtaining the full health benefits from eating apples requires you to eat the peel, as this is where much of the ‘goodness’ is.
As alike as two peas in a pod. Meaning: two identical items or people. This simile has a prosaic derivation: someone in the 16th Century simply decided that peas from the same pod are virtually indistinguishable and coined the simile. When the simile was first invented, ‘peas’ was actually spelt (and pronounced) ‘peases’ but, over time, people decided that that sounded naff and so the middle ‘se’ has gradually disappeared. It does, however, survive in the phrase ‘pease pudding’, which is a thick pea soup consumed in parts of North East England. But this usage might disappear as ‘pease pudding’ is becoming superseded by ‘mushy peas’.
As I know from my gran’s cooking, mushy peas are often an oddly bright green colour but I’ve only just found out (whilst researching this article) that this was probably achieved by adding the yellow and blue additives, E102 and E133.
As cool as a cucumber. Meaning: calm and unruffled. First recorded in 1732 in a poem by John Gay. In this simile, cool means imperturbable rather than having a low temperature. However, the simile comes about because, in hot weather, the insides of a cucumber apparently remain cooler than the air because of their high water content and thus cucumbers are cool to the touch.
Question: what is cool and hot at the same time? Answer: Barack Obama (or, indeed, Michelle Obama).
As keen as mustard. Meaning: very enthusiastic. The phrase dates back to the mid 17th Century, when it had already taken on its current meaning. Mustard had long been considered to be an essential accompaniment to beef in England because it added zest. Keenness + zest = very enthusiastic.
In passing, the word ‘mustard’ derives from combining two Latin words: ‘must’ (meaning young wine) and ‘ardens’ (meaning hot). In other words, mustard = hot, young wine. This is because mustard was originally made by combining seeds of certain brassica plants and grape juice into a paste. It is interesting that the plants are named after the condiment rather than the other way round.
Robin Gale-Baker has written in to ask if there is a connection between the phrase ‘as keen as mustard’ and Keen’s mustard. The answer is no. Per The Phrase Finder website: “‘As keen as mustard’ and a well-known company called Keen that made mustard. Surely we have a winner? Unfortunately not. The phrase ‘as keen as mustard’ is known from 1672, the century before the company was formed in 1742.“
Robin also points out that one of the sons of the founder of Keen’s Mustard migrated to Australia in 1841 and started a condiments business in Tasmania (Keen’s Curry Powder) which became famous too. And, whilst it started as a British company, Keen’s Mustard is now based in Melbourne and is, indeed, owned by the same company (McCormick Foods Australia) as Keen’s Curry Powder.
- Bread always falls butter side down. Original meaning (1832): bread falling buttered side down causes bad luck. Subsequent meaning (1835 to now), the converse: bad luck causes bread to fall buttered side down. In other words, the same meaning as Murphy’s law or Sod’s law, namely: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Relates to people who are glass-half-empty (i.e. pessimistic) rather than glass-half-full (i.e. optimistic) in their approach. So, considering it literally, is there any truth in the saying? Per Manchester University, ‘yes’ but only if dropped from a table around a metre high and starting butter side up (the argument being that it only has time for a half turn before it hits the floor). In 1996, someone won the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics for analysing the issue (the nature of Ig Nobel Prize is illustrated by the fact that the 2017 prize for Fluid Dynamics was for a paper studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee). Together with Gulliver’s Travels (cf. the correct end to crack an egg), the saying was the inspiration for the 1984 Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss, where the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down.
- Butter wouldn’t melt in his/her mouth. Original meaning (for the 16th Century): prim and proper, with a cool demeanour. Current alternative meaning: appears to be sweet and innocent but is actually unkind, devious or insincere. The change in meaning appears to have happened because some of the famous authors who used the phrase followed it with a ‘but’. For example, Jonathan Swift in 1738: “She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth but, I warrant, cheese won’t choke her …” and William Makepeace Thackeray in 1850: “When a visitor comes in, she smiles and languishes, you’d think that butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth; and the minute he is gone, very likely, she flares up like a little demon, and says things fit to send you wild …”. The end result is that some people now use the phrase to mean “devious or insincere” whilst others mean “sweet and innocent” – almost polar opposites! So, it’s not a good phrase for you to use.
- Butterfingers. Meaning: a name playfully applied to someone who fails to catch a ball or otherwise lets something slip from their fingers. Some people think that the phrase was invented by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers but it actually first appears in a book entitled The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman, published in 1615 by someone called Gervase Markham. In that book, Mr Markham describes the qualities that he think a good housewife should have(!): “First, she must be cleanly in body and garments; she must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and ready ear; she must not be butter-fingered, sweet-toothed, nor faint-hearted – for the first will let everything fall; the second will consume what it should increase; and the last will lose time with too much niceness.“
- Curate’s egg. Meaning: something which is partly bad and partly good. The original meaning was somewhat different, namely something that is obviously and entirely bad but is described out of politeness as nonetheless having good features. This original meaning dates back to a cartoon from 1895 featuring a bishop and a curate (a curate being one of the most junior ecclesiastical posts). But, oddly, there is some dispute about which cartoon. Most references give the source as a November 1895 cartoon (pictured right) in Punch magazine where the bishop says “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones” and the curate replies “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!“. But Wikipedia gives an earlier (May 1895) cartoon in Judy magazine where the bishop says “Dear me, I’m afraid your egg’s not good!” and the curate replies “Oh, yes, my Lord, really – er – some parts of it are very good“. A clear case of plagiarism, and successful plagiarism at that. The plagiarist in question was someone called George du Maurier, who was Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather.
- Curry favour. Meaning: ingratiate oneself with someone through flattery or obsequious behaviour. Or, more colloquially: suck up to. This is a phrase that illustrates the complexity and obscurity of the English language. First, the word ‘curry’ has nothing to do with Indian/spicy food, pre-dates such usage, and originally meant ‘to prepare’ and then ‘to groom’. Second, the word ‘favour’ has nothing to do with the current English word but is instead a corruption of ‘fauvel’ (or ‘favvel’), which was the name of a horse in a poem dating back to 1310. In turn, ‘favvel’ is thought to be a French acrostic of a variant of the 7 deadly sins: flattery (aka pride), avarice (aka gluttony), vilanie (aka wrath), variété (inconstancy), envy, and lacheté (aka lust). In the 1310 poem, the rich and powerful humiliate themselves by bowing down and stroking the coat of the horse named Favvel who was their supposed leader, thereby ‘currying favvel’. The phrase ‘currying favour’, to mean the same thing, first appeared in a book in 1510.
Cut the mustard. Meaning: to succeed; to come up to expectations. Whilst this phrase is relatively recent, first having appeared in print in 1889, its origins are not definitively known. It is not thought to relate to mustard as a plant, even though mustard plants are apparently difficult to cut, being tough and stringy. Rather, a more likely explanation is thought to be as a development of the phrase as keen as mustard, with ‘mustard’ meaning ‘a high standard’ (as in up to mustard) and ‘cutting’ meaning ‘exhibiting’ (as in cutting a fine figure).
In passing, the word ‘mustard’ derives from combining two Latin words: ‘must’ (meaning young wine) and ‘ardens’ (meaning hot). In other words, mustard = hot, young wine. This is because mustard was originally made by combining seeds of certain brassica plants and grape juice into a paste. It is interesting that the plants are named after the condiment rather than the other way round.
Eat humble pie. Meaning: act submissively and apologetically when admitting an error. ‘Humble pie’ is a corruption of ‘umble pie’ which itself is a corruption of ‘numble pie’, where numbles in 14th Century England were the heart, liver and other entrails of deer and other animals (in other words, offal). ‘Humble’ also means ‘not proud’ (and is apparently derived from ‘humus’, which can be used to mean ‘grounded’ or ‘from the earth’). In a play on words, some unknown person took these two unrelated meanings of the word ‘humble’ to create the idiom ‘eat humble pie’.
The adding or dropping of an ‘n’ at the start of a word over time is apparently quite common in English. For example, (n)adder, (n)apron, (n)ewt, (n)otch, (n)umpire. The reason is that, because English uses ‘an’ rather than ‘a’ when the noun begins with a vowel, the versions with or without an ‘n’ sound the same. For example, ‘an apron’ versus ‘a napron’. These additions/deletions are apparently called ‘rebracketing’ or ‘metanalysis’.
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.
Forbidden fruit. Meaning: something that is desired all the more because it is not allowed. In Western culture, the fruit in question is often assumed to be an apple (hence, the ‘Adam’s apple’ is named after the fruit which is supposed to have stuck in Adam’s throat), but the type of fruit isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible. As discussed in Wikipedia, the fruit is variously identified in other traditions as a banana (as apparently stated in the Koran), fig (hence the use of fig leaves in some paintings), grape, pomegranate (indigenous to the Middle East), mushroom (psychoactive rather than button) or wheat kernel (which is apparently botanically a fruit). Perhaps the depiction of the fruit as an apple comes from either a misunderstanding of, or a pun on, the Latin word malum, which means both ‘evil’ and ‘apple’.
The Bible (King James Version) is the source of many phrases. Here are some food-related examples:
- Cast bread upon the waters.
- Eat drink and be merry.
- Man does not live by bread alone.
- Manna from Heaven.
- The bread of life.
- The salt of the earth.
- You reap what you sow.
Good egg. Meaning: an agreeable or trustworthy person. The precise origin is not known but only dates back to the early 20th Century. It is derived from its antonym (aka opposite), bad egg, meaning an disagreeable or untrustworthy person, which is of American origin and dates back to the mid 19th Century. The original meaning of bad egg was ‘someone or something that disappoints expectations’ and is an allusion to the disappointment felt when cracking or shelling an egg only to find that it is bad.
Here is an interesting page from the Australian Eggs website about bad eggs. For example: 1. the best before date is calculated as six weeks from the day the egg is packed into the carton and 2. hard-boiled eggs have a far shorter shelf life than raw eggs because the boiling makes the shell more porous.
Neither good egg nor bad egg is related to curate’s egg, which means something which is partly bad and partly good.
Grist to the mill. Meaning: useful for a particular purpose or helps support someone’s point of view. Dates back to at least the 16th Century, when grist was unground wheat that was brought to a mill to be ground into flour. A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service, so all grain arriving at the mill represented income regardless of its quality. It is one of 13 metaphors designated by George Orwell in 1946 as dying (“a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”).
Incidentally, the word ‘grist’ is apparently completely unrelated to the word ‘grits’, even though their meanings are similar (before grits became used to describe a weird form of American porridge made out of maize, it meant oats that had been husked/hulled but not ground).
- 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.
- In a nutshell. Meaning: concisely stated. his is an extremely old idiom, dating back to AD77 when Pliny The Elder said “Cicero informs us that the Iliad of Homer was written on a piece of parchment so small as to be enclosed in a nutshell“. The odd thing about this is that the Iliad is actually a long book, equating to around 700 pages in modern typeface. In the 17th Century, someone called Pierre Daniel Huet decided to test Pliny/Cicero’s claim and managed to fit the whole of the Iliad onto a piece of parchment sized 27cm x 21cm, using writing so small that no one could read it! So, the original meaning was something like ‘get a lot of information into a small space’ and this only turned into the current meaning of ‘get a lot of information into a few words’ in the mid 19th Century (e.g. in William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Second Funeral of Napoleon).
- Jam tomorrow. Meaning: something good that someone promises you but that will never happen. Dates back to 27th December, 1871 when Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There was published. As part of some repartee with Alice, the Queen said “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.” As with lots of Lewis Carroll’s stuff, the words also contain some obscure puns. First, ‘iam’/’jam’ in Latin apparently means ‘now’, but only in the negative sense of ‘not anymore’; so never jam to-day also means not anymore today. Second, a slang meaning of ‘jam’ at the time was apparently ‘anything exceptionally good’; so never jam to-day also means never anything exceptionally good today. Billy Bragg, CS Lewis, John Maynard Keynes and Tony Benn are all known to have used the phrase in their speeches or writings.
Just deserts. Meaning: an appropriate reward for what has been done – good or bad. English is a complicated language, with many words having multiple meanings and/or similar spellings but different pronunciations. The noun ‘desert’ in ‘just deserts’ is an example in that it is unrelated to both the noun with the same spelling but different pronunciation (‘desert’ meaning an arid region of land) and to the noun with the same pronunciation but different spelling (‘dessert’ meaning the sweet course of a meal). Rather, it is effectively a corruption of the word ‘deserved’ and dates back to the 13th century. So, ‘just deserts’ effectively means ‘what you justly deserve’.
Similarly, the ‘egg’ in the phrase ‘egg on’ is unrelated to the word with the same spelling which describes those things which our avian friends lay. Rather, it is effectively a corruption of the word ‘edge’ which, as a verb, used to mean ‘urge’.
- Man does not live by bread alone. Meaning: physical nourishment is not sufficient for a healthy life; people also have spiritual needs. Or, as one website put it: no one says they don’t have time to eat food and no one should say that they don’t have time to read the Bible. The phrase was first used in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 8: 2-3) and this was then referred to by Jesus in the New Testament when tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4): And Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”
- Not for all the tea in China. Meaning: not at any price. The derivation is simple: for at least the last 100 years, China has produced tea is large quantities (and currently accounts for around 40% of global production). It is one of those rare phrases which appears to have originated in Australia, although the original quote doesn’t exactly show the country in a good light: “Australia is not a hospitable country for anybody that has not got a white skin … By the laws of the country no dusky, tawny or yellow races are allowed to land … One is not even allowed to bring in a black servant, and when I applied to the authorities for permission to bring [one] with me, the reply was: ‘not for all the tea in China’.” (J.J. Mann’s Round the world in a motor car, 1914.)
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.
- Parsley seed goes nine times to the Devil. Meaning: germination of parsley is slow and unreliable. Variants: change the number and the recipient to whatever you want; for example, “parsley seed goes seven times to the Old Lad” (D.H. Lawrence, 1962). A colourful expression for a prosaic thought. Goes back to Yorkshire in the 17th Century. The idea is that the Devil keeps most of the seeds (i.e. the ungerminated ones) for himself. As someone called Adele Nozedar said in her 2008 book entitled ‘Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols’: “If sowing parsley, the only day on which it can be done that does not throw the immortal soul of the gardener into serious risk is Good Friday, when Satan has no jurisdiction over the soil.“
Pie in the sky. Meaning: something good that is very unlikely to happen. This phrase was coined by someone called Joe Hill in 1911 in a song entitled The Preacher and the Slave, which was a parody of the hymn Sweet By-and-By. The full phrase was “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die” and was Hill’s criticism of the Salvation Army’s philosophy of salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry. The phrase was first used figuratively in its present meaning during the second world war.
Incidentally, Joe Hill was executed for murder in 1915 but, as discussed in Wikipedia, may well have been innocent. His will was written as a song and started with the couplet “My will is easy to decide, for there is nothing to divide.“
- Plum job. Meaning: a highly desirous job. Sometimes used more specifically to mean a job which is well-paid but relatively easy. During the 17th Century, ‘plum’ was a slang term in England meaning £1,000 (with ‘monkey’ meaning £500 and ‘pony’ meaning £25). Back then £1,000 was a seriously large amount of money but it was the fixed amount that some politicians received for some government roles. This was considered by some people to be a lot of money for doing very little and, as such, these posts became known as ‘plum jobs’. These days the phrase is more often used in admiration rather than the contempt it started with.
- 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).
Spill the beans. Meaning: to tell something that someone else wanted you to keep a secret. The first uses of this phrase are from the USA in the early 20th Century (not from ancient Greece, as some websites say). The first references related to horse racing and meant ‘to cause an upset’; it then became more mainstream a few years later and took on its current meaning. The key word is ‘spill’ rather than ‘beans’, as illustrated by the existence the alternative form spill the soup. One of the meanings of ‘spill’ since at least the 16th Century is ‘to divulge’.
Sour grapes. Meaning: acting meanly after a disappointment. The phrase originates from Aesop’s fable, The Fox and the Grapes, in which the fox isn’t able to reach the grapes and therefore declares them to be sour. Aesop lived around 600 BCE and his fables were originally oral only, leaving room for multiple written variants in later years. Here is the entire fable as written down by someone called Phaedrus in Roman times: “Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.” In Scandinavian countries, they apparently say sour rowanberries since grapes cannot be grown there.
Of the 120 or so Aesop fables, only two others appear to have any connection with food. One is The Fly that fell into the Soup: “I have eaten, I have drunk, I have taken a bath; if I die, what do I care?” The other is The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs: “A cottager and his wife had a hen that laid a golden egg every day. They supposed that the hen must contain a great lump of gold in its inside and, in order to get the gold, they killed her. Having done so, they found to their surprise that the hen differed in no respect from their other hens. The foolish pair, thus hoping to become rich all at once, deprived themselves of the gain of which they were assured day by day.”.
Storm in a teacup (British English) or tempest in a teapot (American English). Meaning: an overreaction to a minor event. This expression probably derives from the dim and distant past, namely when Cicero in De Legibus wrote about billows in a ladle (circa 52BC). Its first use in English was as storm in a cream bowl (1678), after which it became tempest in a teapot (circa 1790), storm in a wash-hand basin (1830) and, finally, storm in a teacup (1838). The great antiquity of the phrase is reflected by its existence in numerous modern languages (Wikipedia lists around 40).
Take the cake. This is a phrase with several different meanings, including opposites. Let’s start with the meaning which relates to the original derivation: carry off the honours. Per Wikipedia, the cakewalk was a type of competitive dance held in the mid-19th century, generally at get-togethers on black slave plantations before and after emancipation in the Southern United States. The winners were said to have ‘taken the cake’, which was often the prize.
Nowadays, take the cake can be used to mean either ‘to be especially good’ or (sarcastically) the opposite, ‘to be especially bad’. Or it can have a less judgemental meaning, namely ‘to be the most extreme instance’. The British take the biscuit has a similar set of alternative possible meanings.
For no obvious reason, the related phrase cakewalk means ‘very easy’, perhaps because someone got confused between take the cake and the unrelated piece of cake, where the latter also means ‘very easy’.
Phrases that can be their own opposites, like take the cake, are sometimes referred to as ‘Janus phrases’ after the two-headed god that looked both ways simultaneously. Common ‘Janus words’ include ‘fast’ (which means both to move quickly and to stay put), ‘sanction’ (which means both to give approval to and to penalise), ‘screen’ (which means both to display or to conceal from view), ‘dust’ (which means both to make of fine particles and to sprinkle with fine particles), left (which means both to leave and to remain) and ‘oversight’ (which means both a watchful care and an inadvertent omission).
- Take the gilt off the gingerbread. Meaning: remove an item’s most attractive qualities. Gingerbread was originally a form of simple cake flavoured with ginger and treacle. Gilt means a thin covering of gold leaf (with gilded being the adjective). In festivals during the Middle Ages, gingerbread cakes were apparently sometimes gilded to make them seem more special (gold is harmless when eaten in small quantities). So, as a corollary, gingerbread without gilt can be viewed as a rather humble offering. Hence the phrase.
Take with a pinch of salt. Meaning: accept something while maintaining a degree of scepticism about its truth. In 77 AD, Pliny The Elder published a recipe for a poison antidote which can be translated as “Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt.” The suggestion is that a grain of salt can ameliorate the injurious effects of consuming poisons. Or, less starkly, that some food is more palatable if seasoned with salt. The figurative meaning, applying the phrase to truth, didn’t enter the language until much later, namely the 20th Century, where ‘pinch of salt’ also became a variant.
The New Food Lover’s Companion apparently considers a pinch to be 1/16 of a teaspoon, while a dash is “somewhere between 1/16 and a scant 1/8 of a teaspoon“. The Traditional Oven website says that a grain of salt in cooking is 1/88 of a teaspoon. So, there are around 5.5 grains in a pinch, and somewhere between 1 and 2 pinches in a dash.
The apple of my eye. Meaning: something, or more usually someone, cherished above others. ‘Apple’ here refers to the pupil of an eye. This is a phrase that illustrates the age of the English language as it dates back to a work attributed to Alfred the Great of Wessex titled Gregory’s Pastoral Care and published in 885, where the phrase was probably meant literally. It was subsequently used in something like its current figurative meaning by Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and in the King James Version of the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:10, Book of Psalms 17:8, Proverbs 7:2, Lamentations 2:18 and Zechariah 2:8). Popularised by Walter Scott in 1816 (in the novel Old Mortality) and brought to my attention by Stevie Wonder in the 1970s (in You Are the Sunshine of My Life).
Incidentally, the word ‘pupil’ for the aperture in the eye comes from the Latin ‘pupilla’, meaning ‘little doll’ and referring to the tiny reflection one sees of oneself when looking into another person’s eyes. Note that ‘pupil’ meaning ‘a learner under the supervision of a teacher’ has a completely different etymology.
- The apple never falls far from the tree. Meaning: children grow up to be similar to their parents. A comparable meaning to all of like father, like son, chip off the old block and (my favourite) a wild goose never laid a tame egg. The phrase appears to be of German origin, dating back to the 16th Century, but it only entered the English language in the 19th Century, when it was used by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Apparently, however, Emerson used the phrase to mean something else (the tug that often brings us back to our childhood home). The phrase would perhaps be better worded as the apple never lands far from the tree.
- The hair of the dog. Meaning: an alcoholic drink consumed as a hangover remedy. The fuller version of the phrase, namely the hair of the dog that bit me, gives a clue about derivation, namely the medieval belief that when someone was bitten by a rabid dog, a cure could be made by applying the same dog’s hair to the infected wound. First used figuratively in the 16th Century. First used as an actual recommendation for treating dog bites in the 18th Century by someone called Robert James in a book entitled A Treatise on Canine Madness, where it ranked second to his preferred treatment of the application of the ashes of river crabs. Less elegant than the phrase by Hippocrates around 400 BCE with a similar meaning: like cures like. There are lots of articles on the Internet discussing whether an alcoholic drink can actually help with a hangover, where the consensus appears to be that it might make one feel temporarily better but only by postponing the effects.
- 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.
- 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.
Toffee-nosed. Meaning: stuck up, supercilious or snobbish. First used in the early 20th Century. The ‘nosed’ part is an allusion to people who stick their noses in the air when faced with the hoi polloi. The ‘toffee’ part is nothing to do with the food but was derived from ‘toff’ (a slang term for well-dressed upper class men), which was in turn derived from ‘tuft’ (the tassel on academic caps worn at Oxford University by sons of peers).
In passing, according to Wikipedia, the current English usage of hoi polloi’ “originated in the early 19th century, a time when it was generally accepted that one must be familiar with Greek and Latin in order to be considered well educated“. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.
The toast of the town. Meaning: a person who is widely admired. This dates back to the early 18th Century. The ‘toast’ was the reigning belle of the season in the relevant circle of people. At the time, toast was mostly consumed as part of a drink, to flavour and/or heat it, rather than as a food in its own right. So, the chaps were invited to add hot spiced toast to their wine and then drink to ‘the toast of the town’. Over time, the meaning became more generalised.
‘Toast’ continued to mean ‘excellent’ up until the 1970s but, in 1984, its meaning took a 180 degree change of direction. The usage ‘you’re toast’, meaning ‘you’re as good as dead’ derives from the 1984 film Ghostbusters, where Bill Murray, as Dr. Venkman, said “All right, this chick is toast.“, as he pointed his laser-like weapon at an androgynous apparition. Interestingly, the line as delivered is rather different than that in the actual script, which read “I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.“
Too many cooks spoil the broth, sometimes shortened to simply too many cooks. Meaning: if too many people are involved in a task, it will not be done well. This phrase dates back to the 16th Century, the idea being that broth is a simple dish which will taste worse if it has all sorts of ingredients added to it.
There are so many sayings in the English language that there are often sayings with similar meaning and also sayings with opposite meanings. For example, a camel is a horse designed by committee means roughly the same as too many cooks spoil the broth and the more the merrier means roughly the opposite.
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.
Incidentally, “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“.
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).
Incidentally, 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.
- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Meaning: be optimistic and have a positive can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune. This is one of those rare sayings which originated with a known person on a known date: someone called Elbert Hubbard invented the phrase (with slightly different wording) in a 1915 obituary about someone called Marshall Pinckney Wilder (who was both a dwarf and a successful actor). The idea is that, whilst lemons suggest sourness, making lemonade is turning them into something positive or desirable. In other words, negatives can be turned into positives.
Incidentally, Elbert Hubbard was a Christian anarchist. Christian anarchists believe that God should be the sole authority and therefore reject the idea of human governance. They tend to be pro Jesus but anti Paul. Pro the Sermon on the Mount but anti Romans 13. Pro faith but anti church. Pro ‘turning the other cheek’ but anti ‘eye for an eye’. Interpret “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” as ‘advice to free oneself from material attachment’ rather than ‘support for taxes’. Believers in pacifism and nonviolence. The most well-known Christian anarchist was Leo Tolstoy.
As Charlie Harper said to his less successful brother Alan in the sitcom Two and a Half Men: “The difference between you and me is, when life gives me lemons, I make lemonade. When you get lemons, you just bite into them and suck them inside out.”
Or, as the narrator said in the game Battleblock: “When life gives you potatoes, make potato salad.”
- You are what you eat. Meaning: to be healthy, you need to eat good food. Whilst related concepts date back many years (e.g. transubstantiation; endocannibalism), the phrase itself is relatively recent. It apparently first appeared in English in a 1923 advert for beef (“90% of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.“) and was then popularised by a 1942 book entitled You are what you eat: how to win and keep health with diet. by someone called Victor Lindlah. It is now used by all sorts of people to justify their dietary recommendations.
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.
Incidentally, 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.
- You’re not as green as you’re cabbage looking. Meaning: you’re not as gullible as you look. A Yorkshire saying dating back to at least the mid-1800s. First used in Australia in 1882 in the Southern Argus (Goulburn, NSW). ‘Green’ here means gullible, naive or foolish. ‘Cabbage-looking’ is from a comparison of the head to a cabbage, both being of similar size and shape, and is a traditional slang term for naive. As a bonus, cabbages are coloured green. [The picture is an advert for hats from 1887.]
Bread. Meaning: money. This is an example of rhyming slang, which apparently started in Victorian England. The basic construction of a piece of slang involves taking a common word (e.g. money), inventing a phrase which ends in a word which rhymes with that original word (e.g. bread and honey), and then using the first word of that phrase (e.g. bread) to mean the original word (e.g. money).
Here are some other food-related examples:
Apples Stairs Apples and pears Bacon Mind Bacon rind Britney Beers Britney Spears Bread Money Bread and honey Cheese Wife (missus) Cheese and kisses Dog Phone Dog and bone Have a butcher’s Look Butcher’s hook Loaf Head Loaf of bread Mincers Eyes Mince pies Mutton Deaf Mutt and Jeff My old china Mate China plate Oxo The Tube (London Underground) Oxo cube Plates Feet Plates of meat Porkies Lies Pork pies Taters Cold Potatoes in the mould Rabbit Talk Rabbit and pork Raspberry Fart Raspberry tart Rosie Tea Rosie Lee Ruby Curry Ruby Murray Syrup Wig Syrup of figs
Here is an example sentence, as given in Wikipedia: “It nearly knocked me off me plates – the septic was wearing a syrup! I couldn’t believe me mincers, so I ran up the apples, got straight on the dog to me trouble and we had a Turkish.” meaning “It nearly knocked me off my feet – the Yank was wearing a wig! I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I ran up the stairs, got straight on the phone to my wife and we had a laugh.“
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.
Incidentally, 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!