Everyday Food Phrases Explained

July 8, 2014 2 Comments

Everyday Food Phrases

The Apple of My Eye

Food Expressions We Use All The Time

Without even realizing it, we often use food-related phrases, idioms, colloquialisms, expressions, or whatever you want to call them in everyday language. Sometimes we don’t think about the origins of these fascinating food phrases or how they became so conventional in the English language.

The other day, my daughter Maddie and I heard the food expression “the apple of my eye” and we wondered about its origin. We started to think about other food-related idioms and their etymologies (where the words came from). Maddie and I decided to find more and see if we could figure out how these commonly used food phrases came into existence.

The etymologies are pretty interesting, take a look at our list below. Maddie and I will be adding to this list as we find more.

Apple of My Eye

This expression means someone that is so precious to you that they rival your ability to see.

Way back when, people fallaciously believed that the eye’s pupil was a solid object and therefore referred to it as an apple. In fact, William Shakespeare used the phrase with this implied meaning in his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying “Flower of this purple dye, Hit with Cupid’s archery, Sink in apple of his eye.”

The first use of the saying in Old English Is attributed to King Aelfred of Wessex in “Gregory’s Pastoral Care.” Its first usage in the modern English language is in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality of 1816.

The word pupil comes from the Latin word pupilla, a diminutive form of the word pupus (“boy”) or pupa (“girl”) and was applied to the dark pigmented-center of the eye because of the tiny reflect image of the self one sees when looking deep into another’s eyes.




Egg Someone On

Egg Someone On

This is one of those idioms where you think the etymology would be obvious, but it actually ends up surprising you.

You might be shocked to hear that this phrase has nothing to do with eggs. You may have thought that this expression means that people are being spurred on to do something for fear of being pelted with an egg. However, the egg in this expression is a verb meaning “to goad” or “to incite” which is derived from the Old Norse (Old Germanic dialect) word, eggia. The word is related to the Old English word, ecg, meaning “an edge.” It is also related to the Middle Low German eggen, meaning “to harrow.” Therefore, this may suggest that someone is “egged” on in fear of being prodded with something sharp, but this is only a vaguely implied connection.

The word came into English around the year 1200, originally in the sense of provoking or tempting a person. Today, the phrase means to encourage someone to do something, usually of a risky, foolish, or dangerous nature. In other words, people egg one another on to get a reaction.  For example, one may say, “don’t listen to him, he’s only trying to egg you on!”


Bread and Butter

Bread and Butter

There are two meanings associated with this idiom. The first refers to your job or vocation and it comes from the thought that you can’t eat if you aren’t able to make a living. No job means no “bread and butter” on the table.

The second meaning refers to a couple that are the bread and butter together, meaning they can’t be separated. This comes from the notion that once butter is melted onto bread, it is nearly impossible to separate the two elements.

The expression was first used as an exclamation when two people walking side by side were momentarily separated by something coming between them. The earliest citation of this comes from The Federal Writer Project “Guide to Kansas” which was published in 1939, where “bread and butter” was described as an incantation among schoolchildren in the area.


One Rotten Apple Spoils

One Rotten Apple Spoils the Whole Barrel

This means that the influence of one bad person can mess up or taint the entire group. The etymology is rooted in the science that an apple produces a gas, ethylene, that ripens the fruit. When a fruit is overripe or rotten, it produces more of this gas and spoils any of the other fruit in the barrel.

When you store fruits together, the ethylene each piece emits encourages the others around them to ripen further. It’s contagious. Quick tip: to ripen an avocado in a short amount of time, stick it in a paper bag with an apple overnight.

It really only takes a single apple to start a domino effect that will ruin the others in the bunch. The same is said to be true with people. Chaucer was quoted saying that a “rotten apple ruins its neighbors.” The proverb originally was “One mouse dropping ruins the whole pot of rice” but evolved over time.


The Big Cheese

Big Cheese

This means phrase means a big deal or someone with fame and wealth. The big cheese can be the most influential or important person in a group, but it has often been used in a derogatory manner to refer to somebody self-important or vapid.

It came from England in the 19th century. The entomology is not 100% known, but some believe it has nothing to do with dairy products at all. There is the possibility that the saying came from someone mishearing the Hindi word chiz, meaning “a thing.” British colonialists might have picked up the term in India and adopted what they believe they had heard.

There’s no shortage of expressions involving cheese. For instance, one may be cheesed off (upset, annoyed, fed up), or someone may be cheesy (inauthentic, corny). But this particular expression specifically became a commonality with the British who would refer to someone as “quite the cheese” or “simply the cheese”


Sow Your Wild Oats

Sowing Your Wild Oats

Wild oats, or the “crop that one will regret sowing,” was first used in the 1560s, in reference to the folly of sowing these instead of good grain. Protestant clergyman Thomas Becon is attributed to have said a variation of this phrase first.

This exact phrasing was supposedly first said in 1952, and the expression means to pursue a useless endeavor. Farmers have long hated wild oats because they are a useless crop and hard to separate from cultivated oats.

Also, there is a sexual connotation attached to the idiom that implies that a young man is spreading his seeds without purpose. If a man sows his wild oats, he has a period of his life when he does a lot of exciting things and engages in non-monogamous, often elicit sexual relationships.



A Piece of Cake

A Piece of Cake

This is a popular, commonly used expression to describe something that is easy or a task that requires little effort. The phrase originated from the earlier expression “cakewalk,” a 19th century African American tradition performed on plantations or get-togethers for freeman. African American couples would walk in a procession or promenade around a cake and the couple deemed to be the most graceful would win the cake as a prize. The contest was not known to require a great deal of skill and the phrase was eventually adopted as boxing slang to connote an easily-won match. Cake walks were later performed sardonically at minstrel shows by racist Caucasians imitating black culture in an offensive manner.

If something is ridiculously easy, this expression would be used. For instance, “compared to yesterday’s recipe, this fillet will be a piece of cake.” Other similar saying are “that was easy as pie” which also connotes a task of simplicity. The first recorded usage of the term occurred in 1936, in a piece of literature by poet Ogden Nash, who wrote in Primrose Path that “Her picture’s in the papers now, And life’s a piece of cake.”

This term also appeared in the famous song, “a Spoonful of Sugar” from the musical Mary Poppins. When you find the fun in a particular job, as the song says, “then every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.”



A Grain of Salt

Take It With A Grain of Salt

This phrase was originally used to describe that food is more easily swallowed if taken with a pinch of salt. Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, translated an antidote for poison. The translation, from 77 A.D., says the following:

Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

The translation suggests that harmful or poisonous effects can be moderated by taking a grain of salt. The figurative meaning that evolved over time means that truth or the realities of life may require moderation by the proverbial application of ‘a grain of salt.’

The modern meaning of the phrase has been in use in English since the 17th century; for example, John Trapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments in 1647 said the following: “This is to be taken with a grain of salt.” A modern-day example of the phrase could be, “take the teenage boy’s advice with a grain of salt, he has little experience in the world.”



What’s Your Favorite Food Expression?

I’m interested in hearing some of your favorite food phrases so please let me know in the comments section below. If you know the etymology, go ahead and leave that too. If not, I’ll try to find out the history of the expression and post in.

Last modified on Fri 12 September 2014 11:39 am

Filed in: Tips and Facts

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Wendell Smith says:

    What about a Meat and Potato type guy? Or Chopped Liver? or Sour Grapes? Or Plain Vanilla? The list could go on…..

    • The Reluctant Gourmet says:

      Yes Wendell, all great and I will work on the etymologies of them so we know where they came from. Thanks for sending these in.

Leave a Reply