Samui Wining & Dining
Where Did That Come From?

Food related sayings and their origins.

P10-(1)When learning a foreign language, we often try and translate a meaning directly into our own language as we speak it, but that’s not always possible. Have a few lessons in Thai while you’re here and you’ll see what I mean! But learning English, particularly with its sometimes bizarre and seemingly meaningless sayings must be even worse. In fact, English has thousands of sayings, proverbs and adages, many based around food and drink that are used every day. We know the meaning of them, but most English people rarely know how they originated.

How about bringing home the bacon? Meaning to triumph or achieve an objective, one story of its origins dates back to the year 1111. It’s said that in the village of Dunmow, in Essex, a noble woman offered a prize of a side of bacon, known locally as flitch, to any man from anywhere in England who could honestly say that he had had complete marital harmony for the preceding year and a day. In over 500 years there were only eight winners! (Seems an awful lot of hard work for such a small prize!) It was re-established in 1858 but ceased to be offered with the closure of the local bacon factory in the 1980s.

To save one’s bacon may have come from the early 17th century, where it was thieves’ slang for ‘escape’. Alternatively, it may mean the sides of bacon that peasant families would have hanging up in the house. They would be valuable property and if someone ‘saved your bacon’ from fire or theft you would have had a narrow escape from a terrible consequence. A baker’s dozen, meaning 13, comes from the Middle Ages when bread was a staple food and it was illegal to sell it underweight. In order to make certain that they did not incur a heavy penalty, many bakers gave thirteen loaves to the dozen, just to make sure

Often we will ask someone to spill the beans or tell us a secret. Legend suggests that it may have come from the ancient Greeks who were very fastidious about who they would let into their many secret societies. A common voting method was for members to drop either a white or black bean into a jar. White meant acceptance and black rejection of the new applicant. The precise numbers of white and black votes was meant to be a secret, but occasionally the jar was knocked over and the beans were spilt! If you cook the books it generally means falsifying financial accounts, but it does actually have its origins in cooking. Just as a chef can change or improve a recipe, so an accountant can change financial records to the benefit of the ‘cook’. Such a change, in a negative way, is also seen in the expression – cook someone’s goose – thereby depriving the owner of the benefit of the animal, either dead or alive.

To curry favour means to get into someone’s good books, but it has nothing to do with Indian cuisine. In this instance the ‘curry’ is a horse-riding term for grooming. The ‘favour’ is an alteration of the word ‘favel’, the name of the half horse, half man creature in the early 14th century French satirical romance ‘Le Roman de Favel’. This beast was cunning and evil, and it was just as well to keep on the right side of him. To curry him kept him in a good mood.

Playing gooseberry now means to be an unwelcome third party at a lovers’ meeting. In the past it was used somewhat less specifically, and meant any unwanted third party. Gooseberry was an old euphemism for the Devil, who was naturally not welcome in most company.

“When someone is bitter or jealous of another’s success they tend to have sour grapes. This expression comes from one of Aesop’s Fables in which a fox, having unsuccessfully tried to get at some grapes in a vineyard, went off saying “They’re as sour as crabs anyway!” A strange answer, but ‘crabs’ is likely to refer to crab apples.

Marvin Gaye famously sang about hearing it through the grapevine, suggesting a rumour or gossip. Its origins are American, coming from the early days of telegraphy. Then, pioneering companies rushed to put up telegraph poles, some made none too well and some using trees rather than poles. To some, the tangled wires resembled the wild vines found in California, hence a ‘grapevine’. During the American Civil War the telegraph was used extensively, but the messages were sometimes unclear and thus unreliable, hence the association of rumour on the grapevine. The phrase first appeared in print in 1852.

An age-old food associated with Christmas was humble pie, and from this came the expression to eat humble pie. Meaning to apologise deeply when you are proved wrong, it is really a confusion of words and is based on medieval feasts. Nobles and the well-to-do fed off the best pieces of meat and gave the left-overs to the servants and other lowly people. Much of this was offal and the contemporary name for this was numble, from the French, nombles, in turn from the Latin, lumbulus, meaning ‘a little loin’. A pie made from such flesh was, naturally, a numble pie, however it soon turned into an umble pie. And I’m sure many of us have had to take a bite out of that particular delicacy in our time!

So, when someone learning English asks you why you use certain sayings, now you can tell them some of the answers. And when they don’t understand, you can do what we British normally do – say it again, only louder!


Johnny Paterson


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