Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday culinary words and phrases

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Food glorious food!

Everything but the kitchen sink

Keep the pot boiling

Out of the frying pan

Salad days  

In the soup!

Cook one’s goose  

Give us a butchers!   

What a sauce!

A sandwich short of a picnic

Feeling groggy           

Just my cup of tea

Look to your laurels   

The spice of life      

In a nutshell   


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The meaning and origin of words and phrases related to the word food

If we had been able to listen to Anglo-Saxons talking about what they ate we might have heard them using one of a number of different words to describe food, the nutritious substances on which we all rely to maintain life and growth. A number of those words have survived through to the present day, albeit with different meanings.

For example, the Old English word fōdor was used to describe food in general. Today we know the word fōdor as fodder and it has developed a more specific meaning of dried food for cattle. Similarly, the word foster initially meant food or nourishment but it has changed in meaning so that today it means ‘to raise another’s child’. Foster only gained this meaning in Middle English. Both fodder and foster are etymologically related to the word that has actually kept its meaning all the way from Old English to the present day, fōda, or as we know it today, food.  

Mete was another Old English word that was used as a general term for any food or for an item of food. Only later did it come to mean animal flesh in particular and develop the modern spelling of meat. However the word retains its older meaning of food in general in the familiar expression ‘meat and drink’ which is used to indicate a task that someone will find easy or straightforward and conveys the fundamental nature of food and drink to our existence. ‘Food and drink’ is an alternative version of this expression and is essentially the same phrase.

The second half of the 20th century sFast Foodaw a number of new categories of food being defined. For example, the term fast food has been used in America since the 1950s and in Britain since the 1970s to describe food served quickly in fast food restaurants. Such food is stored partially prepared or is kept hot having already been cooked with the intention of it being served quickly to customers. Thus the food served in fish and chip shops, burger joints and pizza parlours all fall into this category.

Although they are not the same, fast foods are often associated with the term junk foods. Junk foods are commercially-prepared foods that have a high content of nutrients that are damaging to health when consumed in excess; i.e. fat, sugar and salt. Junk foods generally contain few other nutrients. The word junk was originally used to describe old rope but by the middle of the 19th century the word had developed its familiar, wider meaning of old and discarded objects with little or no worth. Its use for items of little worth expanded as it became used in the terms junk jewellery and junk mail before it became applied to food. First recorded in 1973, the term junk food originated in America as a result of concern that children were obtaining too high a percentage of their calories from eating such foods and because of this were falling short of the amounts of other nutrients necessary for a healthy diet. Examples of junk foods include confectionery, crisps, fizzy drinks and many kinds of the aforementioned fast food. Interestingly, so-called ‘healthy’ foods are most often determined by their lack of undesirable ingredients – eg sugar, fat or salt – rather than by a particularly high level of nutritional content. mea

Originating in Japan, so-called functional foods took off in the West during the 1990’s. Functional foods contain additives that are claimed to promote health and longevity. Examples include foods with additions that are said to lower cholesterol or aid digestion. The beneficial nature of these additions is strongly marketed. Their name is a translation of the Japanese kinōsei-shokuhin from kinōsei meaning functionality + shokuhin meaning food. Such foods are also referred to by a variety of other names: ‘designer foods’, ‘miracle foods’, pharmafoods and nutraceuticals. The last two of these names evolved from the words pharmaceutical and nutrition respectively. and meaning

Comfort FoodOften turned to at times of stress or sadness, comfort foods are dishes that remind us of comforting childhood memories. Consequently they are dishes that are evocative of home cooking or that are associated with school menus. Examples include steaming hot soup, baked beans on toast, crumpets with lashings of butter, soft-boiled egg with soldiers, bangers and mash, macaroni cheese, shepherd’s pie, pizza, rice pudding, ice cream, spotted dick and custard. Originating in the US, the term is first recorded only recently, in 1977. and meaning

If you become addicted to the over-consumption of food you are a foodaholic. First recorded in 1965 when it was spelt foodoholic, the word was the first of a number of words that would be based upon the structure of the word alcoholic. It would soon be followed by the words workaholic (1968), chocaholic (1972) and shopaholic (1984). Ori

The word foodaholic introduced an addictive element to the concept of someone who overeats. It thus built upon the already well-established word glutton, which is used as a derogatory term for someone who eats excessively. Glutton came from the Old French gluton, which is from the Latin gluttōnem which is related to gluttīre meaning ‘to swallow’ and gula 'throat' which also gave us the modern word gullet. In the 17th century, the voracious approach to eating exhibited by a glutton led to the word being applied to the largest land-living member of the weasel family, which is today better known by its alternative name of wolverine. The word also developed a meaning where it described someone who had a prodigious appetite for something, such as a glutton for work and the development from this of a glutton for punishment, which is used to describe someone who appears eager to take on an excessive amount of unpleasant work. The excessiveness of a glutton is mirrored when we refer to there being a glut (from the Old French glut meaning gluttonous) of something.

A number of phrases play upon the sustaining Food for Thoughtnature of food. For example, since the early 19th century, things deserving careful consideration and therefore providing mental nourishment have been said to provide plenty of food for thought. The expression food for powder refers to soldiers of low rank who can be regarded as expendable. The phrase dates from the 16th century, as does the slang phrase food for worms which is used to mean a dead person. The similar phrase food for fishes, meaning drowned, is known from the 19th century.   An

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A Stomach for Gastronomy