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 cooking

A chef is a head cook, generally male, especially in a restaurant or hotel. First recorded in English in the first half of the 19th century, the word is French and means chief or head, from the Old French chief which, not surprisingly, is also the origin of the English word chief. A head cook is properly known as the chef de cuisine - the head of a kitchen - and chef is a shortening of this original title. A chef immediately below the head chef is known as the sous chef, from the French sous 'under', which is itself from the Latin subtus ‘under, below’ which is akin to sub as use in the word subterranean.

Cook is a much older term for someone who, by occupation, prepares food for the table. Originally the word was only applied to a man in charge of food preparation and the term isn't recorded applied to a woman until the 16th century. The word comes from the Old English cóc and was borrowed from the Latin cocus 'a cook' which is a variant of coquus, which is related to coquere meaning 'to cook'. Coquere is also the origin of the words cuisine, biscuit and concoct which has a similar meaning to the modern phrase cook up which is used to mean ‘to invent something untrue’.

Dating back to the 16th century, too many cooks spoil the broth is a proverb meaning that a task will not be successful if too many people try to be in charge. If each of a number of cooks add something to a soup it will taste dreadful as a result. Also used in the shortened version, 'too many cooks'.

The expression chief cook and bottle washer has been in use since the early 19th century. It is used to describe someone who does everything that needs to be done. It is often used deprecatingly by mothers and wives to describe their role in life. Rather than chief cook meaning ‘head cook’, it is thought that the phrase may have originated as a list of three job roles, i.e. chief, cook and bottle washer.

Cook the books means to falsify business accounts in order to mislead. The word cook developed the meaning of 'tamper with' during the 17th century. As ‘the books have been cooked’ the phrase is said to have first been used in a report on the conduct of George Hudson (1700-71). Hudson was the so-called ‘railway king’ and it was whilst he was chairman of Eastern Counties Railways that their accounts were falsified. Incidentally, the word book comes from buche, the Old German for beech wood as beech bark was used to write on in Europe prior to paper becoming readily available.

Originating in the US, the phrase ‘What’s cooking?’ means ‘What’s planned?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ and is most often used by someone arriving at a gathering. Presumably it comes from the fact that in the same way as it is not always obvious what meal is being prepared, it is not obvious what is going on when one arrives at a scene. The phrase is first recorded in the early 1940s.  

(Now we're) cooking with gas means working effectively, making good progress. The expression is said to date from the time when gas stoves were replacing wood stoves and thus it related to the quicker, easier nature of gas stoves.

An apron is a garment worn tied around the waist to protect the front of one’s clothing from being made dirty. The word shares its origin with napkin as it developed from the Old French naperon, diminutive of nappe 'cloth' 'tablecloth', itself from the Latin mappa 'napkin', 'map'. The ‘n’ at the start of the word became lost in the second half of the 15th century when ‘a naperon’ was taken to be ‘an aperon’. The phrase tied to someone's apron strings is generally used disparagingly to describe a grown man considered to be too influenced by his mother.

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Slaving over a hot stove