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 pots

The use of pots for cooking has given rise to a number of familiar phrases:

A watched pot never boils means that the more eagerly you anticipate something, e.g. for the telephone to ring, the longer it seems to take. It dates from the 19th century.

A pot-boiler is a work of art or a book considered to be of little merit. It is first recorded with this meaning in 1864 in Rossetti's letters. It comes from the allusion that a particular work was produced by the artist or author concerned with the primary intention of keeping them in food. It is related to the earlier expression to boil the pot meaning to provide one’s livelihood. To keep the pot boiling originally had the same meaning although it has since developed a wider meaning where it is used to denote maintaining an existing level of interest in something.

To the British, take potluck means to accept whatever meal is served or, in more general usage, willing to accept whatever one is given. It may be used by a recipient of hospitality to indicate that he or she dies not wish to put the host to any trouble, or used by the host to indicate that due to short notice guests will have to be prepared to accept whatever is on offer. However in America the term is used to refer to a communal meal where the guests all bring a dish to be shared.

The phrase a case of the pot calling the kettle black is used as a rebuke to someone who is criticising another for something that they are guilty of themselves, i.e. of being hypocritical. John Clarke included a version of this phrase in a collection of proverbs in 1639 when he recorded it as ‘The pot calls the pan burnt-arse’. It is generally accepted that the phrase refers to the heavy, metal pots and kettles that turned black in use in Medieval kitchens. However, an alternative, less accepted, explanation is that it refers to a blackened pot calling a shiny copper kettle black when what it is really seeing is its own reflection. Thus the pot is actually unintentionally describing itself.

Gone to pot means to have degenerated through neglect. Dating back to the 16th century, this phrase is of debated origin but is widely believed to derive from 'go to the pot' meaning chopping ingredients into pieces ready for the pot. Therefore it is an alternative to the expression go to pieces.

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Hubble, bubble, boil and trouble