Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday culinary words and phrases

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via e-mail

All content on Eating Your Words is copyright © Alvin Scott 2013-2016. All rights reserved.

Links to this page may be made without asking permission.


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   


View on a mobile


The meaning and origin of the words and phrases related to frying pans

Sautéing is a quick method of cooking food by frying it for a short time in a small quantity of hot fat or oil. The word sauté is French, meaning ‘bounced’ or 'jumped'. The word evocatively describes the essential nature of this method of cooking in which the food is kept from being in contact with the bottom of the pan for very long at a time by tossing it. The word ultimately derives from the Latin saltāre 'to hop, dance', frequentative form of salire 'to leap' which is also the origin of the word sally (meaning sudden attack, sortie), salient (originally meaning leaping but now with the meaning significant as when making a salient point) and thought to be the origin of the word salmon.

As their name would suggest, pancakes quite simply are a type of cake cooked in a pan. Made from a batter of flour, milk and egg, they are cooked on both sides in a frying pan or on a griddle. Pancakes are round, flat and thin (although not as thin as crepes). They are served hot, either folded in half or rolled up.  They can be served simply with just a sprinkle of sugar and a drizzle of lemon juice or with a filling, which can be savoury or sweet. Whereas pancakes are eaten in Britain as a dessert, in America piles of pancakes covered in maple syrup are eaten for breakfast. Dating all the way back to the 15th century, the word is simply a compound of pan & cake.


In England pancakes are inextricably linked with Shrove Tuesday, so much so that the day is more popularly known as Pancake Day.  Dating back to at least the 16th century, Shrove Tuesday is the last day before the start of the 40 days of fasting that is Lent. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday because they were an excellent way of using up perishable eggs and fat which would otherwise be wasted because of Lent. The word Shrove is the past tense of shrive, which means 'hear someone's confession'. Before the Reformation, the community's priest heard their confessions on this day so that they could start Lent with a clear conscience. Shrove Tuesday does not fall on the same date each year. Instead, it moves around the calendar depending on when Easter falls. The first recorded use of Pancake Day was as ‘Pancake and Fritter Day’ in 1700. Pancake races in which participants run a course while tossing pancakes in a frying pan is a traditional and popular activity on Shrove Tuesdays.   

The expression as flat as a pancake, meaning completely flat, dates back to 1611.

Crèpes are extremely thin pancakes and may be served as they are, with a savoury or sweet filling, or topped with a sauce. Crepes are generally curled or rolled up prior to being served and it is this fact that gave rise to their name. The word crepe was borrowed from the French crêpe, itself from the Old French crespe which derives from the Latin crispa meaning curled. The word crepe as used to refer to a thin pancake is first recorded in English in 1877. However, during the second half of the 20th century the term has became used almost exclusively in the plural, i.e. crepes.

Bubble-and-squeak is an English dish that uses up leftovers from a main family meal. Originally it was a mixture of cold boiled beef, cabbage and potato, fried together but nowadays the meat is omitted and it generally consists of left over cabbage or brussels sprouts and cooked potatoes. Dating from the second half of the 18th century, the name came from the sound the dish makes while cooking in the frying pan and as hot air bubbles up and burst through the mixture. The dish has entered cockney rhyming slang as bubble (and squeak) = Greek.  


An omelette is a dish of beaten eggs that is fried and served folded over. Various fillings - e.g. cheese, meat, seafood or jam - are generally added once the omelette is cooked so that it is folded over the filling. Omelettes differ from scrambled egg in that the eggs are beaten much more thoroughly than is the case for scrambled egg. Also, the egg mixture is left intact on the bottom of the pan and is folded in half shortly before the upper surface has set. Omelettes are cooked over a higher heat than scrambled eggs. They can be eaten anytime of the day, for breakfast, as a light lunch, for tea or supper. Given a sweet filling, they can even be eaten as a dessert! The word omelette has a highly convoluted origin ultimately going back to the Latin lāmina meaning plate or layer and the same word that also gave rise to the word laminate. Therefore the omelette is named because of its flat shape. The word is spelt omelet in American English.

First recorded in 1796, the proverb one can't make an omelette without breaking eggs means that in order to achieve something there will be other, adverse, consequences.

If you jump out of the frying pan into the fire you have gone from a bad situation to one that is even worse. The phrase dates back to the 16th century and is recorded by John Heywood in 1546 as a perfectly recognizable ‘Leape out of the frying pan into the fyre.’


Originating in Spain, paella is a dish made with short-grained rice, chicken, shellfish (particularly mussels and crayfish) and vegetables. It is coloured with saffron. It is cooked and served in a large, double-handled shallow paella pan. It was this method of cooking that gave rise to its name as the word paella is Catalan, coming from the Latin for pan, patella.

Continue to …

Salad days