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 soup

Generally served hot and at the beginning of a meal, a soup is a liquid dish made using a meat, poultry, fish or vegetable stock. Soups come in many guises, from thin, light, clear consommes to thick, filling, stew-like soups such as minestrone. First recorded in 1653, the word comes from the French soupe meaning broth, soup, from the Late Latin suppa meaning bread or another food that is soaked or dipped in broth.

If you are in trouble you may be said to be in the soup. Originating in the US late in the 19th century,

this slang term is a variation of finding oneself in hot water.

A soup-kitchen is somewhere that food - frequently soup because it is cheap, warm and filling - is prepared and given to those in need of a meal. The term is first recorded in 1839.

A pea-souper was a particularly dense, yellow fog. The term is first recorded in 1890 but the use of pea soup to mean a fog had already been in use for around half a century. The term is from the thick nature and yellow colour of soup made from dried split peas.  

Soup up is a colloquialism meaning to alter a vehicle or its engine so as to improve its speed. First recorded 1921 and thought to derive from soup in a slang meaning of narcotic injected into a racehorse to make it run faster. It was also possibly influenced by the term 'sup'ercharge.

From soup to nuts is a North American saying meaning from start to finish. Dating from early in the 20th century, it is a reference to a formal meal menu that begins with a first course of soup and ends with nuts as the final offering.

Confusing or incomprehensible language, especially one containing lots of symbols or abbreviations is refered to informally as alphabet soup. It gets its name from the type of soup that contains pasta shaped as letters of the alphabet.  

Duck soup refers to an easy task. Although the phrase only dates back to the early years of the 20th century, it’s origin is a mystery. It is best known from being used as the title of a classic Marx Brothers film (1933). When he was asked to explain the film’s title, Groucho Marx helpfully retorted ‘Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages but no duck and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck (i.e. avoid) soup for the rest of your life.’

A consommé is a clear, light, rich tasting soup produced by reducing (i.e. concentrating) meat or chicken stock then clarifying with egg whites. The soup is then strained through muslin. It is served either hot or cold. First recorded in English in 1815, the word is a French term from the Latin cōnsummāre meaning 'to complete'. The word cōnsummāre is also the origin of consummate. It came from con- meaning intensive + summa meaning total, highest degree. Summa also developed into the word sum and is related to summit.


Mulligatawny is a soup of Anglo-Indian origin, dating from the time of the British Raj. In Indian cuisine there was no such thing as a soup eaten by itself as a separate course so it was up to the British to create one. Its basis is a curry-flavoured chicken or beef/mutton stock. Rice and various vegetables are added, together with any of a number of other ingredients to add flavour. First recorded in 1784, the name is derived from the Tamil miaku-taṇṇi meaning ‘black pepper water’.


A court bouillon is a flavoured and seasoned liquid stock most often used to poach fish but also used to poach or boil meat, poultry, shellfish or vegetables. Its purpose is to impart extra flavour. The flavourings used (e.g. vegetables, herbs and spices, white wine, vinegar, lemon juice etc) depend upon the food to be cooked. Because a court bouillon is already boiling before the food is added, it is an ideal method of cooking foods such as seafood that needs to be cooked only briefly. The term means to boil briefly, coming from the French court meaning short (from the Latin curtus which also gave us curt) and bouillon which derives from the French bouillir meaning 'to boil'.

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A pretty kettle of fish