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 fish

A fish is any member of a group of cold-blooded vertebrates living in water and which breathe through gills. The word comes from the Old English fisc.

The popular expression a pretty kettle of fish refers to an awkward situation or predicament. It is generally agreed that the phrase developed from a kind of riverside picnic held as a social event by Scottish gentry late in the 18th century, during which freshly caught salmon were cooked straight away outdoors in a large saucepan known as a fish kettle. Such outings were known as a kettle of fish but how this developed into the current meaning is a matter of conjecture.  

A completely different kettle of fish means a totally different subject, issue or kind of person. First recorded in the mid 20th century, the phrase is related to 'a pretty kettle of fish'.

Big fish has the same meaning as big cheese or big enchilada: i.e. an important person. It is probably related to the expression a big fish in small pond which means someone who is influencial but only within the confines of his or her group or organisation.  

If you are said to drink like a fish you consume alcohol in excessive quantities.

The saying that eating fish is good for the brain is based on the now discredited idea that as the brain contains a lot of phosphorus eating a food that is rich in that mineral would be good for the brain.

If you fish in troubled waters you get involved in a troubled situation with the intention of making a profit.   

If you have other fish to fry you have something else or something more important to attend to. Also used as ‘having bigger fish to fry’.

The term like a fish out of water is used to describe someone in a situation or environment to which they are unaccustomed and wholly unsuited. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that ‘A monk when he is reckless [i.e. “neglectful of his duty”] is like a fish out of water’.  

Like shooting fish in a barrel refers to something that is very easily achieved.

Neither fish, flesh, nor fowl means indefinite in character; hard to classify; neither one thing nor another. Also “neither fish nor flesh”, “neither fish, nor fowl”, "neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring". The expression refers to the way that foods were grouped in relation to dietary laws formerly defined by the Church relating to periods of abstinence or fasting.

There are plenty more fish in the sea means that there are lots of other potential romantic partners in the world. It is given as a consolatory comment to someone who has just had a romantic relationship end. From the proverb 'there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it'.

Make fish of one and flesh of another means to make an offensive distinction; to show partiality. Sometimes fowl replaces the word flesh in this saying.

Someone with odd habits, or with a strange nature is often referred to as a queer fish. This expression dates from the middle of the 18th century.

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A red herring