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 by boiling or simmering

If you boil food you immerse it in a liquid that has reached the temperature at which it turns into a vapour. The production of bubbles is associated with this vapourisation and the word boil derives from the Old French boillir which is from the Latin bullīre 'to bubble, seethe', from the Latin bulla meaning a bubble.

Parboil means to briefly cook vegetables in boiling water so that they become partly cooked. Parboil is an example of a word coming to mean the opposite of its original meaning. It originates from the Medieval Latin perbullire 'to boil thoroughly' from per- thoroughly + bullīre 'to boil'. Entering English via the Old French parbouillir its change in meaning came about because of a mistaken association with the Middle English word part.

Go off the boil is a metaphor for passing the point at which excitement or interest was at its greatest.

It all boils down to this... is said as a prelude to explaining something in a very basic form. The expression derives from the fact that boiling a liquid reduces it in quantity as a result of evaporation.

Boiling food gently has its own word, coddle. The word was originally used relating to the cooking of fruit and it was used in this way in its first recorded use in 16/17th century English playwright Ben Johnsons' play Every Man in His Humour. It was later commonly used to describe the gentlest method of cooking eggs. Coddled eggs were especially popular in Victorian times. Eggs were broken into specific containers designed for the purpose that, after butter and seasoning were added, were covered and placed in a pan of boiling water. The pan would then be taken off of the heat and left to stand for around 8 to 10 minutes. The word coddle later came to be used to mean 'to treat tenderly'. It is first recorded with this meaning in Jane Austin's (1815) novel Emma in which Mr Knightley responds to a suggestion that he was not looking well by stating ‘pray do not concern yourself about my looks. Be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself and the children, and let me look as I chuse.’ The word coddle is of uncertain origin although it is thought that it may be related to the Middle English caudle, a thin, warm gruel mixed with ale or wine and given to invalids. Today the verb coddle is most familiar as part of the word mollycoddle which has a less positive meaning of excessive indulgence, over-nursing.

Poaching involves cooking food gently for a short time in or over a shallow pan of just simmering liquid. For a long time restricted to the cooking of eggs without their shell using this method, it is now also used to describe this method of cooking fish or fruit. The word poach is from the Old French pochier ‘to pocket’ or 'to put in a bag' in reference to the yolk of the egg becoming enclosed in a pocket of egg white when cooked this way. Pochier itself came from the Old French for pocket, poche. The name of this method of cooking shares its origin with poach as in ‘steal game’ as poachers used a pocket or bag to hide their catch.

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