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 chickens

The domesticated chicken is the descendant of the jungle fowl living in south-east Asia or India. They are now an important source of eggs as well as meat almost throughout the world. The word chicken has been traced back to the Old English cicen. It was variously spelt as chikene, cheken and chyken before the modern spelling took over.

A battery chicken is one that has been raised as part of an intensive farming system. However it is not immediately obvious why they are called by this name. For the answer we need to understand the changes in meaning that have taken place for the word battery. Originally the word battery meant 'beating' and this sense survives in the legal phrase 'assault and battery'. It was then used to mean 'battering', particularly by artillery and from there it was applied to the guns responsible. When electrical batteries (a series of cells) were invented the word was borrowed to name them because both guns and electrical batteries discharge - in one case shells and in the other electricity. The word was then borrowed again to describe the series of connected cages (alluding to the cells of a battery) in which hens are raised intensively. In this sense, the word is first recorded during the 1930s.

The popular sandwich filling coronation chicken is named in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s II’s coronation in 1953. It is said to have been the invention of a florist called Constance Spry and a chef Rosemary Hume who prepared food for a coronation banquet.

The nervousness of chickens is alluded to in the use of the word chicken to mean a cowardly person. This meaning is used in the expressions chicken out meaning to quit through a loss of nerve and play chicken which is a dare in which participants partake in dangerous or forbidden activities until they lose their nerve. Similarly, a chicken run is an activity in which two drivers drive their cars towards one another to see which one is first to swerve away. The chicken switch is another name for an aircraft’s panic button that releases the ejector seat.

The illness chicken pox is thought to have been so-called in reference to the comparatively mild nature of the disease compared to the much more serious small pox. Its name is first recorded in the first half of the 18th century.  

Don’t count your chickens before they're hatched means that you shouldn’t base your actions on a favourable event that may not actually happen. The proverb dates back to the late 16th century. It is also frequently used in the shortened form ‘don’t count your chickens’.   

A spring chicken in its literal sense is one that has been bred to be ready for slaughter whilst young for its tender meat. This has led to the term’s use to mean a young person. However, it is most often encountered in the negative, e.g. "He's no spring chicken" pointing out that someone is no longer as young as they were.

If you are running around like a headless chicken you are rushing about in a totally disorganised, panic-stricken fashion. The expression comes from the fact that chickens may still flap around for a few moments even after decapitation.

The expression the chickens have come home to roost means that ones past wrong actions are now causing problems in the present. It originates from the 14th century proverb 'curses, like chickens, come home to roost'.

Chicken feed is a colloquialism for a small sum of money. It belongs to a family of expressions that relate to cheap items such as beer money and small beer.

A chicken-and-egg situation is one where it is not possible to tell which of two things was the cause and which was the effect. It refers to the traditional riddle 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?'.

In 1988 eggs became inextricably associated with salmonella after Conservative Health Minister Edwina Currie stated that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with the slamonella bacteria. Salmonella is a variety of food poisoning caused by bacteria of the same name that frequent the intestines of humans and animals. The name is first recorded in English in 1913 but was coined in French in 1900 by J. Lignières who named the genus of bacteria after the North American veterinarian Daniel Elmer Salmon (1850-1914) who isolated bacteria of this kind in 1885.

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