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 eggs

Eggs are the shelled, generally oval, reproductive body laid by female birds such as chickens, ducks and geese. Eggs may be cooked in more ways than any other food. They can be coddled, fried, poached, boiled, baked and scrambled. The word comes to us from the Old English, ǽg. Boiled eggs are such a significant food they have their own cutlery (egg spoons that are small enough to fit inside a boiled egg), tools (egg timers come in a range of designs whilst egg slices are used to remove fried eggs from the pan without breaking the yolk), crockery (egg cup - first recorded 1773) and means of keeping them warm (egg cosies).

As sure as eggs is eggs means beyond doubt. It is generally thought to be a corruption of the mathmatical statement "as sure as x is x" which accounts for the use of the singular verb with the plural words eggs, although the plural verb version 'as sure as eggs are eggs' is also frequently used. It is recorded as far back as the late 17th century as 'as sure as eggs be eggs'.

The informal phrase bad egg refers to a worthless, untrustworthy individual. It draws a comparison between people and eggs in that you can't tell what they are like from the outside and that they can prove very disappointing. The expression dates back at least to the mid 19th century. The opposite phrase, good egg, meaning a good, dependable person originated as a contrast to a 'bad egg' and is believed to have been first used by Rudyard Kipling in 1903.

Like the curate’s egg; good in parts refers to something of uneven quality, i.e. good in parts but bad in others. The expression comes from an 1895 edition of Punch magazine in which there was a carton illustrating a feint-hearted curate breakfasting on an egg at his bishop's house. Asked by the bishop whether the egg was bad he reassures his host that "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!".

An intellectual is also known by the slang term egghead. Recently the word has been popularised by the TV quiz show Eggheads which features a team of quiz champions taking on teams of hopefuls in a battle of knowledge. The term egghead dates from 1907 in American English and derives from the popular belief that intelligent boffins have bald, egg-like heads.

In North America, aubergines are known as egg fruit and the plant on which they grow as the egg-plant. The aubergine variety that was originally so-named bore white rather than the more familiar purple fruit. The name egg plant is first recorded in 1767.  

Lay an egg is US slang meaning to fail completely. Generally used to refer to an unsuccessful performance, joke etc the phrase is possibly from the similarity between an egg and a zero.  

If something happens that leaves you looking foolish, you are said to be left with egg on your face. First recorded in America during the 1950s there are two commonly suggested origins: One is that it has a theatrical origin in that it refers to eggs being thrown at stage performers whose act does not pass muster. The other commonly proferred derivation is that it relates to someone who has traces of food left around their mouth as a result of eating messily.

Money put by for future use is often referred to as a nest egg. This originates from the time when hens were commonly kept by cottagers as a source of fresh eggs. A porcelain egg was placed in the nest to encourage the hens to lay. Therefore a nest egg is a small amount of savings which may encourage the saver to save more.

If you are risking everything on the success of a single venture you are said to be putting all your eggs in one basket. First recorded in the mid 17th century, the expression refers to the inherent risk of losing everything if you drop that one basket and encourages you to spread your risk.

The proverb there is reason in roasting eggs means that there is a reason for any action, however peculiar it may appear. It was used by Trollope in Last Chronicle of Barset II lxxv (1867).  

Sunny side up is a term used to describe eggs cooked by shallow frying without being turned over once the bottom has been cooked. This ensures that the yolks remain rounded and a clear, bright yellow colour, i.e. sun-like.

To differentiate between this method of frying and turning the egg over to cook the yolk many people refer to eggs that have been cooked by turning as being cooked over easy. It is thought that this term originates with the fact that the eggs are turned over gently (easy, carefully) and cooked for a few seconds more before serving, so the white is fully set.  

Don’t try to teach one's grandmother to suck eggs advises against offering advice to someone who is older and more experienced than yourself and already knows how to do what you are trying to teach them. It is first recorded in 1707 although expressions with similar meanings are known to date back to the 16th & 17th centuries. The most obvious explanation for its meaning is that eggs used to be commonly emptied of their liquid content by making a small hole through which the contents could be removed by sucking hard. Eggs so prepared were then ready to be decorated.

The sucking of eggs also features in the North American expression of dismissal or contempt go suck an egg, meaning ‘go away’.

Walking on eggshells refers to acting with extreme caution in a delicate situation, for example e.g. in order to avoid upsetting someone. The saying refers to the ease with which eggshells would be broken.

An egg’s yolk is the yellow, central portion of an egg that, in a fertilized egg, would feed the developing embryo that would develop into a baby bird. The word comes from the Old English for yolk geolca which had a literal meaning of 'the yellow part', from geolu 'yellow'.

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The partridge family