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 butcher

A butcher is someone whose trade is the slaughter of animals for food or who dresses and sells their meat. Originally a noun meaning someone who kills animals, the word later also became used as a verb to describe the act of slaughter itself. Spelt bochur in Middle English and with the meaning 'slaughterer of animals', the word derives from the Old French bouchier, bochier meaning a person who kills and sells male goats, from the word for a male goat, bouc which is related to our word for a male deer or goat, buck. The current spelling of butcher is first recorded in the works of Shakespeare in the late 16th & early 17th centuries.

Give us a butcher’s uses the word butchers in its cockney rhyming slang meaning of ‘look’. Also used in the similar phrase Let’s take a butchers, the meaning of look comes from the original, longer, version of 'butcher’s hook'.

Nowadays, the word meat is mainly used to mean the muscle tissue or 'flesh' of animals that are eaten for food. The other edible parts of the carcass are classified as offal.

More often than not though, meat is used even more specifically to mean one of the following: pork, beef, mutton, lamb and some game. Poultry, fish and seafood are treated separately.  

However in Old English the word meat, or mete as it was then spelt, meant an item of food or was a general term for any food whatsoever although it was applied especially to solid food as opposed to liquids or drinks. Only later did it come to mean animal flesh. The meaning of an item of food has survived to this day in the term sweetmeat, whilst it is still used in its original, more general usage in the following two present day expressions:

One man’s meat is another man’s poison means that what one person likes another may hate. In English, it dates back to 1604 but the notion is paralleled in the much earlier writings of the Roman philosopher Lucretius.

The phrase meat and drink has two figurative usages. It can refer to a source of support or pleasure or can mean something routine or simple. It is first recorded in 1533 as ‘It is meate and drinke to this childe to playe.’ Later, Shakespeare used it in As You Like It ‘It is meat and drinke to me to see a Clowne.’

The word meat in its original meaning is related to the word mate meaning ‘one of a pair’ or spouse. This relationship came from the idea that a mate was someone with whom you would share food.  

The expression meat and two veg has two, very different, meanings. It can refer to a typical but unimaginative British dinner, consisting of a hot meat (e.g. beef, lamb, pork) served with two different kinds of vegetables, for instance as advertised by a boarding house. This meaning has also developed a figurative use to mean something standard and unsophisticated or to indicate a taste for such things, e.g. ‘He's a meat and two veg man’ meaning he's not adventurous. The related phrase meat and potatoes is used similarly to signify unexceptional but fundamental things, staple commodities, basic ingredients.

Meat and two veg is also used as slang for the male genitals because of their similarity to a sausage between say a potato and a brussels sprout!

A meat market is used to mean a gathering where people are regarded as potential sexual partners. The expression is first recorded in 1896 but the use of meat as a term for the body as a sexual object dates back to the 16th century.

Meat wagon is American slang for an ambulance.

The importance of meat to a meal is reflected in the word meat’s use from the 20th century to mean the most essential part of an idea or experience. Similarly, the word meaty is used to mean full of substance.

The expression dead meat means in such big trouble with someone you are as good as dead.

A person or animal that will be easily outwitted or overcome may be referred to as being easy meat. A variation on 'easy prey', it is said to have been in widespread use in Britain from the 1920s onwards.

Strong meat means forceful language or extreme ideas that are likely to be thought unacceptable.

If you feel like you are the meat in the sandwich you are in the awkward situation of being between two people who are arguing and not easily being able to side with either of them. It is often used to describe the situation of a child is in when their parents are at war with one another.

When meat has finished cooking it is often referred to as being done to a turn. This expression comes from when meat was roasted until cooked on an upright spit which had to be turned by hand.

Give someone the cold shoulder is said to originate from offering a guest the cold leftovers from the previous day’s roast.  

The terms white meat and dark meat are used to describe meat from different parts of a cooked poultry carcass, with white meat coming from the breast. It is said that these terms were introduced by the Victorians as euphemisms to avoid having to say breast and leg at the dinner table.

We generally use different words for an animal’s meat to the name of the animal itself. This was a development from the Norman Conquest when French words came to be used for an animal’s flesh whilst English words were kept for the animal itself. For example, the words beef, pork and mutton come from the Old French names for the animals themselves whereas ox, cow, pig and sheep are words that are native to English. Lamb is unusual in that the word is used both for the animal and its meat.   

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Bringing home the bacon