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 ham

Gammon is cured meat from a hind leg of a pig. It is eaten hot, either boiled or, when sliced into thick steaks, fried or grilled. The word is from the Old North French gambon 'ham', from gambe meaning leg, from the late Latin leg, gamba. The word gamba also developed into the words gambol (meaning boisterous play but originally 'a leap') and gambit (an opening move in chess where a pawn is risked in order to gain an advantage later in the game). Gambit developed from the Italian gambetto 'a tripping up' used as a trick in wresting.

Ham refers to meat from the top part of a pig's back leg, salted and smoked. All English hams are cooked before they are sold or eaten but hams are produced in Italy, France and Germany which are to be eaten raw, e.g. Parma ham from Parma in Italy. In contrast to gammon, ham is eaten cold, thinly sliced. It’s name comes from the Old English ham, hamm which meant the back of the knee and which came from an ancient Germanic base meaning ‘to be crooked’. It was this meaning of the back of the knee led to the word hamstring to describe one of the tendons at the back of the knee. The meaning of meat from the thigh of a pig dates from around the second half of the 15th century.

A ham actor is an incompetent actor whose performances are characterized by overacting, hence another popular expression, 'ham it up'. The expression is of uncertain origin but there have been no shortage of suggestions! The most widely accepted explanation is that it is a shortening of the word hamfatter which was used in America around the end of the 19th century to describe mediocre actors. The most frequently suggested derivation of the word hamfatter is that such unsuccessful actors were forced by their financial circumstances to use ham fat as a make-up remover. Another popular suggestion is that is that it came from the first syllable of the word amateur.

Ham-fisted is a metaphorical insult applied to someone being clumsy or heavy-handed. In spite of the term sharing amateur connotations with that of a ham actor, the two terms are not thought to share a common derivation. Instead, ham-fisted originally made a comparison between a poor boxer and someone who had hams instead of fists.  

A radio ham is an amateur short-wave radio enthusiast. It comes from the use of ham to indicate amateurism, as in 'ham actor' and 'ham-fisted' above, although in this instance the term carries none of the negative connotations associated with those other expressions.

The name hamburger does not indicate that this doyen of fastfood includes ham as an ingredient. Instead, hamburgers generally consist of a patty of beef in a split bread roll. So if a hamburger where does its name come from? The word is German in origin, meaning 'of or from the German city of Hamburg' and near the end of the 19th century was applied in America to a type of steak - the Hamburger steak. It is thought that this steak originated in Germany and became associated with Hamburg because that was the port from which many immigrants arrived in the United States. It was then transferred to the hamburger (often now simply called a burger), a fried, flat, round patty (a round cake of minced meat). So, despite its name, a hamburger is not made from ham but from minced beef, which accounts for its alternative name, beefburger. The word beefburger was first recorded 1940. The year before, the word burger originated, in American English, as a simple shortening of hamburger.

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Mutton dressed as lamb