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 sauces

A sauce is a seasoned liquid or semi-solid preparation used as an accompanying condiment or in which a food is covered or cooked. Used to add flavour and texture to a dish, a sauce may be hot or cold, thin or thick, savoury or sweet. First recorded in the 14th century, the word sauce is from the Old French sausse, sause. Like the words salami and salary, the word ultimately derives from the Latin for salt sāl.


Not surprisingly, the word saucy originally meant resembling sauce, savoury. However, as early as the 16th century it began to be used in relation to behavior. To begin with it refered to conduct that was presumptuous or impudent. This mellowed into a sense of cheeky behaviour before it developed its current implication of something that is sexually suggestive, e.g. when it is used to describe the saucy seaside postcard. The word sassy, meaning impertinent, developed as a variant of saucy in American English.

Salsa is a chunky, spicy sauce served to accompany Mexican dishes. Ranging from mild to very hot, they may be fresh or cooked. The word is first recorded in English in the mid 19th century and comes from the Spanish for sauce, salsa which shares the same Latin origin as the word sauce. The spicy nature of salsa gave rise to it being used to describe salsa music and the dance performed to it.

Arrowroot is starch obtained from the rhizomes of a tropical herbaceous perennial. The resultant odourless fine, white, powder is almost pure starch and is used to thicken both savoury and sweet sauces. It is valued in the preparation of sauces that must not reach boiling point (e.g. egg custards which could curdle) because it can thicken a liquid at a lower temperature than either of the two commonest thickeners, cornflour and flour. This property means that it thickens faster than cornflour or flour. The name comes from the Arawak aru-aru meaning ‘meal of meals’ and was changed to arrowroot by Europeans upon their discovery that the native South American Indians used the tubers to absorb poison from wounds made by poisoned arrows.

Served hot or cold, custard is a cooked blend of milk and a thickening agent either of eggs (the traditional method) or cornflour. Cornflour-based custard powder has become so dominant that a custard prepared in the traditional manner is now generally referred to as an ‘egg custard’ in order to distinguish it from its cornflour-based commercial counterpart. Custards may be sweet or savoury. Sweet custards, made with the addition of sugar and often served as a sweet sauce, are poured over desserts such as apple pie. They may also form part of a dessert, such as trifle, custard tarts, fools, bread and butter pudding and crème caramel. Seasoned, savoury custards are generally used as the bulk of the filling for quiches.   

The origin of the word custard goes back to the late 14th century and an open pie, filled with meat or fruit that was covered with a preparation of broth or milk thickened using eggs, sweetened and seasoned with spices. Such a pie was called a crustarde or custarde, named after its crust (i.e. its pastry shell). The word was ultimately from the Latin crusta meaning a hard outer covering, rind and which is also the origin of the modern word crust. Today's equivalent of a crustade is a quiche. The modern spelling is first known from the mid 15th century. Around the turn of the 17th century, the liquid filling took on a life of its own and the baked custard based on eggs beaten into milk appeared. It is said that the sauce with which we are so familiar today did not emerge until the 19th century.

The pungent, very misshapen root of the horseradish plant is used, grated, to make horseradish sauce which is traditionally served to accompany roast beef. In spite of appearances, the name horseradish has nothing to do with horses.  Instead, it relates to a figurative sense of horse to mean 'large, strong, coarse'. It was with this meaning that it was applied to a variety of names such as horse parsley and the horse mushroom. The strong or hot nature of the root made it a perfect candidate for this name meaning 'strong radish'.

Ketchups are thick, concentrated, spicy sauces served cold at the table as a condiment. Various types of ketchup exist, e.g. walnut, mushroom and cucumber, but one has become the king of them all. Usually made from tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices, tomato ketchup is present in most households and can be eaten with a wide range of meat, poultry, fish and egg dishes.

The word ketchup is from the Malay kēchap which is probably from a Chinese dialectal word. Because the original name was from an unfamiliar language attempts to assimilate it into English were influenced by the spellings of unrelated words that were already familiar. Hence it is first recorded as catchup (influenced by catch and up) at the end of the 17th century and later, in 1730, as catsup (influenced by cat and sup) in the writings of Swift. Catsup remains the main spelling in American English. It is first recorded as ketchup in 1711.

Mustard is a hot-tasting paste prepared from crushed or powdered seeds of a species of mustard plant. The seeds used to make the condiment may come from any of three different members of the cabbage family. Depending on which species seeds have been used, a mustard can be mild or hot. Its name comes from the Old French moustarde, from moust 'must' itself from the Latin for must/new wine, mustum because mustard was originally made by blending must with ground mustard seeds.

The distinctive colour of the condiment led to its name being leant to a shade of yellow-brown. It was a similarity to this colour, together with a similarity in smell to mustard plants that resulted in the naming of mustard gas. Mustard gas is a poisonous gas that damages the respiratory tract, blisters skin and damages the eyes. Not only does mustard gas not contain mustard, it is not even a gas (it's an atomized liquid).   

The expression cut the mustard means to meet expectations or an acceptable standard. However the phrase is most often used in a negative sense, as in 'it just didn't cut the mustard'. First recorded late in the 19th century, the phrase may be from a US slang meaning of mustard to mean 'the best of anything'. The phrase cut it may well be a simple shortening of this expression.  

If you are as keen as mustard about something you are very enthusiastic about it. The expression dates from the second half of the 17th century.

A thick sauce served cold as a salad dressing, mayonnaise is made with oil, vinegar or lemon juice and egg yolks. The use of oil instead of butter as an ingredient means that, unlike sauces such as bearnaise and hollandaise, mayonnaise does not need to be heated but is prepared at room temperature. Although the basic ingredients for mayonnaise are the same as those for a vinaigrette, i.e. an oil and vinegar (or lemon juice) the ratio between these ingredients is dramatically different and there is an all-important extra ingredient; egg yolks. These produce a thick creamy emulsion quite different in nature to a vinaigrette whilst the lecithin in the yolks acts as an emulsifier, preventing the vinegar and oil from separating out.

Sometimes shortened to just mayo (since the first half of the 20th century), the word was borrowed from the French mayonnaise. It is said to have been named after Mahon, the port and capital of the island of Minorca which was captured by the Duc de Richelieu for France in 1756. It is his chef who is credited with the introduction of the sauce to commemorate the victory. However as the word is first recorded in French around 50 years later, the dates don't really add up. The word is first recorded in English towards the middle of the 19th century.  

Tartar sauce consists of mayonnaise plus any of a variety of extra ingredients but generally including chopped gherkins and capers, tarragon or chives, parsley and lemon juice. A traditional accompaniment to fish, it is also served with cold meats and some vegetables (e.g. globe artichokes).

First recorded in 1855 in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, the sauce came into English from the French sauce tartare. It’s name is said to be an allusion to the fierocity of the Tartars, in the same way as the name given to steak tartare.

Like tartar sauce, thousand island dressing adds extra ingredients to a base of mayonnaise. These extra ingredients vary but commonly include chopped onion, stuffed olives and hard-boiled egg, as well as parsley and tomato puree. The salad dressing is named after a group of more than 1,500 small isles in the St. Lawrence River in North America known as the Thousand Islands.

Originating in the Liguria region of Italy, pesto is a thick Italian sauce made from finely chopped pounded fresh basil leaves, crushed garlic, pine nuts, parmesan or sardo cheese, olive oil and salt. This uncooked sauce is generally served over hot pasta. The name is Italian, ultimately from the Latin pīnsere  meaning ‘to crush’ or ‘to pound’. The name is etymologically related to pestle which you use in combination with a mortar to grind spices etc..

The proverb hunger is the best sauce means that any food tastes good if you are hungry!


A saucer is a small, round shallow dish, most often placed under a cup. First recorded in English around 1340, the word comes from the Old French saussier 'sauce dish', from the Latin for salted salsus, which is also the origin of the word sauce. They were originally used to hold sauces or condiments and were generally made of metal. Its use to describe a dish on which a cup is placed is comparatively recent, appearing in the 18th century.

The distinctive shape of a saucer gave rise to the term flying saucer which is a term for an unidentified saucer-shaped flying object. First recorded in 1947, this term pre-dates the more generic UFO by six years.

The size and shape of saucers are alluded to in the expression eyes like saucers which means that one’s eyes are wide open in amazement.

Properly made, gravy is prepared from the juices that have come out of a piece of roasted meat or poultry as it is cooked. After the removal of the meat the juices, still in the pan in the which the meat was cooked, are generally either concentrated by boiling off some of the water content, thickened using flour or thinned using water, stock or wine. They are darkened by adding red wine, fried onion or a proprietary gravy browning, e.g. bisto. Served in a gravy boat, the gravy is poured over served meat and vegetables. The ultimate origin of the word gravy is obscure but it is thought to have arisen from the Old French word for a spiced sauce, grané. The change to a v in place of the n is attributed to a misreading of the letter n. Although at first sight this may seem a somewhat tenuous explanation, it helps to understand that today's v was written as u in medieval manuscripts and was frequently difficult to tell apart from the letter n. The word grané may have come from the Old French grain meaning grain from the fact that a grané was seasoned with grains of spice.

A gravy train is a situation that provides good financial rewards for very little effort. The phrase uses gravy in its slang meaning of 'money easily obtained'. Gravy train may have been altered from gravy-boat, which is a boat-shaped dish from which gravy is served at the table.

A Béchamel is one of the classic French sauces. It is made by adding a variety of flavourings including onion, peppercorns and mace to milk thickened with a roux of butter and flour. The sauce dates from the late 1600s and was a distinct change from the other coarse mixtures then in use. Béchamel sauce itself is used as the basis for a variety of other sauces which vary depending on the flavourings that are added, e.g. a bechamel sauce flavoured with grated cheese becomes a mornay sauce. It was named after its inventor, the Marquis de Béchamel (1630-1703) a gourmet who was the chief steward in Louis XIV's household. As ‘bishemel’, the word is first recorded in English in 1796 in Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery.

A Béchamel-based sauce with cheese added, a mornay sauce is generally used to coat dishes based on vegetables, fish, chicken or hard-boiled eggs. The word is attached to dishes in such a sauce, such as cod mornay. The origin of the word mornay is uncertain but it has been sensibly suggested that the sauce was named after the French Huguenot leader Philippe de Mornay, in much the same way as its root sauce was named after the Marquis de Béchamel.

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Eponymous foods