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 nuts

Botanically speaking, a nut is a hard, dry, one-seeded fruit that does not split open upon reaching maturity. However, in more general usage, the word is used for many other plant products that do not conform to this definition. The word itself comes from the Old English hnutu, the word later became used in a variety of other meanings, including a hexagonal piece of metal used with a bolt to hold things together, a colloquialism for the head, a crazed person, someone with an obsessive interest in something and when used in the plural, the testicles.

Another food meaning is that of a small biscuit or cake. However this meaning is only used in compounds, e.g.  ginger nut.  

First recorded in the middle of the 20th century, the phrase as nutty as a fruitcake built upon the use of nutty in its meaning of crazy which developed from nuts in its meaning of mad. As fruitcakes contained lots of nuts, this phrase then gave rise to a new meaning of the word fruitcake to mean 'a crazy person'.

The hardness of a nutshell is responsible for the expression a tough nut to crack, which refers to a particularly difficult problem to solve or a formidable person who is hard to deal with.

However, you should always try to avoid using excessive force to open a nut or you may be accused of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut which means to use a disproportionately drastic approach to achieving something simple. American in origin, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary the phrase is first recorded in 1923 in the form of “a sledgehammer to kill a gnat”. However it has been reported as having been used as long ago as the late 19th century in reference to a fly. The sledgehammer is associated with force as a result of its size and weight. The sledgehammer has no relation to a sledge that is used to move over snow or ice. Instead, it was simply known as a sledge before receiving the additional description of ‘hammer’.

If you express something in a drastically summarized form you are said to be doing so in a nutshell. A nutshell has been used as a metaphor for an extremely small space for centuries. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as saying 'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’. The concept of fitting something into a nutshell is believed to originate from the Roman scholar Pliny (AD 23-79) writing in his Natural History about the supposed existence of a copy of Homer’s The Iliad that was sufficient small to fit inside a nutshell.

To go nuts means to behave in a crazy or eccentric. If you are nuts about something you are extremely enthusiastic about it. However if you go off your nut you go insane. If you do your nut you become furious. From nut in its meaning of 'head' as is to nut someone, i.e. headbutt them.

Chestnuts are the edible nuts of the sweet chestnut tree. Their name is first recorded in 1519 as chesten nuttis. From the Old French chastaigne, from the Latin castanea, which is also the origin of the word castanet due to the similarity in the shape of castanets to that of chestnuts.

A hoary old chestnut is a familiar and overused joke, story or topic that is considered annoying as a result. The term is thought to come from the English melodrama Broken Sword (1816) by William Dimond. A character in that play repeatedly retells the same jokes and tales. On one occasion he is recounting a well-worn story and says it is about a cork tree when another character, Pablo, corrects him, saying "A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut..... Captain, this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, until now." The meaning has been heightened by the addition of 'old' and in some cases 'hoary old'.

Pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire means to be successful in a dangerous enterprise for someone else’s benefit. It comes from a fable about a monkey using a cat’s paw to get roasting chestnuts from a fire.

What we think of as a coconut, a large brown fibrous shell containing a sweet, white flesh and milk, is in fact only the central 'nut' of the larger coconut fruit of the coconut palm tree. The flesh is often shredded ready for use in curries or cakes. The English compound word coconut came from the Spanish name for the plant coco, itself from the Portugese côco. Côco meant grinning or grimacing face and was applied to the plant because the three depressions on the base of the coconut shell resemble a grotesque face.

Peanuts are the seeds of a member of the pea family - the peanut shell is a hard pod and the ‘nuts’ are the equivalent of peas. The seeds are eaten raw, roasted and ground into peanut butter. They are also pressed commercially to extract their oil. First recorded as peanuts in the first decade of the 19th century, they were previously known as ground nuts or ground peas. These names relate to the fact that the pods are borne underground. They are also known as monkey nuts.

The term peanut gallery refers to:

  1. The rearmost and highest rows of a theatre containing the cheapest seats.
  2. A dismissive term used figuratively to describe those whose criticisms are considered irrelevant. In reference to the opinions of uneducated inhabitants of the peanut gallery who throw peanuts on the stage to express dissatisfaction with a performance.
    From (views from the cheap seats)

It dates from towards the end of the 19th century.

First recorded in 1941, working for peanuts means to work for very little remuneration, from the use of peanuts as a trifling sum. In 1965 the expression was used thus by the Beatles in the song ‘Drive My Car’; "working for peanuts is all very fine, but I can show you a better time".

The proverb if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys means that if you offer low wages you will not attract the best staff. It is first known from 1966 and L. Coulthard in Director: ‘Shareholders want the best available businessmen to lead the companies and recognize that you get what you pay for. If you pay peanuts, you must expect to get monkeys.’

It was the shape of the peanut shells gave rise to similarly-shaped polystyrene packing materials being given this name.  

Walnuts are the distinctively wrinkled, two-lobed seeds of a deciduous tree. Their name comes from the Old English walhhnutu 'nut of the walnut tree' but with a literal meaning of foreign (from walh, wealh ‘Welsh’ in reference to Celts and other foreigners) + nut (hnutu) as it was introduced from Gaul and Italy which distinguished it from the hazelnut which is native to northern Europe.


Macadamia nuts are treated as one of the finest gourmet 'nuts' available. The part eaten is the cotyledons, i.e. embryonic leaves. Roasted and salted, they are eaten as dessert nuts. They are also used in ice creams, breads, biscuits and cakes. These 'nuts' are the only plant product native to Australia that has become a commercial food crop. The tree and thereby the nuts they bear was named after a Scottish-born Australian chemist, John Macadam (1827-65) during his lifetime in 1858. John Macadam should not be confused with John McAdam (1756-1836) the Scottish civil engineer who invented (tar)macadam and had that named after him!

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The milky way