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 wine and spirits

Apéritif is a French term for an alcoholic drink taken prior to a meal in order to whet the appetite. A liquid type of appetiser, they are often served to accompany canapés. Sherry is perhaps the commonest example. Unlike cocktails, they are quite mild in nature and frequently bitter. The word ultimately derives from the Latin aperīre meaning ‘to open’ and so shares its origin with the word aperture (the variable opening in a camera's lens that controls the amount of light passing through). The modern meaning of the word is first recorded in 1894, borrowed from the French apéritif. The word has never been fully Anglocized. However, the word had originally been borrowed from the French over 300 years earlier with a very different meaning of "opening the intestines". This developed into the meaning of "a medicine that opens the bowels" and with this meaning it was Anglicized into aperitive. However, this appears to have not developed beyond technical use and so was separate from the borrowing that occurred at the end of the 19th century.

Advocaat is a thick and creamy liqueur made using brandy, egg yolks and sugar. It is used in a range of cocktails, most famously when mixed with lemonade to make a snowball. The best known brand is Warninks who have been making the drink in Holland since 1616. In Holland, the word is pronounced “add-vo-cart” with the "t" sounded. However in Britain and America, the word is generally pronounced as "add-vo-car." The drink’s name derives from the Dutch word advocatenborrel meaning 'advocate’s (i.e. lawyer's) drink'. It is said that it was so named because it was used by advocates to clear their throats. Advocate comes from the Latin advocātus which itself is from advocāre, meaning 'to call to one’s aid', from ad- ‘to’ + vocāre 'to call' which is related to the Latin for voice, vocem.


To the British, claret is a dark red wine from Bordeaux. However it originally meant a wine that was in between a red and a white. Around 1600 its use in English changed to red wines, then, gradually, from 1700 onwards, it became restricted to its present meaning. The word itself came from the French clairet but ultimately derives from the Latin clārus meaning clear which also gave rise to clarify (to make clear), clarity and the names of three instruments, clarinet, clarichord and clarion.

Gin is a spirit made by distilling fermented carbohydrate, often starch, (obtained from rye, barley or maize) and then flavouring the liquid with juniper berries, and to a lesser degree, angelica, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and peel from lemons and oranges. It is often drunk diluted with bitter lemon, water, tonic water or fruit juice and its neutral flavour and colour has led to it being used as the base for a number of the best-known cocktails, including…. First recorded early in the 18th century, the word is from geneva, a spirit distilled in Holland and flavoured using juniper berry juice. Both words are from the Dutch for juniper, genever. Upon gin’s arrival in England from Holland, it soon caught on as a cheap & readily available route to oblivion for the poorest members of the population. Before the arrival of gin in England, the drinking of spirits was not common, with most people drinking beer or ale. The effects of the overconsumption of gin were famously recorded in William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane (1751).

Mother’s ruin is quite a popular slang alternative name for gin, although it is first recorded surprisingly late, in 1933. In America (disreputable) bars became known as gin joints and the name become forever etched in the public consciousness when it was used by Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick in the film Casablanca: ‘Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’


Often drunk after dinner, brandy is a spirit that has been distilled from wine. Appropriately, its name was shortened from its 17th century title of ‘brandy-wine’. The designation of brandy-wine came from the Dutch word brandewijn meaning ‘burnt wine’ and originating from the words branden meaning 'to burn' and wijn meaning wine. The application of the word burnt came from the heating involved in the distillation process.


Kirsch is a colourless fruit brandy distilled from the fermented juice of the black morello cherry. It is made in Alsace (France), in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland and, most famously, in the Black Forest of Germany which gave rise to its use as a flavouring for Black Forest gateaux. Its bitter almond undercurrent comes from tiny amounts of hydrocyanic acid released from the cherry stones when the cherries are mashed. Its name was shortened from the German Kirschwasser ‘cherry water’.

Dating from the 1930s, plonk is an informal term for cheap, inferior wine. Unusually for a food term it is Australian in origin. It is thought that it was a humorous corruption of the French word blanc from vin blanc 'white wine'. However it has also been suggested that it is onomatopoeic and is intended to imitate a cork being drawn from a bottle.

Thought to have originated in Barbados, rum is a spirit distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane plants or from molasses. Rum is often used to flavour sweet desserts and confectionery as well as an ingredient in a number of cold and hot drinks, e.g. punches and the long drink rum and coke. First recorded with this meaning 1654, the word’s origin is uncertain although it is thought to come from either  rumbullion or rumbustion which mean uproar - possibly because this is what would happen as a result of people partaking in rum. In America the word rum is used to refer to any alcoholic liquor.

Sherry is a type of fortified wine produced around Cadiz and Jerez in Spain and generally drunk as an aperitif. Similar wines made in other countries may also be sold as sherry but the country of origin must be given on the label. Sherry is first recorded, albeit spelt Shirry, in 1608 in Jacobean playwright and poet Thomas Middleton's comedy stage play 'A Mad World, My Masters'. Shirry was a new singular version of the existing word sherris and was created due to a mistaken belief that sherris was a plural. First recorded in Shakespeare in 1597, sherris originated from the Spanish 'vino de Xeres'  'wine from Xeres' and was an attempt to pronounce Xeres which was an earlier name of what is now the town of Jerez near the port of Cadiz in south eastern Spain where the wine was produced.

The raw ingredient for a spirit is an already alcoholic liquid that is put through a process known as distillation. This separates the alcohol from the liquid. Popular spirits include brandy, gin and whisky. The word spirit, meaning ‘breath of life’, was first recorded in English in the mid 13th century and came from the French spirit. In its turn, spirit came from the Latin spīritus 'soul, courage, breath, vigour', related to spīrāre meaning ‘to breathe’ and the origin of the word respire. Ancient Romans thought that the human soul was breathed into the body. Words with a related derivation include expire from Latin spiro breathe. In its meaning of strong alcoholic liquor, the word spirits is first recorded in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress late in the 17th century. It is thought that it was the ethereal nature of the distillation process that caused the word spirit to be transferred from meaning a supernatural being without a body to distilled alcoholic drinks.

Whisky is a spirit distilled from a mash of fermented cereal grain, traditionally malted barley. In England and Scotland the word is spelt whisky but in Ireland and N America it is spelled whiskey. The word whisky derives from the Gaelic for the drink, uisge beatha meaning literally, 'water of life'. The French for brandy, eau de vie has the same meaning. Both phrases owe their origin to the Latin term for distilled alcohol in general, aqua vitae. Aqua vitae has been borrowed more directly by the Scandinavians for the name of their drink, aquavit.

Vodka is a colourless and, generally speaking, flavourless spirit thanks to its being prepared with virtually no acid so that esters, which give drinks their flavour, are not formed. Vodka is probably most often consumed as part of a cocktail such as a screwdriver or Harvey Wallbanger. It is traditionally prepared from rye but can also be made from potatoes as the source of starch. As befits Russia’s national drink, the word vodka was borrowed from the Russian vodka which derived from vodá, the Russian for water, with the addition of the endearing diminutive suffix –ka. So vodka literally means ‘little water’.

Although the word wine generally conjures up an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of grapes, in its most general sense it is any alcoholic drink made by allowing yeast to feed on a sugary solution. The source of that sugar could be grains (with their high starch content), grapes or milk (with their high sugar content). Examples of fermented milk drinks are koumiss and kefir - have long been produced by nomadic tribesmen who did not have the cereals or grapes used for beers and wines. The word wine dates back at least 900 years in its current spelling but ultimately derives from the Latin word for wine vīnum passing into Old English as wín. The Latin word vīnum is also the origin of the English words vintner and vintage whilst its derivative vinea (vine or vineyard) gave English the word vine.

Wine and dine means to entertain someone with a meal accompanied by wine. The use of the word wine as a verb meaning 'to entertain with wine' dates back to 1862.

The proverb there is truth in wine means that when someone is drunk they are more likely to tell the truth as a result of being less inhibited. As ‘In wyne is trouthe’ it dates from the 16th century. However, it has Roman and Greek roots and is often given in its Latin form of ‘in vino, veritas’, i.e. ‘in wine, truth’.   

Wine, women and song is an allusion to some men’s irresponsible, pleasure-seeking life style.

A vintage wine is produced from a single year's grape harvest. The term thus excludes cheaper wines that are a blend of wines produced in different years. The term is generally only used to denote wine from a year that produced uncommonly fine examples of a particular wine. By its very nature a fine vintage tends to be in short supply as grapes naturally have the best flavour when there are comparatively few grapes on a vine.

The word vintage comes from the Anglo-French vintage, which is from the Old French vendage 'yield from a vineyard'. However it ultimately comes from the Latin vīndēmia meaning ‘grape gathering’ and from vīnum 'wine' + dēmere 'remove'. It was not used to denote the wine from a particular year until the middle of the 18th century and in the late 19th century began to be used in a more general sense to denote anything of an earlier time. The word is now equally familiar in its transferred usages of 'vintage cars' (first used 1928) and to describe someone's characteristic work or behaviour.

Punch is a mixed, generally alcoholic, drink prepared in large quantities and served by filling glasses using a ladel from a communal punch bowl. They may be served hot or cold. The word is first recorded with the meaning of a mixed drink in the 17th century. The origin of the word is uncertain but is often given as being a borrowing from the Hindi word pānch meaning five. This origin is said to be because the drink was based around five ingredients - namely spirits, water, lemon juice, sugar and spice. Today, punch is based around fruit juice, to which any of the following may be added: mineral water, soda water, lemonade, champagne, wine, spirits and spices.

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