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 cocktails

Cocktails are generally made by mixing different spirits and liqueurs. Fruit or vegetable juice is often added. They are blended together by being stirred, shaken in a cocktail shaker, or mixed in a blender. This mixing ensures that the flavours are thoroughly blended and no one flavour dominates. They are most often served well-chilled before dinner, as an apéritif. Non-alcoholic cocktails can be made by mixing fruit and vegetable juices with fizzy drinks.

Both the word cocktail and the idea of a mixed alcoholic drink originated in America. The drink by this name is first recorded in the first decade of the 19th century. A compound of cock 'male chicken' + tail, the word was originally applied to a cock-tailed horse, i.e. one that had had its tail cut short or 'docked' so that what remained stuck up like that of a cockerel. The practice was fashionable for hunters and stage-coach horses towards the end of the 18th century and during the first part of the 19th. The term came to be used in racing circles to indicate a non-thoroughbred, i.e. one with a cock-tailed horse in its ancestry. It is thought that it was this concept of a lack of purity and mixed blood that was responsible for the term being applied to flavoured, mixed alcoholic drinks.

The word has since found a much wider application and is now often used to refer to any thing that has a number of ingredients that are otherwise used separately, e.g. the non-alcoholic fruit cocktail - first recorded 1928 - and prawn cocktail or even a cocktail of drugs and the Molotov cocktail - first recorded 1940.

Like coffee, cocktails have become so significact that they have their own range of associated terms. A room or bar in a hotel or restaurant where cocktails are served is known as a cocktail lounge (1939) or cocktail bar (1929). A cocktail party (first recorded in 1928 in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover) is a semi-formal party intended as a venue for social conversation where cocktails are served and women attending would wear a cocktail dress (first recorded 1935). Appetizing savouries such as cherries, olives and small cocktail sausages (late 1930s) and onions are often served with cocktails and this gave rise to the cocktail stick (1937), a small stick with pointed ends for spearing and holding such delicacies.

The art of mixing cocktails is known as ‘mixology’ whilst those who do the mixing are mixologists. The entertaining antics of cocktail-serving bartenders made famous by Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail have a long history. As long ago as 1870 W.F. Rae wrote in ‘Westward by Rail’; ‘The most delicate fancy drinks are compounded by skilful mixologists in a style that captivates the public’.

A Molotov cocktail is a makeshift incendiary device, like to a petrol bomb. First recorded in 1940, the term originated in Finland when these homemade devices were used by the Finns against the tanks of the invading Russian army. Molotov was the name adopted by Vjačeslav Mihajlovič Skrjabin (1890–1986), the Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1939–49 who led the Soviet campaign against Finland in the Winter War of 1939–40. Nowadays they are most familiar as the weapon of choice used by rioters against those trying to restore order.

A number of cocktails have interesting names:

Non-alcoholic cocktails are known as ‘mocktails’.

The Screwdriver cocktail is named from the fact that US oil workers in the Arabian desert in the 1950s used a screwdriver to mix vodka with their orange juice.  


A long drink traditionally served in a hollowed out pineapple, a piña colada is a blend of rum, coconut cream/milk and pineapple juice. It is shaken rather than stirred, along with crushed ice. The name is Spanish, meaning literally 'strained pineapple', from the fact that the pineapple juice is strained into the glass.  

In modern usage balderdash means nonsense but in the first half of the 17th century it referred to a jumbled mixture of drinks – e.g. wine and beer or beer and milk. Later in the same century its reference to a mixture was transferred to a meaningless jumble of words and thus its modern meaning.  

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Just my cup of tea