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

drinking of alcoholic drinks

Today, the word alcohol has both a chemical meaning and a more general one of a brew or liquor that contains alcohol. However, originally the substance known by that name, or to be more precise by the Arabic word al-ko’l, referred to finely powdered antimony (an element of metallic appearance) rather than the liquid with which we are familiar today. This alcohol was used in the Orient as a cosmetic to darken the eyelids. Alcohol had this meaning of a powdered cosmetic when it was used in English in 1626 by Bacon who referred to it thus: “The Turkes have a Black Powder, made of a Mineral called Alcohole; which with a fine long Pencil they lay under their Eye-lids.”

Al-koh’l was refined by heating the powder to a vapor then condensing it to a solid. Use of the word became extended to include other sublimated substances. Thus extension to the distillate of a liquid eventually led, in the mid 18th century, to the modern use to mean the spirit of fermented liquor in particular. The use of the word to refer to a drink containing alcohol only dates back to the 19th century. The al- part of the word is the Arabic equivalent of ‘the’ in English and can be found in many words of Arabic origin such as algebra and alkali. koh’l came from kahala ‘to stain’, paint.  


First recorded around 1450, intoxicate originally meant 'to poison'. However, it was not long before the word was being used in a new, figurative, sense of exhilarate. The modern meaning of ‘make drunk from ingesting too much alcohol’. is not recorded until the end of the 16th century. The word is from the Latin intoxicare ‘to poison’, from the Latin in 'into' + toxicare 'to poison', from toxicum 'poison' which is also the source of the word toxic. Toxicum came from the Greek toxikòn '(poison) for use on arrows' and ultimately derives from the Greek for bow, tóxon. Intoxicate’s origin reflects that alcohol is poisonous to the body. This is also the case with the popular expressions ‘name your poison’ and ‘what's your poison’ both of which act as an enquiry as to what alcoholic drink someone would like.

The throbbing head, queasy stomach and dry throat that typify a hangover have been familiar symptoms of over-indulgence in alcohol for centuries. However, the word that describes those symptoms is surprisingly recent. Its first recorded use dates from 1894 when it was used in its meaning of something or someone that remained, or an after-effect. It was only during the 20th century that it came to be used more specifically to describe the unpleasant after-effects of over indulgence in alcohol.

A popular cure for a hangover is a so-called hair of the dog which is a small alcoholic drink that is drunk to cure the effects of over-indulgence. Sometimes expressed in the longer version of ‘the hair of the dog that bit you’, the phrase is first recorded in 1546. It stems from the belief that a small quantity of what caused an ailment would act as its remedy. In this case the allusion is to a hair from a rabid dog acting as a cure for the disease caused by its bite.

Another supposed cure for a hangover is the prairie oyster. First recorded in 1879, the basis of a prairie oyster consists of the raw contents of an egg tipped into a glass. Other ingredients may include wine or a measure of spirits, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce. Although the egg is swirled into the other ingredients, the yolk should not be broken. It is meant to be downed in one gulp. The application of the name oyster is said to come from the resemblance in texture of an egg yolk to that of an oyster. There is also a similarity in the method of eating as both are tipped into the mouth and swallowed whole. Presumably, the addition of the word prairie related to the fact that this kind of ‘oyster’ can be made with an ingredient that doesn’t come from the sea. The word prairie describes the vast, treeless, grassy plains of North America and entered English from the Latin for meadow, prātum, via the Old French praerie.

If you have had one over the eight then you are a little drunk. This euphemism originated early in the 20th century as armed forces slang from the belief that eight pints of beer can be consumed before one is likely to become drunk.

The opposite of drunk is sober. Meaning not drunk in the slightest, the word is also used to describe someone who is solemn or restrained. First recorded in the 14th century, sober comes from the Old French sobre from the Latin sōbrius 'not drunk', from ēbrius drunk with *sō- meaning 'without' added. Although these days as sober as a judge means completely sober, it dates from the 17th/18th century when it originated with the meaning grave or serious. A sobering thought is one that is inclined to bring on a serious mood of contemplation.

If you abstain totally from the consumption of all alcoholic drinks (i.e. beer as well as spirits) then you are said to be teetotal. Although today this meaning is well understood, and the word is used by itself, when it was originally used it was used in conjunction with the word abstinence to mean a particular type of abstinence. The word was used in a speech by a Richard Turner of Preston in 1833 in which he advocated complete i.e. 'teetotal' abstinence from all alcoholic drinks as opposed to abstinence just from spirits - a lesser kind of abstinence that was advocated by some early temperence reformers. It is widely believed that this was the first use of the word. Certainly Turner is credited as being the word's creator and his gravestone states: 'Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word Teetotal as applied to abstinence from all intoxicating liquors who departed this life on the 27th day of October, 1846, aged 56 years'. The reason for the 'tee' on the front of the word total remains a matter for debate as a number of explanations have been put forward. However, the one that has received the greatest acceptance is that it is a reduplicative form of the word total designed to give the word extra emphasis.

Someone who is teetotal is often described as having signed the pledge. This expression originates from the nineteenth century's temperance movement and the public act of signing a pledge to never drink alcoholic drinks again. Although this original meaning has passed into history, the phrase can still be encountered used both in relation to abstinence from alcohol and in a general sense of any public declaration of a renouncement of something.

Alternatively someone who does not drink alcoholic beverages may be said to be on the wagon. This metaphor originated during the early 20th century in the US as a reference to the water wagons used to transport water around towns. Someone who had given up alcoholic drink was said to be on the water wagon, i.e. drinking large quantities of water instead. Those who return to the demon drink are said to have fallen off the wagon.

Down the hatch! is an expression used to encourage someone to finish the last amount of a drink with a large gulp or down a short. Its origin is in a naval term referring to the loading of supplies into the ship’s hold through a hatchway in the deck. Its first recorded use was in 1931.

The word drunk, meaning excited or stupefied as a result of the ingestion of alcohol, dates back to the 14th century. There are numerous words and phrases to describe the state of being drunk, including:

intoxicated, under the influence (of alcohol), inebriated, tight, merry, tiddly, plastered, sloshed, picked, legless, paralytic, pie-eyed, trolleyed, smashed, ratted, rat-arsed, pissed, the worse for wear, plus the following:    

If you are only slightly drunk you are tipsy. Dating back to the 16th century, the word is thought to have derived from tip, as in lean over, in reference to the unsteady gait of someone who is under the influence.

Meaning ‘extremely drunk’, the word blotto comes from the word blot, in its meaning of an act that brings discredit, as in the phrase 'to blot one's copybook'.

If you are exceedingly drunk you may be said to be as drunk as a lord. This simile has had many variants including as drunk as a ..... skunk, fiddler and rat.

First recorded in 1893, getting tanked is said to relate to drinking too much out of a tankard.

If you can drink someone under the table, you can down more alcohol than them without being as drunk as them. The allusion is that they will slip off their chair, unconscious, while you remain seated.

If you are extremely drunk you may be described as being three sheets to the wind. This was originally a naval term referring to the ropes – sheets - attached to the square-rigged sails on sailing ships. These kept the sail taut and enabled sailors to control the ship's direction and speed. If the sheets were incorrectly attached they were described as being ‘a sheet in the wind’. Having three sheets to the wind could result in a ship out of control, taking an uneven course similar to a drunken man.

Tired and emotional is a popular euphemism for drunk. The expression is said to have originated in the British satirical magazine Private Eye as a means of circumnavigating libel laws in relation to George Brown who was a senior figure in the Labour governments of the 1960s. Peter Paterson's 1993 biography of Brown was given this title.

Brahms & Liszt is rhyming slang for pissed. Dating from the 1930s, it is sometimes shortened to just Brahmsed.

The use of the word drunk to mean someone who is inebriated is first recorded in 1852. Prior to that, the word used was drunkard which dates back to the 13th century surname Druncard. A drunkard may also be called a sot, wino, alky or soak.

The US term drunk tank, meaning a large jail cell for the detention of inebriates is first recorded in 1947. The term drunk-driving is first recorded in 1937, drunk-driver in 1948 and drink-driving in 1964.  

Bravery resulting from the ingestion of alcohol is known as Dutch courage. The phrase is first recorded in the first half of the 19th century.  

A slang term for liquour, e.g. "He's been on the sauce again". This meaning is first recorded in 1940 in American English, in Pal Joey by John O'Hara.

Jungle juice is slang alcoholic drinks and especially for poor-quality, strong alcoholic liquor that has been amateurishly or illicitly prepared. It is said that the term was first applied to African rum and that its use was widened to mean any home-brewed alcohol by the armed forces in World War II.

In the US a saloon is an establishment or room where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter. First recorded in 1728, the word was Anglicised from the French salon. Salon came from the Italian salone meaning ‘large hall’ and to begin with in English the word saloon meant a drawing room. The change of usage to mean a bar is first known from 1841. For a long time most English pubs had a saloon bar that was better appointed and offered more comfort than the public bar.

The phrase drinking in the last chance saloon is used to indicate that someone has almost run out of options or opportunities to improve or do something correctly. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Last Chance Saloons on the edge of US towns in the West were a final opportunity to have an alcoholic drink prior to a long journey across barren territory.

If you raise a toast, you drink ceremonially to someone’s honour or health or to the future success of someone or something. A person to whom the toast is raised is known as the toast. The origin of such a toast lies in pieces of spiced toast, i.e. toasted bread, being used to flavour drinks. When the practice started towards the end of the 17th century, the subject of the toast was always a woman and the concept was that her name would flavor the drink in the manner that spiced toast would have done. By the mid 18th century the toast could be a member if either sex.

A number of standard expressions exist that act as a toast immediately prior to downing an alcoholic drink. One of the best-known is ‘Here’s looking at you, kid!’ which became popular after it was said by Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in the film Casablanca (1942). I’ll drink to that! is a toast that has escaped the confines of an actual drinking scenario and is now used to express one’s agreement with what has just been said.  

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A gottle o' geer