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 word butter

To produce butter, pasteurized cream is agitated or 'churned' (a process that is very similar to whipping although it does not require the same degree of delicacy) until the emulsion breaks down and the fat content separates out, forming ever larger lumps of butter. Eventually, there will be a semi-solid lump of butter and a liquid, known as buttermilk. Butter is used both as a spread and in cooking.

The main differences between whipping cream and churning cream for butter is the length of time that the cream is agitated and temperature at which the activity takes place. The process is much the same but the end results are entirely different.

From the Old English butere itself via the Latin for butter butyrum, from the Greek boūtyron which it appears was a compound of boûs meaning ox, cow and tyrós meaning cheese, i.e. cow-cheese.

The colour of this familiar food has become a colour in itself (butter yellow) as well as  being applied to items of a similar colour (butter beans, buttercups, butternut squash and butterflies) whilst its oily texture has been used in the expression butterfingers! which is used to describe someone who lets something slip from their grasp.

To look as though butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth means to look excessively demure. It is generally used contemptuously and is often said of someone who is putting on an appearance of innocence when it is known that they are actually guilty of something they shouldn’t have done. The expression dates back to 1530 when it was recorded by John Palsgrave as: ‘He maketh as thoughe butter wolde nat melte in his mouthe.’ It is an allusion to someone staying so cool that they are not even warm enough to melt butter. In reality, butter melts at a few degrees less than normal body temperature.

Like a (hot) knife through butter means something that is done extremely easily or without resistance.

The flowers known as buttercups were first recorded with that name in 1777, from the much older - 1578 - butterflower.

If you butter someone up you flatter them lavishly.

Used as a substitute for butter, margarine was devised in 1869 by French pharmacist and chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés in response to Napoleon III offering a prize for the creation of a synthetic edible fat to solve the problem of there being insufficient butter to meet the needs of a growing population. Mege-Mouries's solution was to make clarified beef fat edible by flavouring it with a little milk. It was not until the development of the process of hydrogenation at the turn of the 20th century that vegetable oils could be used. The use of margarine took off during the Great War when animal fats were once again in short supply.

First recorded in 1873 the word was borrowed from the French margarine (originally oléo-margarine, 1854) from margarique 'margaric acid'. The word margarine derives from margaric acid which at that time was believed to have been present in animal fats. This supposed fatty acid itself had been named by a French chemist from the Greek margaron meaning ‘pearl' due to the pearl-like shiny drops that it formed. It was later realized that the substance given the name margaric acid was not in fact a new fatty acid but the name lives on as it has since been applied to a synthetic fatty acid.

Margarine was originally pronounced with a hard 'g' as in gargle. It was the English who started pronouncing it as if it were spelt with a 'j'. The popular abbreviated nickname for the product 'marg' or 'marge' began to be used in the 1920s once the product's popularity had increased.

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Say cheese!