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 mealtimes

Breakfast is the first meal of the day. Dating back to the 15th century, the word quite literally means to break the night's fast, i.e. eat the first food since the previous evening.  

If you have someone for breakfast you conquer or otherwise handle someone without really having to try. As ‘eat half an hundred Irish Men for a Breakfast’ the phrase dates back to 1693.

A dog’s breakfast is slang for a confused mess. It is first recorded in America in 1915. Also see ‘a dog’s dinner’.

Breakfast television is television broadcast around the time that breakfast is eaten by viewers. The term originated in the US and is first recorded in 1971. The related breakfast-time TV was used in the New York Times in 1952.

A full English breakfast is often referred to as the full monty. The expression later widened to mean the full potential of anything, or recently, full frontal nudity (since the film of the same name was released in the UK in 1997). The expression is known from the early 1980s. Comedian Jim Davidson used it as the title for his 1993 autobiography. Numerous alleged origins have been put forward, including a complete wedding or sunday-best outfit bought or hired from the tailors Montague Burton (later known as Burtons), consisting of a shirt, tie, 3-piece suit and socks. Another is that Field Marshall Montgomery's insistence upon having a full English breakfast each morning. A third suggestion is that it is a corruption of 'the full amount'

The proverb hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper means that it is good to start a day feeling hopeful but if the things you hoped for do not happen by the end of the day, you will feel disappointed. It may be said as a warning against someone hoping for something that is unlikely to happen. The expression dates back to the 17th century.

A brunch is a cross between breakfast and lunch, generally served late in the morning. Like the meal it describes, the word is a combination and contraction of br(eakfast) and (l)unch. The word originated as university slang and is first recorded in 1896 in the British humour magazine, Punch: ‘To be fashionable nowadays we must ‘brunch’. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.’ To portmanteau means to combine elements and meanings of words so as to form a single word.

Meaning to eat dinner, dine comes from the Old French disner which had the same meaning as to breakfast, i.e. 'take the first meal of the day'. Ultimately the word derives from the Latin dis- 'undo' and the Late Latin jejūnare 'to fast'. Dinner as well as the archaic Scottish word for breakfast, disjune, share the same Latin ancestry, as do the modern French words for lunch déjeuner and breakfast petit déjeuner.

Dine out on means to receive dinner invitations as a result of an experience you have had and which people will want to hear you recount. E.g., ‘He will be dining out on that for years!’

The phrase dining room, meaning a room in which dinner is taken, is first recorded in 1601.


In English, the word dinner has always referred to the day's main meal. However the time at which it is taken varies considerably, depending upon one's social class. For a long time it simply meant the midday meal. However, from the 18th century onwards the better off gradually dined later and later. Today, to the professional classes it refers to an evening meal, taken around 8pm, whilst to the manual/working classes it refers to a midday meal. This gradual eveningward movement of dinner created a need for a stopgap meal in the middle of the professional class's day. This need was fulfilled by luncheon. The word dinner was first recorded around the turn of the 14th century as diner. It already meant midday meal and entered English borrowed from the Old French disner, dîner.

The old proverb after dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile relates to the substantial nature of a dinner as opposed to the light nature of a supper. The idea has been traced back to the Medieval Latin post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis meaning ‘after luncheon you will stand still, after supper you will walk about’.

As befits such an important word, dinner has a range of associated words.

First recorded in the 14th century, dinnertime means the hour around which dinner is habitually served. A dinner-party is a party that includes the serving of dinner. First recorded in Jane Austen's Emma (1816). A dinner jacket is a man’s semi-formal tailless dress jacket, most often black, worn as evening wear (1891). A dinner-dance, which is a formal dinner followed by dancing (1901).  

A dinner lady is a woman who prepares and serves food in a school canteen (1967).

Dinner is served at the dinner table, which is first recorded surprisingly late, in 1813 and is eaten from a dinner service, a set of matching plates and dishes (1845).

Done like a dinner means completely outwitted.

A dog's dinner refers to something of poor quality, sloppy work or a consequent mess. It is also used as 'a dog's breakfast', the phrase originates from the messy appearance of a dog's meal of scraps.

However dressed up like a dog's dinner means ridiculously over-dressed in a crude attempt at chic. The expression dates from the first half of the 20th century.

If you have had more (something) than (someone) has had hot dinners, your experience of something is much greater than that of another's. It is first recorded in 1961 in H. S. Turner’s Something Extraordinary ‘The general theory is that they are tarts; and one of them—of whom he says ‘she's been done more times than I've had hot dinners’—quite possibly is.’


Lunch refers to a light midday meal. First recorded as a verb in 1823 and as a noun in 1829, lunch is simply a shortened version of the much older word, luncheon. Dating at least as far back as 1580, luncheon originally meant a thick piece or hunk, for example of a food such as bread or cheese. It is thought that it may have developed from the dialectal word nuncheon meaning 'a light meal' which itself came from the 14th century Middle English nonechenche, nonschench which was a compound of none noon + schench drink.  Today, the word luncheon is most familiar as part of the following phrases:

First recorded in 1945, luncheon meat consists of minced cooked pork sold tinned and served sliced, eaten cold. Ten years later the term luncheon voucher was first recorded. Luncheon vouchers are coupons that are exchangeable for meals at thousands of restaurants and allow employers to provide a benefit for their employees without the expense of running their own canteens. During the late 1970s luncheon vouchers unexpectedly gained something of a disreputable reputation when it came to light that they had been used as a form of payment by high-ranking elderly male clients in a London brothel run by Cynthia Payne.

Let’s do lunch means ‘let’s meet up to eat a midday meal’. The use of lunch as a verb is first recorded surprisingly early - 1823.

Ladies who lunch are women who have enough free time and money to spend some of it meeting with women in a similar situation over social lunches in expensive restaurants. Often used disparagingly, the term is an allusion to the song 'Ladies who lunch' from Steven Sondheim's musical Company which opened on Broadway in 1970. The lyrics are highly judgemental of the way that ladies who lunch spend their days.

If you are out to lunch you are permanently out of touch with reality or temporarily not paying attention. The expression is first recorded in 1955. The phrase is a reference to the person being 'not there', i.e. the literal meaning of the term of being away from ones desk in order to eat lunch.

The expression there’s no such thing as a free lunch means that you never get something for nothing; everything has to be paid for in the end. This 20th century expression is thought to originate from a custom in some American bars from the middle of the 19th century bars to provide a free lunch so long as you bought a drink. The high salt content of many of the foods offered ensured healthy sales of drink, which subsidised the cost of the so-called ‘free’ lunch. Public awareness of the phrase increased when the American economist Milton Friedman used it as the title of a book in 1975 although he was not the originator of the phrase, which dates back to at least the 1940s.   

First recorded in 1970, a liquid lunch refers to a lunchtime session of drinking that is undertaken instead of eating a meal. If you lose your lunch you vomit.


The word lunchtime is first recorded in George Eliot's Letters in 1859: ‘He can't take us wrongly any day either at 1 o'clock, (lunch-time) or at half past 5 (dinner).’


Supper is either a light evening meal for those who have had dinner as a midday meal or a very light snack taken just before going to bed and consisting of a drink such as cocoa and for example biscuits or toast. This type of supper is an additional meal to the main meal of the evening. The word is first recorded in English in the mid 13th century as sopere, with the meaning 'the evening meal'. From the Old French for supper, super, 'to sup’ and also the origin of sup. Ultimately from the Old French soupe 'broth' and origin of the word soup.

If you must sing for your supper you are expected to perform a service so as to gain a benefit in return. The phrase originates from the nursery rhyme Little Tommy Tucker which begins “Little Tom Tucker Sings for his supper”.

Supper time is the hour around which supper is habitually or customarily served. As ‘soper tyme’ the term dates back to at least the 14th century.

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No picnic