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 spices

The word spice describes one of a variety of plant products valued for their flavor and their aromatic or piquant qualities. Examples include cinnamon (bark), ginger (a rhizome), nutmeg (a seed), saffron (stigmas), cloves (flower buds), allspice (berries) and paprika (fruits). They are used to flavour foods such as curries and sauces and for drinks such as mulled wine and punch. The word spice is from the Old French espice, itself from the Late Latin speciēs meaning spices or goods, wares of a particular kind, from the Latin speciēs  'kind, sort' which is the origin of the modern word species. Speciēs was from the verb specere meaning ‘to look’ and which was also the derivation of the word spectacles.

The use of spices to add flavor has been extended so that spice up is used to mean to add interest or enjoyment to something. This wider meaning also made the word appropriate for the name of the best-selling girl-group of all time, the Spice Girls who used the existing phrase spice up your life for a title of one of their biggest hits. The use of the related word spicy to mean salacious or racy is first recorded 1844 and derives from an earlier meaning of ‘spirited’.

Variety is the spice of life means that new experiences brighten up one’s life. The expression originated in a poem by the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) called The Task (1785): ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour’.  

Many people assume that allspice is a mixture of different spices but it is a spice in its own right, being the small, dried, unripe, berries of a small tropical evergreen tree. They are sold whole or ready-ground and are used to flavour meat and in baking. Its name comes from its unique aroma and flavour which calls to mind a mixture of three other strong spices; cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.

A chilli is a hot-tasting seedpod from one of a number of species of pepper (capsicum) used to give a kick to a variety of savoury dishes are known as chillies. Also spelt chili, chilli comes from chilli, the name for the pods in the Nahuatl language and it entered English as chille - first recorded 1662 - borrowed from the Mexican Spanish. Chillies are an essential ingredient of chilli con carne. First recorded in 1857 in American English, the name was taken from the American Spanish chile con carne meaning 'chili with meat'.  Carne is from the Latin carnis meaning flesh and which is the origin of the word carnivore 'flesh-eater' itself from carnis + vorāre meaning 'devour' and also the origin of the word voracious.

Not to be confused with cloves of garlic, which are individual parts of a type of bulb belonging to the onion family, the spice known as cloves consists of the dried, unopened flower buds of a tree native to the Moluccas of Indonesia (also known as the Spice Islands). These highly aromatic buds are used whole or ground, especially in apple dishes. The original English name for this spice was gilofre. This had entered English from the French girofle which originated – via the latinised form caryophyllum - from the Greek name for the clove, karuophullon from karuon ‘nut’ and phullon ‘leaf’. However, the French later changed their name for the spice to clou de girofle ‘nail of the clove tree’ because single whole buds together with their stalk are shaped like small nails. This new name entered English as clowe of gilofre which before long became shortened to clowe. So it’s current name derives from clāvus, the Latin for nail. Meanwhile, it’s original English name of gilofre was given to the pink (a flower of the Dianthus genus) due to their clove-like scent. Influenced by the word flower this name became gillyflower as mentioned in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, iv. 2:

“The fairest flowers o’ the season

Are our carnations and streaked gillyflowers”.

The latinised form of the clove’s original Greek name karuophullon lives on as the pink’s family the Caryophyllaceae.


Ginger is a pungeant underground rhizome used as an aromatic spice. Generally dried and ground to a powder. Ginger tastes sweet but hot and is used to flavour cakes and desserts, ginger biscuits as well as in sweet-and-sour Chinese dishes and in Indian curries. It is also sold 'crystallized' (coated in sugar) as a confection.  From the Old English gingifer, itself from the Medieval Latin gingiber but ultimately from the Sanskrit for horn and body, çṛŋgavēra, describing the branching, antler-like shape of the root. In rhyming slang, ginger is used to mean a homosexual. This is from ginger beer = queer.

Dating from the 1920s, the term a ginger group describes a faction of a movement or party that actively pushes for stronger action to taken on an issue. It originates from a trick used by horse dealers to make a nag appear lively by placing ginger into its anus. This led to the metaphorical phrase ‘ginger up’, which referred to making something or someone more active. This developed into ginger group. Incidentally, the adjective gingerly has a totally different derivation.

Nutmeg is the hard, aromatic kernel of the fruit of the nutmeg tree, which, like the clove, is native to the Moluccas (syn. the Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Nutmeg is used grated or ground, as a spice. The word dates back in English to the 14th century as notemuge and derives from the Old French nois muscade meaning 'nut smelling like musk', from nois from the Latin nux meaning nut and muscade from Provençal muscat 'with the fragrance of musk' which is also the origin of muscatel.

The word is used in association football to mean beating an opposing player by pushing the ball between the player’s legs. Its origin may lie in the deceptive meaning of a wooden nutmeg (see below). Alternatively, the fact that the manouevre involves passing a ball between the legs may mean the expression had an origin in the slang use of the word nutmegs from the 17th to 19th centuries to mean the testicles. Another suggestion is that it came from nutmeg being rhyming slang for leg. Its first recorded use with this meaning is in 1968 although it was in use for some time before that.

A wooden nutmeg means something that is fraudulent or that is not what it purports to be. The phrase comes from a nutmeg shaped lump of wood sold as if it was the real thing. This dishonest practice was said to have been used by inhabitants of the US State of Connecticut mixing some of these in with real ones that were to be exported and is responsible for that state having the nickname of the Nutmeg State.  

Paprika is a reddish coloured spice made by drying then grinding to a powder certain cultivars similar in appearance to sweet peppers (capsicums) but which produce peppers with a thinner flesh that dries faster. Despite looking similar to chilli powder, which is ground from another species of capsicum, paprika is mild and sweet and is used (by the dessertspoon!) in casseroles and sauces and as an attractive garnish sprinkled over seafood, cheese or egg dishes, e.g. goulash, as a colouring. The varieties used to make paprika were developed in Hungary and the word paprika is Hungarian, from the Serbo-Croatian pàpar pepper, itself from the Latin piper meaning pepper.

The dried thread-like stigmas of the crocus's flower are sold as saffron. This highly fragrant spice is used to flavour and colour yellow foods such as butter and cheese, confectionery, cakes, bread, rice and fish dishes and pastry. It is generally added to a dish by being infused in a small quantity of a hot liquid and the liquid then being added to the dish. It is an important ingredient in dishes such as paella, saffron rice and bouillabaise. The name comes from Old French safran, from Middle Latin safranum but ultimately from the Arabic za'farān. Saffron is now used as an adjective to mean a particularly bright, orangey shade of yellow.

Saffron Waldon in Essex was so-named because saffron was grown there from soon after its introduction to England until early in the 20th century. Whilst there are many examples of (food) plants that have been named after where they were first grown, (eg Brussels sprouts, etc) saffron has the unusual distinction of having had a town named after it.


The spice turmeric sold either as a dried rhizome or ground. It is a standard ingredient of curry powders which it both flavours and colours. It is an ingredient of picalilli. The plant is native to South-East Asia. The word is from Middle French for saffron terre-mērite. In turn this came from the Medieval Latin terra merita which literally meant 'worthy earth' from terra the Latin for earth (as used in terra cotta 'baked earth' and terra firma 'firm earth' and origin of terrain) + the pp of merēre 'deserve', origin of merit. The reference to earth relates to it being a rhizome.

Vanilla is the seed pods of a species of orchid used as a flavouring, to flavour cakes, desserts, sweet sauces and in the manufacture of chocolate. First recorded in its modern spelling in 1673, which came from Vanilla, the genus name for the plant, which itself came from the Spanish vainilla. The word comes from the Spanish for the vanilla plant vainilla, which has a literal meaning of ‘little pod’ and which was a diminutive of vaina 'sheath'. This name was applied to the pods because they reminded the Spanish conquistadors who discovered them of the scabbard they wore. Vaina itself came from the Latin for sheath or scabbard - vāgīna - which was later borrowed into English to describe a certain part of a woman’s anatomy.

During the 1970s vanilla started to be used as a metaphor for conventional or plain from the understanding that vanilla ice cream is boring compared to the many flavours available.

Continue to …

Look to your laurels