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 herbs

Basil is a popular aromatic herb. First recorded in the 15th century, its name was taken from the Old French basile but ultimately from the Greek basilikòn meaning ‘royal’ and from basileús 'king' - phytòn meaning 'royal plant' and so shares its origin with the words basilica – literally ‘royal palace’ - and basilisk, a mythical serpent that could kill with just a glance and which has made a modern comeback in the Harry Potter books.  

Bay is an evergreen member of the Laurel family - its full name is the bay laurel - has aromatic leaves that are used especially in recipes from the Mediterranean region to which the trees are native. A popular addition to sauces, soups and casseroles, they are usually used in combination with other herbs and are always included of a bouquet garni. Unusually for a herb, bay leaves are added to a dish whole rather than being chopped. This is because the considerable quantity of oil that bay leaves contain would be lost if the leaves were broken up. The name bay was first applied to the berries of the plant and only later came to refer to the whole tree. This explains why its name comes from the Old French for berry, baie which itself came from the Latin for berry, bāca which is thought to be related to the name of the Thracian wine god Bacchos.

The laurel wreath crowns worn as a mark of distinction by the victorious and wise in classical Rome were of this species and not the garden laurels with which we are now more familiar and which are often used for hedging. This is referred to in the bay's Latin name of Laurus nobilis. The association of this species with wisdom continues today with the honorary title Poet Laureate, and in the sayings ‘rest on one’s laurels’ meaning to be satisfied with what you have already achieved and ‘look to one’s laurels’ meaning watch out for someone taking over your superior position.  

Most familiar when it is used to make a medicinal tea, it is the dried flowers of the chamomile plant, a member of the daisy family, that are used. Also spelt camomile, the word is ultimately from the Greek chamaímēlon meaning “earth-apple” (chamaí meaning 'on the ground' + mêlon meaning 'an apple'). It was so named because of the apple-like scent of its flowers. Chamomile shares the origin of the first part of its name with the chameleon which means 'on the ground lion', from the Greek chamaí + léōn 'lion'.

The sinuous, hollow/tubular leaves of the chive plant are used in a variety of savoury dishes.  Its name is a development from the Old French cive, itself from the Latin for onion, cēpa as the chive is a member of the onion family.  

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub, the fragrant, needle-like, leaves of which are used in cookery, especially with meats. The name dates back to the 15th century at least when it was spelt rosemarye. It derives from the Latin rōsmarīnus from rōs meaning ‘dew’ + marīnus ‘of the sea’. It was so-called because it grew wild on coasts and had leaves show a misty blue colour cast. Its name was altered from the familiarity of the words rose and Mary.  

The aromatic leaves of the short perennial shrub known as sage is used as a culinary herb especially in stuffing. As sauge the name dates back to the 14th century and comes from the Old French sauge, which itself comes from the Latin salvia meaning a healing plant from salvus 'healthy, uninjured' which also gave English the words safe, save, salvation, salvo (from a simultaneous discharge of guns to welcome important visitors) (salvage) as sage is also used as a medicinal herb. Its etymology is not shared with the other meaning of a person of great knowledge and wisdom which dates back to the 13th century and comes instead from the French but ultimately from the Latin sapere ‘to be wise’ which is also the origin of the word savvy.

Parsley is a herb with flat or crinkly leaves used to flavour dishes and as a popular garnish. Created by merging the Old English petersilie and the Old French peresil which both came - via the Latin petroselīnum - from the Greek petrosélīnon from pétros rock + sélīnon celery.