Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday culinary words and phrases

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If you could listen to Anglo-Saxons talking about what we know as ‘food’ you might hear them use one of a number of different words which have survived through to the present day. However, most of these words have changed their meaning over that time and are no longer simply used to mean ‘food’.   

For example, the Old English word fōdor was used to describe food in general. Today we know the word fōdor as fodder and it has developed the more specific meaning of food for cattle or other livestock.

Similarly, the word foster initially meant food or nourishment but it too changed in meaning so that today it means ‘to raise another’s child’. Foster gained this meaning in Middle English.

Both foster and fodder are etymologically related to the word that has actually kept its meaning all the way from Old English to the present day, fōda, or as we know it today, food.   

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As befits something that is fundamental to our very existence, food has become intrinsically woven into the English language. Some culinary words date back over a thousand years and many have become the basis for popular, everyday expressions. Although we are all familiar with hundreds of such words and phrases, few of us know anything about their fascinating and often unexpected origins. Eating Your Words is dedicated to discovering these origins.

Eating Your Words reveals surprising etymological relationships such as the links between battery chickens and artillery, dates and pterodactyls, and even between flavour and flatulence. Eating Your Words also discloses the intriguing differences between superficially similar terms such as hunger and appetite and between taste and flavour. I have thoroughly enjoyed discovering where so many of our culinary words come from and hope that you will do the same. Please read on and digest at your leisure!


The act of consuming solid food is referred to as ‘eating’. However, the act of eating is not limited to the consumption of solid food as you can also ‘eat’ liquids such as soups. So, what exactly is the difference between eating and drinking?

Whether or not liquid nutrition is ‘eaten’ or ‘drunk’ is decided not by what is being consumed but by the manner in which it arrives at our lips. The defining factor is whether or not an implement is used. So if I use a spoon to carry soup from a bowl to my mouth I am eating the soup but if I sip the soup directly from a cup I am drinking it.

If you eat your words you acknowledge that something you said was wrong and that you have made a mistake. Eating – i.e. taking back - your words results in acute discomfort or humiliation. The phrase is often used as a challenge: e.g. ‘I’ll make him eat his words’! In the 17th century Sir Walter Raleigh used it thus: ‘Nay wee'le make you confesse that you were deceived in your projects, and eat your own words.’ ‘Eat dirt’ has a similar meaning of suffer humiliation.

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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