Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday

culinary words and phrases

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The act of consuming solid food is referred to as ‘eating’. However, eating is not as simple as this as you can also ‘eat’ liquids such as soups. So, what 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.

The act of eating is referred to in a number of popular phrases:

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.

Eat humble pie has a very similar meaning and usage to eat your words. It uses the word humble (having a low opinion of one’s merits) but is thought by many to have an origin that lies with the offal of certain animals, especially deer, which was used as a pie filling. This offal was known as umbles. Such umble pies were considered only suitable to be eaten by those of low standing. The nobles meanwhile would be enjoying venison from the same carcass. The term humble pie came about as a pun on the word umble, influenced no doubt both by the similarity in spelling and the fact that umble pies were eaten by humble people. Although umble pies were being eaten as long ago as 15th century, this particular expression was first recorded in 1830. Around 20 years later, Charles Dickens used it in David Copperfield in which Uriah Heap, dropping his ‘h’s, states 'When I was quite a young boy, I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite.’  

In the US eat crow is used in a similar way to how ‘eat your words’ is used in Britain. It refers to the humiliation resulting from being proved wrong or from suffering a defeat. In the US ‘boiled crow’ has been used as a metaphor for something highly unpleasant since the 19th century.  

I’ll eat my hat! is a related expression uttered as an indication of supreme confidence that something won’t happen or that something isn’t the case, e.g. ‘If I’m not right I’ll eat my hat’!

Eat my dust! is a taunt spoken to someone you are leaving behind in a competition. It probably comes from racing cars on dirt roads when someone who had been overtaken would literally be left eating the dust kicked up by the overtaking driver’s car.

To have someone eating out of your hand means that you have them totally under your control, whilst if you are going to eat them alive you will ruthlesses take advantage of their weaknesses in order to entirely dominate them.

I’m so hungry I could eat a horse is a common expression used to indicate that you are extremely hungry. A horse is used as an example of something large rather than in the literal sense. Equally, the horse is used figuratively in the phrase eat like a horse which means to eat a large quantity. The origin of this phrase lies in the fact that horses have to eat large quantities of their food in order to obtain sufficient nutrients. The opposite of eating like a horse is to eat like a bird meaning to eat very little or to pick at one’s food (like a bird). This phrase dates back to 1856.

First recorded in 1933, the phrase eat out refers to going somewhere other than your home for a meal.

Eat your heart out means to suffer from excessive longing, particularly for something or someone unobtainable. More recently, the phrase has become used as a comment aimed towards a particular person – present or absent - that you believe would be highly envious of something you have, e.g. a talent or success. It is often used ironically, for example after playing the piano you might say, ‘Elton John, eat your heart out’.

Dating back to the 18th century, the phrase I won’t eat you! is used as reassurance – often to a child – not to be alarmed when approaching someone who is unfamiliar to them.

‘What’s eating you?’ is another way of asking ‘What is worrying you?’ or ‘What is annoying you?’.

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die advises that we should do all we can to enjoy our life as it will be over all too soon. It is a fusion of two biblical sayings:

Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry(Ecclesiastes chapter 8 verse 15)

And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die. (Isaiah chapter 22 verse 13)

To eat someone out of house and home means to consume a large amount of someone else's food. The implication is that the host becomes financially impoverished as a result. The expression is most often used humorously and is not intended to be taken literally. It was used by Shakespeare in Henry IV (1600) when Mistress Quickly appeals for Sir John Falstaff to be arrested for debt; ‘He hath eaten me out of house and home: he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.’ The expression already existed in the slightly different version "to eat out of house and harbor” which used harbour in its meaning of an abode or shelter.  

Read more

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