Eating Your Words

The fascinating origins of everyday

culinary words and phrases

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An occasion at which food is eaten is referred to as a meal. The same word can be used to describe actual food and drink served at such an occasion. These usages of the word meal developed from its more general meaning of a time or an occasion. The word is little changed from the Old English mæl.

The word meal is used in a number of popular expressions. For example, a particularly nutritious and satisfying meal is often referred to as ‘a square meal. This popular phrase is of uncertain origin although there are two commonly suggested derivations. One is that it comes from square plates used on naval vessels. This is possibly backed up by the fact that sailors were fed 3 times a day and so had ‘three square meals a day’. An alternative explanation is that it relates to the meaning of square in its sense of fair as in the expressions “fair and square” and “square deal”. Thus a square meal meant one of a suitable size.     

If you make a meal of something you are taking much more time or trouble over a task than is necessary. There is often the implication that you are doing so for effect. Often used in the negative, i.e. ‘don’t make a meal of it’, in order to impart that the job needs to be done quickly, this meaning of the phrase dates from the 1960s. However, with the meaning of ‘to consume’, as you would a meal, the expression has a much longer history, dating back to the early 17th century.

The phrase meal ticket is used to describe a source of financial security, for example; ‘She doesn't love him, he's just a meal ticket to her’. This figurative meaning developed from its original US sense of a ticket entitling its holder to a meal - the American equivalent of the British luncheon voucher.

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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