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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I don’t give a Fig!

Figs are the pear-shaped compound fruits of the fig tree. Their name comes from the Old French figue, fige, ultimately from the Latin ficus meaning a fig or fig tree.

I don’t give a fig means the same as "I don't give a damn". This expression has its origins in ancient Greece when the word sykophántēs which meant someone who 'showed the fig' i.e. made an insulting, sexual gesture relating to the hole in the fig and putting their thumb between their first and second fingers. Shakespeare wrote of this in Henry V.  Sykophántēs was formed from the Greek for fig and vulva, sŷkon + -phántēs 'one who shows'. That irreverant gesture lives on in this current expression.  

The word sykophántēs is also the origin of the word sycophant, which in modern usage means someone who ingratiates themself with those in a senior position by using inappropriate flattery. This meaning of a servile flatterer is first recorded in 1575. However, it was in prior use to mean an informer.

The Greek word for fig, sŷkon, also gave rise to the name of the sycamore tree from sŷkon fig + móron black mulberry (because of the similarity in their leaves). The word sŷkon also gave rise to the word syconium - the botanical name for a multiple fruit developed from numerous flowers enclosed in a hollow, fleshy receptacle – of which the fig is the best-known example.

Botanically speaking, a fruit is the ripened ovary of a flowering plant which contains at least one seed that has developed from a fertilized ovule. However in culinarily use the term is sometimes used to classify plant material by its use rather than by its structure. Thus rhubarb may be thought of as a fruit in spite of the fact that the part eaten is the leaf stalks. In a similar vein, some fruits are considered to be vegetables, e.g. tomatoes and aubergines. Originally, the word fruit in English referred to plant produce in general, i.e. it included both fruits and vegetables and that wider meaning continues to this day in the expression fruits of the earth. From the Old French fruit, from the Latin frūctus meaning fruit, produce.

This earlier meaning of produce is preserved in the expression the fruits of one's labour which means the result of someone’s hard work. Equally, if we have had a productive day, we might say that it has been fruitful or that it has born fruit. By contrast, an unproductive day would be considered to have been fruitless.  

The word fruition originally meant the action of enjoying, and was borrowed from the Middle French fruition, which was from the Late Latin fruitiōnem 'enjoyment', itself from the Latin fruī 'to use, enjoy'. Fruition’s use to mean 'the condition of bearing fruit' evolved because of a misguided belief that the word was linked to the word fruit. That meaning quickly gained a figurative use of realization, as in "I am not sure if it will come to fruition".

Forbidden fruit means something that is all the more desireable because it is prohibited. The expression comes from the Bible and the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that was forbidden to Adam in the Garden of Eden: ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis chapter 2 verse 17). According to Christian tradition apples were the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. However, in the Book of Genesis the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve is not named and it has in the past been identified as variously fruits. It has been suggested that the settling on apples may have been influenced by a potential pun between the classical Latin word for apple – mlum and the classical Latin malum meaning evil.

With the meaning of a cake containing fruit, fruitcake is first recorded in the mid 19th century. It’s use to mean someone who is mad dates from a century later and derives from the expression ‘as nutty as a fruitcake’.

It was the juicy and ripe nature of fruit that resulted in the word fruity being used in the 20th century to mean sexually suggestive.


Dates are the oblong, sweet, rich-tasting fruits of a species of palm tree. They are available fresh or dried, when they become very sticky to the touch. Thought to have been domesticated in the Middle East over 5000 years ago, it can still be found growing wild there. First recorded around the turn of the 14th century, the word was borrowed from the Old French date, itself from the Old Provençal datil which derives from the Latin dactylus, from the Greek dáktylos 'date' but originally meaning finger (as in the dinosaur pterodactyl, which means wing-finger). So-called because the date palm's fruit and leaves were thought by the Greeks to resemble fingers.

Feeling groggy