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Decoding popular food idioms

At Rustik, we love word play. It’s what we do for fun. Words amuse us, but they often baffle us too. We started thinking about some of the most frequently used food idioms, and it made us wonder how they made their way into common parlance. So we checked in with one of our favourite sites, The Word Detective, to get some answers. This is part one of a four-part series we’ll publish throughout 2016.

(Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley)

(Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley)

Have you ever told someone to ‘take that with a grain of salt?’ The phrase essentially means to be skeptical about the information to follow, and not automatically assume it’s true. Evan Morris, the Word Detective, says the expression has been found in print since the mid-17th century. But its history probably stretches back much further – as far back as the Middle Ages. Just as salt has long been used to make dull food easier to swallow, a grain of salt can make a dubious story easier to believe.

(Photo Credit: Haru Q)

(Photo Credit: Haru Q)

From a salty expression, we turn to a sweet one: ‘selling like hotcakes.’ We wondered whether there was ever a consumer ‘hotcake’ fad related to that breakfast item. Turns out, not so much. But, Morris notes that hotcakes (also known as pancakes) are a popular foodstuff at church fairs and other community events throughout America, and the implication in this idiom is that they sell as fast as they can be cooked. One wonders why though, the expression ‘selling like pancakes’ never took off.

(Photo Credit: Frode Lundgren)

(Photo Credit: Frode Lundgren)

Now for a cheesier conundrum… Why do we sometimes call the boss, or head honcho, ‘The Big Cheese?’ On this one, Morris really turns up some interesting information: he traces the origins of this expression to the word ‘chiz’, which means ‘thing’ in Persian or Urdu. Back in the days of the British Empire, ‘the real chiz’ (meaning ‘the real thing’ or ‘the real deal’) became a popular turn of phrase among Anglo-Indians. Eventually ‘chiz’ was Anglicized to ‘cheese.’

(Photo Credit: Liz West)

(Photo Credit: Liz West)

Chances are, The Big Cheese thinks he is pretty funny. You, on the other hand, might find his jokes a bit ‘corny.’ How did corn come to be associated with sentimental or banal humour? For this one we need look no further than the booming 19th-century seed catalogue industry. So keen was the competition to capture the customer’s attention that seed companies began to fill their catalogues not only with words and illustrations, but also with stories, riddles, cartoons and jokes – mostly silly and fairly low-brow. And so, an embarrassing joke came to be associated with a ‘corn catalogue,’ and that was simply shortened to ‘corny.’

(Photo Credit: Dale Janzen)

(Photo Credit: Dale Janzen)

The teller of a bad joke might find him or herself ‘in a bit of a pickle.’ To what do we owe this mysterious idiom? Morris says the expression first appeared in the 16th century. At that time, the word ‘pickle’ meant not the brined final product, but the brine itself, derived from the old Dutch word ‘pekel.’ Being ‘in a pickle’ aroused the image of being soaked in a sour bath, a predicament that would lead one to wonder: “what do I do now?” Morris notes that the use of the word ‘pickle’ to mean a pickled cucumber didn’t arise until the 18th century.

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