A few months ago we introduced you to the stories behind some of the most common food idioms in the English language. We looked into the ‘big cheese’, why things sell ‘like hotcakes’, and why we sometimes take something ‘with a grain of salt’. This month we explore a few more tried-and-true phrases that have to do with food.
Let’s start with a slightly obtuse saying: ‘The proof is in the pudding’, meaning “to fully test something you need to experience it yourself or put it into action to see if it works.”
The expression we use today is a bastardized version of the original, which comes from William Camden’s 1605 work, Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine. In it he says: “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating.”
Bear in mind that a pudding, back then, was not a sweet, jiggly chocolate concoction but rather a sausage usually made of the stomach and entrails of a farm animal. The phrase, then, begins to make sense when you think that a medieval peasant might have wanted to test, or ‘proof’, his pudding before eating it to make sure it was well-cooked and safe to consume.
Why, when something is simple to accomplish, do we relate it to a ‘piece of cake’ or say it is as ‘easy as pie’? It’s hard to say, really, but what we do know is that these are uniquely American expressions that seem to refer to how easy and pleasant it is to eat said pie or cake, rather than to make them.
One early example of the phrase ‘as easy as pie’ comes from a comic story in The Newport Mercury newspaper from June 1887. One down-and-out fellow is explaining to another how he ekes out a living wherever he goes: “I takes away mit me a silver spoon or a knife or somethings, an’ I gets two or three dollars for them. It’s easy as pie. Vy don’t you try it?”
There are countless expressions in English to describe things that are similar: ‘as white as snow’, ‘as alike as two peas in a pod’ are just two examples. But it’s harder to find an expression to show how different things are. Enter ‘as different as chalk and cheese.’ Although many objects could have stood in for chalk and cheese in this saying, whoever coined it might have liked the alliteration or might simply have been looking for two objects that would be very familiar to whoever heard it spoken. The earliest citation for this idiom is John Gower’s 1390 Middle English text Confessio Amantis: ‘Lo, how they feignen chalk for chese.
Let’s stick with similes for a second and figure out why we say someone is ‘as happy as a clam‘. Some might say it’s because an open clam looks like a laughing or smiling mouth. But the truth, once again, is that we’re left with only a portion of the full expression, which is ‘as happy as a clam at high water.’ High tide is when clams are safest from predators and therefore presumably at their happiest. This is a common expression in New England, where clams are found, and is said to date back to the early 19th century.
“My salad days,” said Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. “When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then!” In 1606, Shakespeare’s used this expression to suggest a time in one’s life when they were ‘green’ with inexperience. Salad is used here not only to denote a young and tender leaf, but also one that is short-lived. The expression seemed to have slipped into obscurity for a few hundred years, but made a return in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the United States.
Do you have a favourite food idiom or one you puzzle over? Write to us and we’ll look into it for you!