Food for thought

No use crying over spilled milk, bringing home the bacon, apple of my eye — all these phrases have one thing in common, okay two. One they are famous English idioms, two they all seem quite fi

Published: 16th March 2012 12:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:36 PM   |  A+A-


(Express News Photo)

No use crying over spilled milk, bringing home the bacon, apple of my eye — all these phrases have one thing in common, okay two. One they are famous English idioms, two they all seem quite fixated on food. Given how central it is to our existence, little wonder that a reference to food is made when making a point or delivering a message. Figuring out the meaning of some of these idioms is a piece of cake, however others can be hard nuts to crack. The following idioms gave me food for thought.

A different kettle of fish: Meaning this is a different matter altogether from the one previously mentioned.

When we think kettle, we assume it to be a small container to boil water. But in 18th century Britain, it was a large container to boil stuff (including fish!) in. Why choose a fish as subject, no one is sure. Some say it may be an allusion to the confusion of bones, head and skin that is left after the fish has been eaten.

Red herring: Speaking of fish, try this one on for size. Pulling a red herring means a tactic used to divert attention from something.

According to some, this expression comes from the fact that an escaped prisoner would drag a dried (and smelly) red herring behind him and then, presumably, run in the other direction, to leave a scent that would throw off the bloodhounds sent out to chase the culprit down.

Another source, however, puts it down to a former hunting practice of pulling a pungent red herring across the trail of a hunted animal to sharpen the skill of the hounds being trained.

Humble pie: To apologise in the face of humiliation.

In 14th century England, the internal organs of animals were called ‘numbals’, (present day ‘offal’). Over time numbals became pronounced umbles. These entrails were reserved to servants and other people of a lower class, while the rich feasted on the meat. So if a deer was killed the rich ate venison and those of low status ate umble pie. Later it became corrupted to ‘eat humble pie’ and came to mean to act with humility.

Have your cake and eat it too: This one is quite paradoxical. It means, you can’t consume something and preserve it at the same time.

This familiar proverb reminds us that you cannot eat your cake and then complain about not having your cake any more. The earliest recording of the phrase goes back to an English book in 1546.

Cakewalk: An easy accomplishment

The phrase found its way to the English language in the 19th century. At the time dancing competitions were commonplace in the black community of southern USA and couples were judged on their style in the ‘cake-walk’, a form of dance. The prize for the winners was usually a cake, which gave rise to the phrase, ‘taken the cake’.

Butter won’t melt in her mouth: Somebody who appears gentle or innocent while typically being the opposite.

The idea behind the phrase is that the person is so cold and proper that the temperature of their mouth would keep butter refrigerated and firm. This phrase is usually used sarcastically, indicating that the person is overly demure and insincere.

I can go and on and on with similar examples but that would mean biting off more than I can chew. Suffice to say that the list is quite long, and it is not restricted to the English language. How about we find some examples of Indian food-based idioms and use our noodles to seek out their stories.

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