How Food Idioms Enhance Language and Understanding

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Have a seat at the sturdy pine table and enjoy the farmhouse fare of the English language. While this may not be where I started my journey to collect food idioms, it is surely where I have concluded (at least for now … something tells me I might keep collecting!). Across as many sources as I could find, I have come to a list of 362 idioms that employ food and its counterparts, cooking and eating. Throughout the project, I wondered which would rise to the top as the most commonly used, and I will now proclaim egg (18) as the winner, narrowly beating salt (17), bread (14) and apple (12). How did I end up in this farm kitchen? Well, the rest of the ten runners-up all fit into this idyllic traditional scene, with butter (6), cake (8), fish (9), milk (9), pie (7), toast (7) and, of course, the one that brings them all together, eat (8).

Why collect food idioms? It turns out that idiomatic speech, in general, is remarkably culture bound. My first introduction to this phenomenon, (as I’m sure is the case for many others), was in learning a foreign language. For me, it was French, and the first one I recall learning was mon petit chou, literally translated as “my little cabbage,” but used in French to describe some form of cutey-pie. (Baffling, at the time. I, for one, never wanted to kiss or cuddle a cabbage.) Indeed, when I turned to the internet to collect my food idiom list, the overwhelming number of sites with lists of them were for people seeking to teach and learn the English language. To translate an idiom is not a one-for-one exchange of words; the understanding needs to be enriched with an element of culture. Some piece of our collective psyche as English speakers hangs out in that farm kitchen.

Methodology and Rules

The first decision I had to make for this project was what exactly would I accept as an idiom. “Idiom” is generally understood to be a usage of words that is not literal and is, rather, metaphoric or allegorical. “Red as an apple” is not an idiom, for example. However, as might be expected, sometimes the determination that something is an idiom is a little cloudy. In these cases I tried to stay with word combinations that occurred together often enough that they made a unit of their own, (something more embedded in common usage than an analogy, for example). I also selected as idioms expressions for which there is general agreement to meaning. There are a few outliers on my list that I couldn’t define. One such idiom comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. It occurred on several lists, but I could not manage to find a concrete definition for “rheumatic as two dry toasts.”

The other component to picking for this list was making some judgments around what was actually a food idiom. “Fish,” for example, occurs in plenty of idioms, but it is not always used with eating in mind. “Plenty of fish in the sea” did not make the cut; “bigger fish to fry” did. “Wild goose chase” made the list, (since I presumed one would only chase it to eat it). Obviously this makes my list somewhat subjective.

I found these idioms everywhere I could think to look: from my own experience, asking others, searching the internet, and from the books and reference materials I’ve listed in my bibliography. I wrote some of the definitions from my own knowledge and experience, while others I had to find. Where there was a conflict, I looked for the most consensus on what something meant. My definitions might drive Webster mad; they are nowhere near as consistent as they could be. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this project, I think they tell the story well.

How Idioms Work

Idioms are fascinating and, (for word geeks like me), kind of fun. They almost construct a sub-language that speaks in pictures and little stories. They lend dynamism and character to communication. However, because they draw from a base of common cultural experience, they also become part of the fabric of the culture that uses them. That they don’t translate easily (or even at all) across languages is significant. Idioms are unique to the group that uses them. (Even within languages there are significant differences across countries and even regions.)

Salience describes the ease with which we convert what we experience into what we understand. When it comes to words, the salience describes how clear the meaning is to the receiver. When we learn speech, we literally encode meaning into our brain through repetition and association. The more familiar we are with something, the more salient its meaning.

It turns out that this encoding happens not just with single words, but also with phrases. Indeed, idioms are encoded as units unto themselves and not just as the single words that comprise them. In On Our Mind, Rachel Giora describes studies which demonstrate that idioms actually speed the recognition of meaning. If I exclaim, “well that’s just the icing on the cake,” chances are the listener will understand what I mean more quickly than if I stated something like, “well, that event just made the situation even worse.” The situation had nothing to do with icing, cake or even food, but the expression conveyed a much more complex expression than purely literal language could have achieved. The idiom would be more salient than the literal statement.

If there is a sense that in some cases metaphoric language is somehow richer and more effective than purely literal speech, there may be a physiological basis for this. In fact, when language is combined with imagery that evokes the senses, the encoding is more effective and may even speed the recall, presumably due to the effect of activating several centers of the brain at once. (Giora, 192-199) This is why food and eating are effective channels through which to convey meaning. “Like throwing fat on the fire” evokes a much richer understanding than purely literal speech.

Idiomatic speech also lends unity to a culture or a sub-culture. A simple way to envision this is to consider the idiomatic colloquialisms that a group of young people from a particular generation might employ that would baffle their elders. The youth has constructed idiomatic speech that works for them; the uninitiated are left with the literal constructions, (A case in point would be the expression, “That’s bad” as it came into common usage in the 80’s. Young people clearly understood the term differently than oldsters.). Thus, it may be that idioms help build cultural identity.

Thinking about English Food Idioms

An exhaustive study of food idioms in the English language would be a huge undertaking, well beyond the scope of this project. What follow are some observations and ideas from putting this collection together.

Food Idioms Endure

A number of the food idioms that I collected have sources dating as far back as the 16th century, with suggestions that some may have appeared even earlier. That expressions could persist for 500 years and perhaps longer is remarkable and is a testament to their staying power and their effectiveness at conveying meaning. In fact, for the earliest of these idioms, (some that can be found within Shakespeare), the expressions had to “jump the pond” with English-speaking Europeans as they colonized the United States. I believe that much in the same way that food items and their preparation have followed cultural communities as they moved away from a traditional homeland, (as discussed in class), expressions involving food may, indeed, be a way of preserving cultural continuity.

Food Idioms Tend to Employ Simple or Basic Food Ideas

As we have seen from the farmhouse kitchen “collection” of top-rated foods for idioms, the overwhelming choice of food types for these expressions are traditional and typical, (as seen through our traditional cultural lens). Nearly every idiom that I collected would have made sense to generations past. Even if the idiomatic expression itself would not have been immediately salient, the foundational components are items that have overwhelmingly been found in the kitchens of Euro-centric culture for centuries. Eggs, butter, salt, nuts, fish, meat, pie, fruit . . . there are few exotic items that made this list. This suggests that our idiomatic vocabulary grows very slowly and resists “outside” influences. I believe there are a few key reasons for this. The first harkens back to the notion that idioms are a currency of cultural identity. In addition, there is something to the collective experience of cooking and eating that makes these expressions effective. Finally, I think there may be something comforting in a communication exchange that evokes senses that bring us “back home.” Of course, as discussed earlier, when we link the senses to the terms we are encoding, they become much more salient. All of these elements may combine to imbue food idioms with the cultural fortitude that they seem to possess.

Food Items Tend to Have “Personalities,” or Character and Value

As this idiomatic vocabulary has developed, so have our associations with particular types of food and the qualities they convey. Here are a few generalities that come from the list:

Fruit is desirable. Indeed, while apple may have been the only fruit to make it to the top of the list, if we combine all fruits, this category makes up about 12 percent of our entire food idiom vocabulary. The fruits were not exotic; banana and pineapple were the only ones that could not be grown in the continental United States. The list of fruits also included berry, cherry, fig, fruit, gooseberry, grapes, lemon, melon, orange, peach, pear, plum, pumpkin and raspberry. As subcategories, of course, cherry and apple lend generally good associations, while lemon represents sour and fig represents naughtiness. The flavors that accompany the fruits as well as the sensations that go with eating them explain cherry, apple and lemon; but I would be interested to learn what fig did to earn its ill repute.


Bread tends to convey basics and sustenance.

Honey is synonymous with sweetness, goodness.

Milk goes with nurturing, sustenance.

Beef and meat tend to express wealth and plenty. This may harken back to times when beef could be had only by those with means.

Nut goes with being crazy or silly. (While I did not find any attempts at explaining the connection, I would be interested to learn what one may be.)

Salt is usually either very basic and elemental or of low value.

Fun Facts

I learned a lot of trivia while doing this project. Here are a few of my favorite tidbits:

“Get toasted” and “toasty” as used in expressing drunkenness, with their counterpart, “make a toast” probably came into usage through a 17th century practice of putting spiced toast points into glasses of wine on special occasions.

“Through the grapevine” as a description of the spread of gossip appears to have first come into usage during the Civil War, perhaps used in propaganda.

“Big cheese” did not come into usage until the early 20th century and may not have started as a reference to cheese at all, but from an Urdu word meaning simply, “the thing.”

Like trying to “nail jelly to a wall” was a new idiom to me, but I found it pretty funny, in no small measure, I’m sure, to how impossible a task this would be and the humorous mental image it conveyed. Coming full circle to the thought of how effective food idioms can be, there is no doubt in my mind that telling someone that a task is “like trying to nail jelly to a wall” is a much more powerful expression than saying a task is impossible. Moreover, it is one that is bound to provide comic relief to a trying situation.

So Why Food?

As in all issues involving the discussion of culture and Cuisine, we return to the question of why does food matter? Is it relevant? Could we get a point across effectively without food idioms or without idioms at all for that matter? Of course, we could. Nevertheless, the beauty anything cultural is that it expands our lives in ways that some might even argue make us human. It is what lends color to our lives, commonality, a sense of belonging or a feeling of exploring. The infusion of food into language gives it depth, history, social context and meaning, and even humor. Food idioms act as a sort of linguistic shorthand within a culture that enrich our experience of communicating and may even help forge important interpersonal bonds. The kitchen farmhouse of our collective spirit is a very nice place to be.

Bibliography and Sources

In addition to the sources listed below, I used a number of non-cited sources for my collection of idioms including extensive internet searches, personal experience and the “mind picking” of others.

Ayto, John. The Glutton’s Glossary, a Dictionary of Food and Drink Terms. Routledge, New York, NY, 1990.

Giora, Rachel. On Our Mind. Salience, Context, and Figurative Language. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2003.

Knowles, Elizabeth, editor. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Second Edition. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005, 2006.

Pinnavaia, Laura. Sugar and Spice … Exploring Food and Drink Idioms in English. Polimetrica, Corso Milano, Italy, 2010.

Terban, Marvin. Guilio Maestro, illustrator. Mad as a Wet Hen and Other Funny Idioms. Clarion Books, New York, NY, 1987.

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