Test Your Food Slang IQ!

Friday, July 29, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Chris Shinkus

Food has worked its way into bakers' dozens of everyday sayings and folksy colloquialisms, and most of us likely never give a second thought to being happy as a clam or comparing apples to oranges. But let's get down to the meat of the matter. There must be stories behind these expressions, right? Turns out there are. Some of these backstories are charming anecdotes, providing little glimpses into past times; others are fascinating explanations, full of details, which in reality have proven to be only myths. The truth is, finding the real origin of slang terms and expressions like these can be a tough nut to crack, but here are several common terms and their accompanying tales—some true, some not. Lettuce begin . . .
  1. True: "Piece of cake" refers to contest for fanciest ambulation around centrally placed dessert. This is thought to be an offspring of "cakewalk"—itself slang for a promenade common to the American south in the late 1800s. Couples would stroll in a circle around a cake, which was offered as a prize to the pair displaying the most elegant walk. (Not exactly the most arduous competition ever created.) Over time, "piece of cake" came to be used figuratively for anything that was stylish yet easily done, and first appeared in print in 1936 in Ogden Nash's book The Primrose Path: "Her picture's in the papers now, And life's a piece of cake." Clearly pre-paparazzi.
  2. True: "The apple of my eye" refers to the pupil of the vision-orb. Far and away the oldest expression in this list—and one of the oldest in general—this one shows up in the King James Bible and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but actually pre-dates them both. In fact, it's nearly as old as the English language itself, with its first recorded use dating back to the works of King Alfred in the ninth century. In those pre-Google days, what we know now as the pupil of the eye was believed to be a solid object, and likely due to its shape, it was actually called the "apple." As a result, the phrase "apple of one's eye" at first was quite literally a reference to the pupil. Because sight was considered so precious, it followed that someone considered equally precious could be the "apple of your eye." Romantic to the core.
  3. False: "Bring home the bacon" refers to hanging valuable meat in the parlor to show off opulence. I wish this were true, because it's a good story. It goes that in Merry Olde England in the 16th century, pork was a luxury that was hard to come by and considered a sign of wealth. So when a man managed to score some for his family, some bacon would be hung on a special rack in the parlor when company was coming—a not-too-subtle sign that the man of the house could, in fact, "bring home the bacon." Sadly, this was one of many clever but false stories spread via an email titled "Life in the 1500s" that made its way around in 1999, and was subsequently debunked by the party poopers at Snopes.com.
  4. True: "Humble pie" refers to disparity in quality between dishes served to rich and poor. Yeah, we all have a slice from time to time, but what's the story behind the term? Well, let's go back across the pond, to medieval England once more. It was common practice during that time to serve a pie made of deer parts to servants and others sitting at the lower tables in a lord's hall (what we now know as the "kids' table" at Thanksgiving, but I digress). The term of the time for those deer innards—liver, heart, intestines, and other leftovers—was umble. See where this is going? Take the umble pie served to lower ranks, combine it with humble (from the Latin humilem, from which came humility), add a liberal helping of medieval English pronunciation, and you've got a play on words fit for a king.
  5. False: "Spill the beans" refers to voting system involving different-colored legumes. Another one that's totally legit-sounding. According to the story, in Ancient Greece the voting system consisted of a basket or jar, into which each voter placed a "secret ballot" of either a white or a black bean. White was a positive vote, black was a negative vote, and the results were required to be anonymous. But sooner or later, "that" guy would show up to vote and manage to knock over the basket—"spilling the beans," exposing the results of the secret vote, and pretty much ruining everyone's day. The problem is there's one small fact that creates some doubt about this story: The earliest use of "spill the beans" as a term for giving up a secret is from an article in The Stevens Point Journal, June 1908, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, good ol' U.S. of A. But, hey, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.