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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Chew on These, Part 1

Food phrases are so common-place that we often don't realize we are referring to some edible item when we state that something is in "apple pie order" or that "our goose is cooked." Here we examine a number of terms that have their origin in the kitchen.


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One thing we absolutely know we have in common with our ancestors is that all of us ate to survive. Of course, the foods we consume today may have little similarity to those eaten by our forebears (especially the processed meals that are commonplace in many homes today). But besides eating food, we use references to consumables, in some of our common expressions. Beyond the obvious - "What's eating you?," "Here's something to chew on," etc. - there are many phrases that mention specific foods. Just the word/food "apple" brings to mind a number of phrases. Let us begin there.

In fact, according to some, it all began with an apple. Of course, Biblical scholars disagree on what the actual forbidden fruit was that resulted in the "fall of Adam," but popularly, the first couple was said to have eaten an apple, and, no matter how much the authorities may balk, that will remain part of our lore if for no other reason than anatomy: the part of the throat that protrudes (moreso in males than females) called the "Adam's apple." Even the Latin name for this part of the body is pomum Adami (literally translated to be "Adam's apple"). But anyone who has dissected the human neck will tell you, there is no fruit forever sticking in our throats (Funk, pp. 171-172).

So if the apple is not in the throat, perhaps it is in the eye; at least that is what some would have us believe when they declare a person (a favored grandchild, perhaps) to be "the apple of my eye." What an odd picture that conjures up in my mind! But in the ninth Century, it was thought that the pupil of one's eye was "apple-shaped." And then, as now, the eye, especially its center, was considered very sensitive and in need of special protection. Similarly, a person who is "the apple of another's eye" is considered special and to be protected and revered above all. Furthermore, some believe that the metaphor is given additional meaning by the fact that, given the proper light and circumstances, one can see his/her reflection in the pupil of another's eye (Holt, pp. 7-8).

In both of these cases, the "apple" is rather small, at least compared to, well, all of New York City: The Big Apple. While the term for the city (that was, for many of our ancestors, the first place they saw when arriving in America) may seem rather new (becoming an "official" moniker of New York City in 1971), it was actually coined back in the 1920s. It was popularized by New Orleans stable-hands who aspired to reach the racetracks of New York, a lofty goal for the jockeys and trainers in that profession. Newspaper writer John Fitzgerald entitled his column about horse racing in the New York Morning Telegraph, "Around the Big Apple." The term had a rebirth in the 1930s among jazz musicians and then, again, in 1971, as an advertising ploy to promote tourism in the Empire state (Morris, pp.5-7).

And what do we do with the apples (not the ones in throats, eyes, or New York State)? Why, we make apple pie, of course. Not being much of a baker, it did not occur to me how ridiculous the term "apple pie order" (meaning to be laid out with careful precision) actually sounds. Who actually takes time to uniformly organize the apples in a pie shell? It has been suggested that the term actually is one that has been slurred from something else. Possibilities: "alpha-beta order" (i.e., alphabetical, hence in a prescribed sequence), nappes-pliƩes (from the French, meaning "indisputably neat," referring to folding linens), or cap-a-pie (also from the French, meaning "from head to foot"). Any one of these makes much more sense than a literal apple pie (Holt, p. 8).

Enough of the apples, let's try a different fruit: the banana. Why would anyone want to compare him/herself to a banana, as in the phrase "top banana"? Some of our ancestors may well have the answer to this one: it is a remnant from the old vaudeville days. A comedy skit from the late 1800s/early 1900s dealt with sharing bananas. The skit may be long forgotten, but any comedy team will tell you that the goal of every performer is to be the "top banana" (Hendrickson, p. 676).

From bananas to punch (we prefer to put orange slices in our punch, but perhaps there are those who choose bananas or other fruits). Regardless, when I look at the final concoction, it does not appear to me to be happy or sad - it's simply punch; yet when a person is very satisfied with a state of affairs, he/she may be heard to utter, "I'm pleased as punch." However, this is actually incorrect, as "punch," in this context, is a proper noun: "Punch." Being "pleased as . . ." has nothing to do with the drink that is consumed at parties and celebrations (even when it is spiked and may result in the imbiber becoming "punch drunk"); "Punch" refers to Punchinello, the puppet who was paired with his puppet "wife" Judy to bring smiles to audiences with their all-too-human bickering. In 1841, the magazine Punch kept the little character alive (as the alleged "editor" of the humor publication), but the phrase "pleased as Punch" dates back to at least 1813 (the puppet dates back even further, to 1709) (Barnhart, p. 863).

Punch was one of those characters who often got himself into one type of trouble or another; one might say that he was frequently "in a pickle." Obviously, anyone who is in such a condition is not literally in a pickle (this being physically impossible, I do believe). So why such an odd term? Originally, it was not the pickle that a person was said to be in, but the brine used to preserve the cucumbers that would eventually become pickles. It is one of those situations where something got lost in the translation: the initial phrase comes from the Dutch In de pikel zitten, meaning "to sit in the salt solution used to make pickles" and, in English, became in a pretty pickle (which has since been altered further to eliminate the quantifier) (Hendrickson, p. 351).

Certainly, sitting in pickle brine (literally or figuratively) is something most of us would choose to avoid, but once we get ourselves into trouble, our "goose is cooked." One suggestion for the origin of this term dates back to Medieval times when the residents of a town hung out a goose, showing contempt for Eric, the King of Sweden, who was pillaging the community. As the town went up in flames, so did the goose, thus cooking it (or maybe over-cooking, in this case), and destroying everything in its surroundings (Holt, p. 62). Eric supposedly made the statement that he "cooked their goose" (implying that they were to blame for their own destruction). The problem with this colorful story is that the alleged incident occurred in the mid-1500s but the phrase has not appeared in written form anywhere before 1851. Some have suggested that the term comes from the children's fable of the goose that laid the golden egg (the couple that had possession of it eventually killed it to get to all the eggs within its body that, alas, were not there; they ended up cooking and eating the goose, having no other use for the creature at that point); others hypothesize that the phrase comes from the English ballad about Pope Pius IX, ridiculing his "Papal Aggression" (the couplet goes, "If they come here we'll cook their goose,/ The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman"). Whatever the origin, the peculiar reference to creating a meal from a fowl means "to put an end to" or "ruin" the event or situation at hand (Hendrickson, p. 168).

From cooking geese, we turn to "goose" as a verb: "to goose" someone means to poke someone (originally, according to Mencken, in the buttocks, though that seems to have evolved and can refer to any body part these days). A further meaning has been derived from this: "to goad someone into action." The fact that geese can be rather aggressive birds, pecking at people (especially those trying to get at the animals' eggs) with such force that it is those actions that have given rise to the phrase that takes their name. Some state that goose breeders, before letting the creatures loose in the yard, examine them for eggs by "goosing" the rear parts (male and female geese being virtually indistinguishable through any other means). Whether it is the goose behavior or the behavior of humans with their geese, being goosed is usually a less than comfortable experience (Hendrickson, p. 293).

As genealogists, we often find ourselves in a pickle in our efforts to find those elusive ancestors, but pleased as Punch when they are located. We want our genealogical records and source citations to be in apple pie order and, if they aren't, when we present them for publication or to post on the web, our goose is cooked. As we examine the fruits of our labors, we might cause the Adam's apple to bob as we swallow hard when we find an error. We are goosed into action to correct any mistakes so that our ancestors will be top bananas (and hope that they view us as the apples of their eyes). So whether you will be sending off your genealogical findings to The Big Apple, or Salt Lake City, or just to the rest of the family, be certain that your work demonstrates quality research.


Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Morris, Evan. The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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