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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Chew on These, Part 2

The use of food terminology to describe human behavior and circumstances is nothing new. Here we will examine this phenomenon from soup to nuts, discovering the origins of such phrases as "salad days," "cut the mustard," "take it with a grain of salt," and more. See if what our ancestors meant by these terms agrees with current vernacular.


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Last month we began to devour some food phrases; this month, I have another course for you. Some of these are used as adjectives, some as analogies, and others, just odd phrases that may have piqued your curiosity as they did mine. These are just a sampling of what's out there and, as I collect more, I may end up with a part three, somewhere down the line.

My first curiosity is how someone who is the "breadwinner" is the one who "brings home the bacon." But the one who brings home the bacon, now applied to the person who supplies the money (presumably to buy said bacon), is not the original one who acquired it (Hendrickson, p. 102). Originally, "bacon" meant "prize" (don't tell this to the donor pig) and anyone who brought home a prize from a competition was said to have brought home the bacon (p. 101). Interestingly enough, this term dates back to 1445 and the bacon prize was awarded to the couple who were judged to have lived in harmony over the previous year. Towards the end of the 1500s, this assessment was being made by a jury, not of their peers, but of twelve unmarried individuals (evenly split, males and females). Once the jury was convinced of this amazing feat of minimal, if any, arguments, the winning couple was presented pork, which, by some accounts, was a mere morsel (Garrison, p. 117) and by others, was a full side of bacon (Hendrickson, p. 101). Either way, the coveted prize no doubt allowed the happy couple to eat well for some period of time.

So now that the meat course is out of the way, how about that bread? If someone is a "breadwinner," does he or she really bring home a loaf? Interestingly, the word "loaf" comes from hlāf, which was the common term for brēowan, from the Old English word for "brew" (in reference to the fermentation of the yeast, required in the making of the bread). This also metamorphosed into bēobrēad, later changed to, and still heard today as, beebread. For unknown reasons, the acceptance of "bread" for "loaf" became the norm, and so it is today (Barnhart, p. 114). But that still leaves us at a loss for how "winning it" is a synonym for earning a living. While it makes sense to consider a major reason to work is to supply the family with food (see earlier "bacon" discussion), in about 1935, the word "bread" became the synonym, though slang, for "money" (don't try to give a hard worker a piece of bread today, that certainly wouldn't "cut it" – another phrase we will examine shortly). So the "breadwinner" in the household is the one who toils to provide for the family, and the "bread" brought home is hoped to be in the form of a paycheck (Hendrickson, p. 99). Before we move to the next course, this "bread baking" process also gives us a very common word: "lady." Originally hlāfdige ("one who kneads the dough or loaf"), it, in time, was slurred to become the word we know today (Barnhart, p. 573).

For 21st Century families to make ends meet, it is desirable that the employee be "hard-boiled" – able to stand up to the pressures and stresses of our modern day jobs. I remember my mother making hard-boiled eggs, and when she was done, nothing could be harder or more durable. Certainly, the person who is similarly prepared could stand up to anything the boss dishes out. However, what a shock it was to me to learn that the term "hard-boiled" is not at all egg-related. Instead, this term comes from the practice of pioneer women who, in order to get the clothing as clean as possible, would, about once a month, boil the garments in a large iron pot. Once the dirt and grime were literally boiled away, she would starch the Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes with a homemade concoction, often using too much of it, resulting in her husband's inability to move comfortably in his best bib and tucker. He would make a joke of his apparent stiffness and say that the clothes had been boiled to the point of becoming hard. Once the term was part of the accepted vernacular, it took little to shift it from "clothing" to "person" and a hard-boiled individual was (and still is) considered unyielding and tough (Garrison, p. 115).

But such a worker, even though hard-boiled, needs to be efficient as well. If a person cannot "cut the mustard," he or she certainly won't last on the job. Michael Quinion, in his book Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds, carefully examines the various possibilities for the origin of this phrase, from being an alteration of "cut the muster" (alluding to the military practice of calling the troops to "muster" for the purpose of determining who was present), to the literal harvesting of the mustard plant (which, according to some in the agricultural field, is quite an arduous task). He has discarded all of these options due to the historical use of the term, examination of the different arenas where it might be used, and consideration of where it first is found: a story by O. Henry. (It is important to note here that the use of a word or phrase by a popular author frequently resulted in that term becoming part of the popular vernacular, just as Fonzie's "Hey" and Maxwell Smart's "Would you believe" became part of the conversations of the youth in those time periods – the 1970s and 1960s, respectively.) And O. Henry was particularly fond of the word "mustard" as a synonym for pungent spice, and as a result, for a person or behavior that was particularly noticeable, as well as anything that added flair to the element under discussion. So "cutting the mustard" would be the act of reducing this very strong condiment to make it more palatable, perhaps. Likewise, if a person is able to "cut the mustard," he or she is capable of reducing the task to something manageable (and one "too old to cut the mustard" no longer has that potential). As we have seen in the past, the use and reuse of a term often results in the phrase being changed or, in this case, shortened, and it is supposed that "cut it" is simply a slang form of the older slang, reduced perhaps because of a lack of understanding about the original term, or just to save time (Quinion, pp. 93-95).

Continuing with the idea of these food terms being applicable to the working man and woman, it is sometimes advisable to do whatever is in one's power to keep employed, up to and including "currying favor" with the boss. I have eaten curry in various strengths and can see that if one used this spice to try to soften the employer's attitude, it would probably result in the loss of one's job! Back to the etymology books. It seems that the phrase "to curry a chestnut horse" (with "curry" here having nothing to do with food after all) is the modern translation of the French estriller fauvel, or, in English, "curry favel." We can see how this became "curry favor" and so, over time, became the synonym for becoming subservient (making the correlation to the person currying a horse being, at least for that time, the servant of the animal) (Holt, p. 70). The root term for the word "curry," as used in cooking, is completely different from the one used in the equine world. The original term for the curry in the kitchen cabinet is carriel or kari (from the Portuguese or Indian, respectively). The latter's word is from correier (and other variations thereof), which means "to put in order"; and favel or fauvel, refers to the "fallow-colored horse," which was the term used in Medieval times as being symbolic of fraud or deceit (Barnhart, p. 244). This would mean that the one who is "currying favor" is trying to manipulate one who is not really respected due to the presumption that he/she is dishonest or otherwise disreputable.

A good employee must also be able to take much of what he endures "with a grain of salt." Here we have another seasoning that is being used to refer to behavior. The meaning, of course, is to apply skepticism to the receipt of a story or piece of information one receives. The Latin form for this phrase is cum grano salis, which may or may not relate to the tendency to use salt as an additive to a poison antidote (if taken with a grain of salt, the antidote would be effective). This form dates to A.D. 77, but may be just too "perfect" to be accurate. In its present form (English), the phrase dates back only to 1647 when the meaning was to apply a little salt to a bland dish in order to make it more palatable (Morris, pp. 89-90). So if we take that order from the boss with a grain of salt ("salt" coming from the same root word as "salary" as it was the commodity with which Roman soldiers were paid [Henrickson, p. 590]), we may be more inclined to get it accomplished; if we take the rumor going around the office about the boss getting fired, also with a grain of salt, we may be less inclined to believe it until it happens.

As I mentioned earlier, many of our commonly used phrases have their origins in the writings of well-known authors. Such is the case with the next term: "salad days," which was coined by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra. As a synonym for inexperienced and "green in judgement, cold in blood," one's "salad days" refers to the period in our lives when we naively act (in Cleopatra's case, as a lover to Caesar, as opposed to her more mature behavior with Mark Antony) (Hendrickson, p. 589). The young, inexperienced employee often finds himself back in the unemployment line when he acts without thinking, believing that he is invincible – the salad days of our youth might hold a lot of memories, but not enough maturity to keep us from becoming our own worst enemies.

So there it is, from soup to nuts, the meanings behind some of the foods we not only eat, but also use to explain our behaviors. (FYI, "from soup to nuts" is a phrase that simply means from the beginning – the first course, soup – to the end – the last course, fruits and nuts [Morris, pp. 187-188].) Many of our ancestors ate the same foods we do today, so it stands to reason that the phrases they used, applying alternate references to food items, might also still be in the vernacular of 21st Century Americans. So whether you are the one who is the breadwinner in your family, bringing home the bacon (as genealogists, that would be the reward of finding the elusive relative?), or not, your own genealogy quest likely involves a certain amount of bread to acquire certain records. Assuming your salad days are behind you, you are probably more effective in cutting the mustard, knowing where to look to find those long-lost relatives. Sometimes it may be necessary to curry the favor of a librarian or archivist, but the unrelenting family historian is hard-boiled and takes the intergenerational legends with a grain of salt, until proof (one way or another) is found. We want our genealogies to ring true from beginning to end (or from soup to nuts). And while we may, indeed, find some of those nuts in our family trees, we continue the roots pursuits with diligence and integrity.


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

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.

Quinion, Michael. Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins. New York: Collins, 2004.

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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