The importance of food in language development
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of food on the development of modern languages.
The word for the cereal we eat in the morning is derived from Ceres – the Greek goddess of agriculture – while dinner originates from ‘disner’ in Old French, which in turn stems from the Gallo-Romance ‘desjunare’, meaning ‘to break one’s fast’.
Food has also infiltrated many aspects of modern communication, with a multitude of common phrases and sayings derived from foods.
Even the word ‘food’ itself can be used to describe something that provides mental nourishment or stimulus – ‘food for thought’.
Here are three of the most common examples of foods used in English.
Salt is a term of praise if a man is considered ‘worth his salt’ or is judged to be ‘the salt of the earth’.
In medieval times, an inferior guest at a banquet, seated at the bottom end of the table, was described as being ‘below the salt’.
Today, a person’s salary is based on the Latin word ‘salarium’, which comes from the allowance given to a Roman soldier to buy his salt.
Egg derives from the Old Norse word ‘eggja’ – and there are many modern phrases that relate to eggs.
You can ‘egg someone on’, for instance, or get ‘egg on your face’ when embarrassed by something you have done.
‘A good egg’ refers to a person who is good to the core, while ‘a bad egg’ refers to someone who may appear normal, but who is no good on the inside. The latter stems from cracking an egg open only to find out is has gone off.
A secondary meaning of cheese comes from the Persian Anglophile phrase ‘the chiz’, meaning a thing that is good.
The word itself has been used as a noun to describe something wealthy or top-rate since the turn of the 19th century, possibly due to the custom of American retailers to display overlarge wheels of cheese as a publicity stunt.
‘The big cheese’ refers to the best of the best, while the word cheese is also used frequently when talking about money and wealth. ‘He’s got a lot of cheese’, is a good example, as is ‘I need to make some cheese’.
Cheddar, as in the type of cheese, is often used in the same way. Fans of Hip Hop and rap music will be familiar with this.
Uncover the hidden meaning
Upon hearing food phrases in everyday conversation, you could be mistaken for thinking they are a load of nonsense. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is always a hidden meaning behind food phrases.
Here are some other favourite food phrases in use today and the meaning behind them.
‘It’s all gravy’ (It’s all good)
‘Cool as a cucumber’ (Super, totally cool)
‘Chew the fat’ (To engage in frivolous conversation)
‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles / Don’t cry over spilt milk’ (Stuff happens)
‘Piece of cake’ (Easy)
‘Butter someone/something up’ (To flatter)
‘Spill the beans’ (Give away a secret)
‘Use your noodle’ (Use your brain)
‘Go bananas’ (Go crazy)
‘Bring home the bacon’ (Earn money)
‘A bun in the oven’ (Pregnant)
‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ (Reality check)
‘The best thing since sliced bread’ (It’s a big deal)
Food is a global language
But food phrases are not just found in English. Most languages around the world use food to convey meaning.
No country is the same, however, as a culture’s preoccupations traditionally have a big influence of the way language is used.
In France, for example, the passion for eating and discussing food has flavoured French in a number of tasty and unusual ways, with some expressions entirely unique to different regions or generations.
Here are some of the best examples in French today.
‘Appuyez sur le champignon!’ meaning ‘press on the mushroom!’ (Step on the gas!)
‘Avoir la banane’ meaning ‘having a banana’ (To have a big smile)
‘C’est pas la fin des haricots’ meaning ‘it’s not the end of the string beans’ (It’s not the end of the world)
‘Va te faire cuire un oeuf’ meaning ‘go cook yourself an egg’ (Go to hell)
‘Il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout’ meaning ‘making a cheese out of it’ (Overly dramatic)
Italy, which is championed around the world for its fine cuisine and delicious dishes, is also home to some unique food phrases.
Below are some great examples in Italian.
‘Conosco i miei polli’ meaning ‘I know my chicken’ (I know what I’m talking about)
‘Sei come il prezzemolo’ meaning ‘you are like parsley’ (You pop up everywhere)
‘Non fare il salame’ meaning ‘don’t act like salami’ (Don’t be a ham, you idiot)
‘Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco’ meaning ‘not all donuts come out with a hole’ (Things don’t always turn out as expected)
‘Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca’ meaning ‘you can’t have a full wine barrel and a drunk wife’ (You can’t have your cake and eat it too)
Crossing the language barrier
There are also a number of instances where food phrases are used in more than one language to convey the same meaning.
Here are three of the most familiar phrases with cross-language implications.
La crème de la crème
‘La crème de la crème’ meaning ‘the cream of creams’ has found its way across the Channel from French to English.
The phrase refers to the best of the best or the elite. It also occasionally expressed as ‘the cream of the crop’.
What a pickle
‘What a pickle’, which is used to describe a tricky or difficult situation, is a food phrase that has made the switch from English to French.
In France it is ‘quel cornichon’ but carries exactly the same meaning. It is also sparingly used as an insult or a put-down.
Worth his salt
‘Worth his salt’ is a food phrase that has found its way into many languages around the world. It is most commonly used when referring to someone who is good or competent at their job or a specific task.
The phrase can often be heard in French (digne de ce nom), Italian (degno di questo nome) and Spanish (que se precie).
Food for thought
So it’s clear to see the impact that food has had on the development of modern languages around the world.
But language is constantly evolving and it will continue to do so – in terms of where we are at present, we are only on the starter.
The main course and dessert are still to come, and food, once again, will play an important role in this development, as people come up with fresh, innovative and unique ways of expressing themselves.