Mental Floss

The Curious Origins of 9 Delicious Phrases

Mangesh Hattikudur
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1. The Cold Shoulder
Believe it or not, there was a time when giving someone the cold shoulder didn't just mean publicly snubbing them, it actually meant handing them a cold shoulder, as in a cold shoulder of beef. During the Middle Ages, the easiest way to hint to guests that they'd overstayed their welcome was to serve them a heaping mound of cold cow parts. A few platters of nothing but shoulder were supposed to drive away even the most persistent of guests.

2. Humble Pie
In the 13th Century, British families tended to divvy up food after a hunt by giving priority (and the best portions of meat) to the man who shot the stag, his eldest son and his closest male friends. Those of lesser importance, like the man's wife, his remaining children and the family of his friends for example, were graciously gifted the umbles (a.k.a. the heart, the brain, the tongue, the kidneys and the entrails). Coating these scraps in seasoning and then baking them into a piecrust made the umbles a little more appetizing, but not much, apparently. Years after the delicacy was discontinued, some punster added an "h" to the phrase, and "to eat humble pie" became synonymous with an embarrassing drop in social status, then generalized as any sort of humiliation.

3. Take the cake
Lifted from Southern black lingo, the phrase originated at cakewalk contests, where individuals would strut their stuff to the audience's delight. The owner of the most imaginative swagger would take home first prize, which was always a cake. While "take the cake" became standard English, some of the fancier cakewalk motions became standard parts of tap dance.

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"Eating crow", "Gone to pot" and much more, all covered after the jump...

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Pot_on_Stove.gif /

The tale would have gone unknown, except that the infuriated British officer went the next day to the American camp, demanding retribution. After hearing the tale, the U.S. commanding officer had the soldier brought to him and asked him if he'd seen this Englishmen before. After several attempts to respond, the soldier managed to stutter, "W-why y-y-yes, Captain, I d-d-dined with him y-y-yesterday."
7. A real ham
The common term for someone guilty of overacting is abbreviated from the slightly longer, and more offensive, hamfatter. Low-grade minstrel actors often didn't have the cash to spring for cold cream, so they resorted to applying ham fat to their faces before they put their make-up on. The fat was a viable substitute as it made removing makeup after a gig a whole lot easier. Consequently, the facial application became permanently connected to the actors who wore it.

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--note: This article was lifted from mental_floss' Saints and Sinners Issue. Be sure to check out our online store to purchase this or other back issues.

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