The Origins of 10 Food Phrases

What’s really going on when the big cheese at your office is dangling a red herring? Find out the origins of these familiar foodie phrases.
The origin of ‘a piece of cake’ comes from actual cake.
The origin of ‘a piece of cake’ comes from actual cake. / white smith/500px/Getty Images

If you like a little etymology with your Sunday brunch, browse this buffet of food-related idioms.

1. Apple of My Eye

Way back when, people believed that the eye’s pupil was a solid object and referred to it as an apple. Shakespeare used the phrase in this sense in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, writing: “Flower of this purple dye,/Hit with Cupid’s archery,/Sink in apple of his eye!”

Eventually, the phrase took on the figurative meaning we know today: someone who is the apple of your eye is as precious as the organ or your ability to see.

The first use of the idiom in Old English is attributed to King Aelfred of Wessex in “Gregory’s Pastoral Care” in the year 885, and its first usage in Modern English is in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (1816).

Our modern word pupil, what was once the apple, has its own figurative meaning. It comes from the Latin original pupilla, a diminutive form of pupus (“boy”) or pupa (“girl”) and was applied to the dark center of the eye because of the tiny image of oneself that one sees while looking into another person’s eye.

2. Big Cheese

In 19th-century England, the cheese didn’t have to be big, and the cheese was synonymous with being a big deal or being of high quality.

When the idiom crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century, the cheese got big, possibly in reference to the literal big cheeses produced in the U.S. for display and consumption. The first American reference to big cheese meaning wealth or fame comes from O. Henry’s Unprofessional Servant (1910).

Why did the English think cheese should be associated with important people? It may have nothing to do with dairy products. Possibly, it was coined when someone misheard the Hindi word chiz, meaning “a thing.” British colonizers might have picked up the term in India and adopted what they thought they had heard.

3. Red Herring

There is no species of fish known as a red herring, and the term refers to a kipper (a cold-smoked herring) that’s taken on a pungent smell and red color during preservation. The term in its literal sense can be traced to the late Middle Ages. The idiomatic sense of the term was thought to have originated with a technique of training young scent hounds where the fish would first be dragged along a trail until a dog learned to follow the scent and then later used to distract the animal while it was trained to follow another scent. Another, similar origin states that escaping convicts used odorous fish to throw pursuing hounds off their trail. The first explanation has some historical references to back it up, while the second is seems to be a largely undocumented phenomenon.

More recent research by etymologist Michael Quinion suggests the origin of the idiom comes from journalist William Cobbett, who wrote in an 1807 opinion piece how he had used a red herring as a decoy to confuse hounds chasing after a rabbit. Cobbett’s story was a metaphor for the editorial’s target: the English press that had allowed itself to be misled by bad information about Napoleon’s supposed defeat. “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone,” Cobbett wrote. According to Quinion, that story and Cobbett’s extended use of the term in the press was enough to fix this the figurative sense of red herring, and its false origin as a practice of huntsmen, in the public imagination.

Whether the idiom arose among hunters and rural populations or was spread by Cobbett’s articles, the figurative usage of the phrase was established in England by the early 1800s and made its way to the U.S. by 1860s.

4. Sowing Your Wild Oats

Wild oats
Wild oats. / Marina Cavusoglu/Moment/Getty Images

Avena fatua, a species of grass in the oat genus, has been called “wild oats” by the English for centuries. Though it’s thought to be the precursor of cultivated oats, farmers have long hated it because it is useless as a cereal crop and hard to separate from cultivated oats and remove from fields. Literally sowing wild oats, then, is a useless endeavor, and the phrase is figuratively applied to people engaging idle pastimes. There’s also a sexual connotation in that a young man sowing his wild oats is spreading seed without purpose.

The saying is first recorded in English in 1542 by Protestant clergyman Thomas Becon.

5. Bring Home the Bacon

The origin of “bringing home the bacon” is uncertain. It might come from an old English custom, or from the world of boxing.

One possibility is the tradition of the Dunmow Flitch, which began in Great Dunmow, Essex, in 1104 when a local couple so impressed the prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion that he awarded them a flitch (a side) of bacon. The ritual is well documented and continues today with couples publicly showing their devotion, winning the prize and bringing home the bacon.

The other possible origin is the fight between Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson for the world lightweight championship in 1906. The New York Post-Standard’s coverage of the fight noted that, before the fight, Gans received a telegram from his mother that read, “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.” The “bacon” is presumably a reference either to the prize money or to Gans’s body, the implication being that he walk away from the fight unharmed. Gans won the fight, and The New York Times reported that he replied to his mother via telegram that he “had not only the bacon, but the gravy.”

Most etymology sources list no written record of the phrase being used before September 1906, when the fight was held, but do note an explosion of usage in boxing-related material soon after. It’s uncertain whether the idiom was coined by Mrs. Gans (if it was, where did she get the inspiration?), or if she was repeating a phrase already in use, but there’s no doubt that her use of it in that telegram helped popularize it.

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6. A Piece of Cake

One of the earliest appearances of a piece of cake is in Ogden Nash’s Primrose Path (1936), and the phrase seems to have descended from the earlier cakewalk. This second term originates with a 19th-century Black tradition in which people at social gatherings would walk in a procession around a cake; the most graceful pair would win the cake as a prize (this may also be the origin of takes the cake). Although the cakewalk contest demanded some skill and grace, the phrase was eventually adopted as boxing slang meaning an easily-won fight.

7. Take It with a Grain of Salt

Salt being shaken over french fries.
Many grains of salt. / Peter Dazeley/The Images Bank/Getty Images

This phrase, in use in English since the 17th century, originates in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia:

“After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

The figurative application of a grain of salt to information received allows one to take it less seriously, just as the poisons that Mithridates might have encountered could be disregarded because of his antidote.

An alternative origin sometimes given, though with less historical proof, is that a Roman general built up his immunity to various poisons by ingesting small amounts of them. To make the poisons more palatable, he swallowed them with a single grain of salt. In this version, a figurative grain of salt helps one stomach information that might be useless, if not harmful.

8. Born with a Silver Spoon in One’s Mouth

The spoon in question is the apostle spoon, or christening spoon, which is given to babies at their baptism by their godparents (this tradition has been practiced in Europe since the early 17th century and in the U.S. since the early 18th). The spoons often functioned as a status symbol and sign of the family’s wealth, with rich godparents traditionally giving the infant 12 spoons, one for each apostle, and often made of silver. Godparents who were not as well-off gave four spoons, one for each of the four Gospel writers, and godparents who couldn’t afford multiple spoons or silver usually just gave one spoon made of a non-precious metal. While the tradition of the apostle spoons is still practiced in some Roman Catholic families both in Europe and the U.S., the figurative silver spoon has taken on the negative connotation that a person got their wealth through inheritance rather than not hard work.

9. Selling Like Hotcakes

The word hotcake dates back to the late 17th century and pancake first appeared in England around 1400. This phrase, with the figurative meaning “to be in great demand,” didn’t appear until around 1840—and there’s no evidence of a great hotcake demand that might have led to its creation. Instead, etymologists are left to assume that since hotcakes have always been popular at events like county fairs and church socials, where the crowd greatly outnumbers the culinary staff and the cakes often sell as fast as they can be made, the term was coined and spread through popular usage.

An alternate explanation is that in Britain, Canada and Australia, pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar, because it is an occasion for using up all the butter, sugar, and other ingredients that people plan to deny themselves during Lent. In anticipation of 40 days of ritual fasting, the pancakes are gobbled down quickly and effortlessly, even if they’re not literally being sold.

10. Egg Someone On

This phrase has nothing to do with eggs. Surprisingly, the egg here is simply a verb meaning “to goad on/incite,” derived from the Old Norse eggja. This derivation first appears in English circa 1200 and the phrase is recorded by the mid-16th century. The unrelated verb form of egg meaning to pelt with (rotten) eggs first appears in 1857.

A version of this story was published in 2010; it has been updated for 2024.