7 Surprising Places We Got Phrases About Food

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By Bonnie Mills, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today we’re going to talk about idioms that come from foods. We'll take a peek into history, traveling all the way back to ancient Rome. Some of these foods may be more appetizing than others: We cover everything from cake to liver.

1. Take it with a Grain of Salt.

Our first food idiom is to “take it with a grain of salt,” which means to accept something but to be somewhat skeptical of the information. [1] For example, if you're unsure about a relative's knowledge of the stock market, you might say, “I took his financial advice with a grain of salt.”

We all know that salt improves the taste of food, but perhaps you don't know that the expression “to take it with a grain of salt” originated with a recipe for an antidote to poison. [2] Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23 to 79 AD, [3] wrote an encyclopedic work titled Natural History in the year 77. He tells the story of a Roman general, Pompey, who encountered a ruler named Mithridates VI. [4] This king was famous for building up his immunity to poison, and Pliny reports on the king's recipe for his antidote.

The last line of this recipe read, “to be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt.” [2] Pliny probably didn't intend for readers to doubt this recipe; he likely meant that salt actually was added to the other ingredients. [2] When the expression "to take it with a grain of salt" came to be used, starting in the 17th century, [1] individuals at that time probably misunderstood what Pliny had written. [4] They thought that adding salt to something would make it easier to swallow.

2. In a Nutshell.

We also have Pliny to thank for our next food-related idiom: “in a nutshell.” This cliché means “in a few words” and has been used since the 1570s. [5] Just now, we learned that an old antidote to poison literally involved a grain of salt. Surprisingly, “in a nutshell” literally involves something tiny in a real nutshell. Well, maybe. In Natural History, Pliny writes that he had heard about a version of Homer's The Iliad being written in such small letters that the whole book could fit inside a nutshell.

This story seems unlikely because in Homer's day, writing was done with a stylus on clay tablets. [6] And, of course, The Iliad is a long book! Pliny's anecdote might have been forgotten except that someone named Philemon Holland translated Natural History into English in 1601. Holland noted, skeptically, that “The same writer maketh mention of one who could see to the distance of 135 miles.” [6] Nevertheless, the association between compactness and nutshells stuck, and Shakespeare uses language to that effect in Hamlet. [6] In a nutshell, when it comes to what Pliny wrote, it sounds as if we should take much of it with a grain of salt.

3. Use Your Noodle.

Our next idiom is “use your noodle,” which means, simply, “Think!” In this phrase, the word noodle refers to your head or brain, [7] and noodle has had this connotation since the mid-18th century. [8] If you think about it—but not during dinner—a pile of noodles does sort of look like a brain. Noodle may be related to the old word noddle, “originally meaning 'back of the head' in the 15th century.” [8] Another related word is noggin, which means a small cup or mug, or a person's head. [9] Interestingly, the word mug also means both a drinking vessel and a face. According to Dictionary.com, since 1708 mug has meant a person's face, perhaps because of “drinking mugs shaped like grotesque faces.” [10] In addition, the term mug shot has referred to a police photograph since 1887. [10]

“Use your noodle” used to be an insult: As The Christian Science Monitor stated, imagine “a simpleton wagging his head around while thinking with a wet, floppy noodle.” [11] That's not a very positive image. Nowadays, we're not usually being mean when we command someone to “use your noodle”; rather, we're using a colorful way to ask someone to concentrate.

4. Don't Cry over Spilled Milk.

Next on our list is “don't cry over spilled milk.” Or should that be spilt milk with an ilt at the end instead of illed? Both spellings are used, but spilt is more common in British English. [12] Whichever way you go, the idiom means “it doesn't do any good to be unhappy about something that has already happened or that can't be helped.” [13] It is an old proverb, an earlier form of which is “no weeping for shed milk.” [14]

An interesting explanation of the idiom's origin has to do with fairies. According to Examiner.com, “Some believe the phrase originated in European fairy lore because milk-loving fairies would drink up any spilled milk so none would go to waste.” [15] Whatever the exact origin of the meaning, you can celebrate the notion of thinking positively every February 11, which is National Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk Day. [14]

5. It's a Piece of Cake.

Our next expression is “it's a piece of cake.” This idiom, which means “something easily accomplished,” [16] has perhaps the most logical explanation. Cake is easy to eat because it's so yummy. Pie is, too, as in the related phrase as “easy as pie.” But there seems to be more to it than that. The Free Dictionary says it's a piece of cake “originated in the Royal Air Force in the late 1930s for an easy mission,” [16] but another explanation is rooted in the African-American community.

Apparently, in the 1870s, cakes were given as prizes in competitions, including contests where enslaved people “would participate in 'cake walks' where couples would perform a dance mocking the mannerisms of their [enslavers]. The most graceful couple would receive a cake as a prize.” [17] We also use the expressions “it's a cakewalk,” and “that takes the cake.” [18]

6. What am I? Chopped liver?

Now we move on to a food that some people find unappetizing: liver. When people are complaining about not receiving enough attention, you might hear them whine, “What am I, chopped liver?” or “What do I look like, chopped liver?” [19] Chopped liver is a common Jewish appetizer or side dish that, according to William Safire, is “not as important as chicken soup or gefilte fish,” [20] a fish traditionally eaten on Jewish holidays. [21] Safire also said the first person to use the phrase was Jimmy Durante, who said on his 1954 TV show, “Now that ain't chopped liver.” Hollywood A-listers Johnny Carson and Michael Douglas were later heard using the expression, and Jewish comedians used it “as a humorous metaphor for something or someone insignificant.” [20]

7. In the Limelight.

The final idiom we'll discuss today is “in the limelight,” which means “in the spotlight.” [22] It's time for a little confession, however. Although this phrase appears to involve limes, the lime in the phrase actually refers to limestone, a rock [23]. Oops! Nevertheless, this expression does have an interesting origin in the theater. In the 1820s, a man named Goldsworthy Gurney discovered the effect of “heating a piece of lime in a flame of burning oxygen and hydrogen” and 19th-century theaters used an application of this process to create bright light. [24] Actors who were the center of attention on stage were said to be in the limelight.

[1] The Phrase Finder. “Take with a grain of salt.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/take-with-a-grain-of-salt.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[2] Funk, Charles Earle. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, p. 172.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica. “Pliny the Elder.” http://www.britannica.com/biography/Pliny-the-Elder. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[4] World Wide Words. “Pinch of salt.” http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pin2.htm. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[5] Dictionary.com. “Nutshell.” http://www.dictionary.com/browse/in--a--nutshell. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[6] The Phrase Finder. “In a nutshell.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/in-a-nutshell.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[7] The Free Dictionary. “Use (one's) noodle.” http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Use+Your+Noodle. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[8] Wordwizard. “Use your noodle.” http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=6956. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[9] Dictionary.com. “Noggin.” http://www.dictionary.com/browse/noggin?s=t. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[10] Dictionary.com. “Mug.” http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mug. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[11] The Christian Science Monitor. “15 hidden meanings of popular food phrases.” http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Food/2013/0504/15-hidden-meanings-of-popular-food-phrases/Use-your-noodle. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[12] Merriam Webster. “Cry over spilled milk.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cry%20over%20spilled%20milk. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[13] Dictionary.com. “Don't cry over spilt milk.” http://www.dictionary.com/browse/don-t-cry-over-spilt-milk. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[14] National Day Calendar. “National Don't Cry over Spilled Milk Day.” http://www.nationaldaycalendar.com/national-dont-cry-over-spilled-milk-day-february-11/. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[15] Examiner.com. “Don't Cry over Spilled Milk.” http://www.examiner.com/article/don-t-cry-over-spilled-milk Accessed July 11, 2016.

[16] The Free Dictionary. “Piece of cake.” http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/piece+of+cake. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[17] Bloomsbury International. “A piece of cake.” http://www.bloomsbury-international.com/en/student-ezone/idiom-of-the-week/list-of-itioms/98-a-piece-of-cake.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[18] The Phrase Finder. “Piece of cake.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/piece-of-cake.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[19] Urban Dictionary. “Chopped liver.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chopped%20liver. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[20] The New York Times. “On Language; Enough Already! What Am I, Chopped Liver?” http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/25/magazine/on-language-enough-already-what-am-i-chopped-liver.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[21] Chabad.org. “What Is Gefilte Fish?” http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/622944/jewish/What-Is-Gefilte-Fish.htm. Accessed June 29, 2016.

[22] The Free Dictionary. “In the limelight.” http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/in+the+limelight. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[23] Today I Found Out. “The Origin of the Phrase 'In the limelight.'” http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/11/origin-phrase-limelight/. Accessed June 21, 2016.

[24] The Phrase Finder. “In the limelight.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/201400.html. Accessed June 21, 2016.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as "7 Surprising Places We Got Phrases About Food" Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the Author

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.