Friday, February 19, 2016

Edible idioms

Edible idioms

Here’s a brief collection of English idioms based on foods.

You don’t know beans!
This idiom seems to have shown up in the 1850s. Linguists pose two differing arguments for its source. One school suggests that because beans are both small & a basic food source, to not know beans is to not understand the simple basics of life. The second school cites a rural American riddle: How many blue beans does it take to make seven white beans? The answer is, (for those of you who don’t know beans) seven. To make blue beans white you simply peel off the skin. Apparently this was seen as common knowledge. Anyone who couldn’t answer the riddle didn’t know beans.

This is a tricky one because though it appears to a food-based-idiom, it isn’t.
It comes from the steamy kitchens of the American frontier. Those who did the laundry typically used lye soap (which wasn’t as effective as it might have been). When the clothes got too dingy, launderers of the day boiled them for an extended time with starch. Pieces of clothing that had received this treatment tended to be uncomfortably stiff, & were referred to as hard-boiled. At some point the term morphed to describe a person who was likely wearing over-starched clothing & shared that clothing’s characteristics of being unyielding and emotionless.

Fishing for information
This idiom was introduced by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales. Historians tell us Chaucer was quite the fisherman (in the literal sense). The intimate nature of Canterbury Tales shows us he was apparently also gifted at fishing for information.

In 1934, Time magazine appears to have coined this idiom, & defined it to mean, “leg-pictures of sporty females.” Like many idioms, this one reflects its times. The “sporty females” photographed in Time magazine all had skin the color of cheesecake. Modern cheesecake shots do not discriminate in terms of skin color & generally involve exposure of more than the legs.

If it takes a little digging to see racist attitudes or flat-out racism reflected in the birth of the idiom cheesecake, seeing racism in the origins of the idiom ham takes no digging at all. The minstrel shows of the 1800s that often featured white actors in “black face” are responsible. Often, the makeup was removed by use of ham fat. It seems the use of ham fat in concert with the horrible acting associated with many of these thespians gave birth to the idiom.

Nothing like a food-based idiom, eh? I’m hoping you’ll have something to say about it all in the comments section.


  1. Wow! I sure didn't know beans about any of these idioms! I'm surprised I'd never heard where the word "ham" came from, since I was in the theater for many years. But it makes sense that before the days of petroleum-based cold cream, lard would have made the best make-up remover. And I've read a lot of "hard-boiled" detective stories, but I didn't have a clue that the idiom came from boiled, starchy laundry!

    Thanks again for all the wisdom, Mr. Monger!

    1. Hi Anne & thanks again,
      I'd heard something about "knowing beans" before" but the others took me by surprise, too.

  2. Although it sounds like food, to egg somebody on doesn't mean throwing eggs at them:
    (This is from Lee Sutter of Los Osos, but couldn't figure out how to comment as such)

    1. Hello Lee - thanks for comings by & throwing some eggs into the mix. Please accept my apologies for the misbehavior of the digital elves.