Inevitably, I return to the topic of food. This week, it's food words that migrate to mean other things.
Bread has brought us a basketful of words and phrases.
Have you ever been caught loafing? Were you wearing loafers? That poor loaf of bread goes through life having nouns associated with it such as idler, do-nothing, layabout.
Loaf could have been a back formation from loafer. So perhaps bread wasn't the target in that set of lazy terms. And yet, what exactly does a loaf of bread really do with its day?
When you are likely to get into huge trouble for something you've done wrong, you could be toast. Or you can heat up bread and have toast with breakfast.
Bread and dough, of course, are slang for money.
Bear with me in this strange foray. Bread is slang for money. The American Heritage Dictionary says lettuce is slang for money (I don't think I've ever heard that, though). I will discuss pork words more later, but for now I'll say that to bring home the bacon is to earn a salary. The Free Dictionary theorizes on the origin: "The phrase may originate from the fairground contest in which participants try to catch a greased pig ... to win it." (Forget that. I'm sticking with direct deposit.)
Anyway, suppose three people are sharing an apartment. One could bring home the bacon, one could bring home bread, and one could bring home lettuce. Throw in a tomato and mayo, and it's metaphorical BLTs all around.
Some people cut the crust off their bread. Crustless bread makes me think of watercress sandwiches as a part of a delightful British high tea. I think some parents cut the crust off their kids' sandwiches. But I learned that the crust somehow has more nutrients than the interior. So I'll keep eating the crust.
I'm not sure how we got the phrase "you've got a lot of crust," but it's the same as saying, "You have a lot of nerve."
Onward. I thought I knew the origin of upper crust. The phrase is used to describe society's elite. I originally learned that these elite people were fed the upper crust of a bread loaf because it was farthest from the bottom of the bread, which might be a little burnt. That bottom part was left for the flunkies, who might be said to bear the brunt of the burnt bread.
But The Phrase Finder site says this origin story is twaddle.
APPLE OF MY EYE
I don't know about you, but I think an apple in my eye would be incredibly distracting. Even a tiny apple would be way, way more annoying than an eyelash in my eye.
And yet, my grandniece could easily be the apple of my eye, meaning I simply adore her.
Why isn't the phrase raisin of my eye? Ocularly, it would fit better.
My favorite plums are the sweet green ones I ate in England, called greengages. (They were named, by the way, for British botanist Sir William Gage.)
As delicious as plums can be, how did they come to describe a desirable job or project?
The Dictionary of American Slang says it might have evolved in the early 19th century because of Little Jack Horner. He went rooting around for plums in his pies. But, still, is that related to a desirable job?
The Phrase Finder had a far better explanation.
"Plum in the 17th century was slang for £1000, a very large sum indeed in those times. This use was then applied to some political jobs. ... From there the word entered wider use for an easy, choice job."
Plum can also mean very or extremely. I guess I've heard someone on a TV show say, "I'm plum tuckered out." Or, "you're plum crazy."
The American Heritage Dictionary says this use of plum can also be spelled plumb.
A mincemeat pie is an ultra-sweet, usually potent, apple and raisin, spicy, slightly citrusy concoction baked in a pie crust. In a weird and horrifying twist, it sometimes also contains beef suet. What is this suet? Merriam-Webster says it's the hard fat about the kidneys and loins in beef and mutton that yields tallow.
OK, I'm out on this one.
In Britain, mincemeat is also similar to what we call ground meat.
In the vicious land of slang, one would make mincemeat out of an opponent, meaning the other person would be destroyed, though usually only verbally. Alas, I'm reminded of the scene from "Fargo" in which a person is dropped into a wood chipper. The results are not good.
This is a horrible transition, but I do love a good stew. Meat, potatoes, carrots and more provide the perfect comfort food.
You could cook it slowly, sometimes to tenderize tough meat. I presume this is how the verb to stew came about.
To stew is to become anxious or agitated over something. Maybe an in-law made a comment that you later realized was subtle but mean. Or maybe you think of a great comeback two hours later and stew over the fact that you couldn't think of it earlier.
Stew is also an old-fashioned term meaning brothel. I'm not even going to stew over that.
LAY AN EGG
Chickens and other birds lay eggs. Such events are normally celebrated.
"Hooray, fresh eggs for breakfast."
"Oh, soon we'll see baby birds in the nest."
But when a person lays an egg, it's not so great.
To lay an egg is an unusual phrase to have moved outside the world of fowl.
A person who does a poor job of something, such as making a speech, is said to lay an egg.
But I've never heard anyone say to a person who just made a fantastic speech, "You didn't lay an egg!"
The term doesn't come from cracking under pressure, getting poached or scrambled, or being rotten. Lay an egg likely comes from the baffling game of cricket. If a person doesn't score, a big zero is posted on the scoreboard. That zero looks like an egg.
I haven't had my fill. I'll be back next week with more food words.
Sources include Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage Dictionary, Columbia Journalism Review, The Free Dictionary, The Phrase Finder, Care Spot. Reach Bernadette at