An old Italian saying encourages us to speak the way we eat. The fifteen gastronomic fun facts below show that we do; copiously. Our everyday speech is jammed with food-related words and expressions, some of which are savourily obvious, while others have to be long digested before identifying the culinary kernel. A possible explanation is that we use food as a vehicle for metaphor because it offers basic sustenance, and the mind can be as hungry as the stomach. If this tastes like brain candy, satiate your intellectual hunger by discovering that even terms which seem easy as pie can turn into a meaty topic once you chew on their story a bit. Without trying to spoon-feed you, this month we invite our avid readers to take a tasty trip among the world’s languages and their flavourful idioms, and learn what salary actually means, the origin of toasting, what one literally does when being sarcastic, or how various cultures reduce having it all to food. Here are our fifteen appetizing pieces of food for thought:
1. Food is known to fuel relationships, and etymology serves as evidence: a companion was first a person one broke bread with (from Latin com ‘together with’ and panis ‘bread’), nourishing generosity and friendship, and only then he/she became a person with whom one shares experiences.
2. Two other common English words, lord and lady, are defined by bread, or more specifically by hlāf, the Old English form of today’s loaf. Their original forms, hlāfweard and hlǣfdīge, literally meant ‘loaf keeper’ and ‘loaf-kneader’, respectively.
3. “Why should you never fall in love with a tennis player?” “To them, love means nothing.” Among the many theories explaining the use of love to mean ‘nil’ in tennis, there is a gastronomic version: the French, who invented the sport, would have called this oval-shaped score l’oeuf (‘the egg’), which the English mistook for the similar-sounding love.
4. You may think you have never eaten donkey, but if you enjoy Mexican food, you probably have: the famous burrito actually means ‘little donkey’ in Spanish. The name of the dish may be derived from its resemblance with packs and bedrolls carried by donkeys.
5. The delicious tiramisu is appealing in its name as well: in Italian, it literally means ‘pick me up’, or ‘lift me up’, presumably due to the refreshing capacities of the dessert which, surprisingly, was invented as late as the 1960s.
6. Have you ever wondered why toast can be eaten as well as drunk? The habit of drinking a toast appears to originate in the 17th century, when the company was usually invited to drink to the health of a beautiful lady. Her name was said to flavour the drink like the pieces of spiced toast that were placed in drinks at the time.
7. You need not take it with a pinch: our monthly salary is basically salt money. It derives from Latin salarium, which originally designated a Roman soldier’s allowance for buying salt (sal in Latin), an indispensable meat preservative at the time.
8. You never know who is hiding behind a culinary treat: puttanesca, the name of a well-known pasta sauce, is derived from puttana, ‘prostitute’ in Italian. According to one legend, it was invented by prostitutes as a dressing that could be prepared swiftly between clients’ visits.
9. Known for their exquisite taste, the French will refer to a highly toned abdomen (a six-pack for the English) as tablettes de chocolat, literally ‘chocolate bars’. Yummy!
10. Vegetarians, beware of sarcasm! It contains meat. Specifically, it is derived from Late Greek sarkazein, literally ‘to tear flesh’, used to signify ‘gnash the teeth, speak bitterly’. The word for ‘flesh’, sarx, also hides in sarcophagus, literally ‘flesh-eating’, as ancient Greeks believed that the stone sarcophagi were made of consumed the flesh. Biting words indeed!
11. We all eat it nowadays, but few know it has a name: al desko humorously denotes food eaten ‘while working at one’s desk in an office’. Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, it is a play on al fresco (literally ‘in the fresh (air)’ in Italian), used for food eaten outside.
12. Onion has inspired many idioms in Yiddish: insults include “onions should grow from your navel” and “he should grow like an onion with his head in the ground” meaning ‘take a hike’. To such offences, a false person will spill “onion tears”.
13. In German, processed meat is an idiomatic cornerstone. Germans “live like a maggot in bacon” when their life is singularly pleasant and “fry a bologna sausage” when they give special treatment, but when they sulk they “play the insulted liver sausage”. Even dieting translates as “de-baconing”.
14. Having it all (or rather the impossibility of this blissful state) seems to be related to food in many cultures: in English, you cannot have your cake and eat it too, in Hindi you cannot have mangoes and sell the seeds, whereas in French one cannot have both the butter and the butter money. Romanians have two unachievable options: either have flour in the attic and sacks in the waggon, or have bacon in the attic and greasy lips.
15. Another prolific source of inspiration for idioms in world culture is cheese. Intrusive Germans “stick their nose in every sour curd cheese”. Spaniards who “give it to somebody with cheese” are deceiving or making fun of them. A Romanian who is wasting his/her qualities is “good cheese in a dog’s stomach”. For Italians, something perfect is “the cheese on pasta”.
- Bhala, Jag (2009). I’m not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World. National Geographic.