Delicious Phrases

Curious origins of our tasty language

| March / April 2003

The Cold Shoulder
Believe it or not, there was a time when giving someone the cold shoulder didn?t just mean publicly snubbing them; it actually meant handing them a cold shoulder, as in a cold shoulder of beef. During the Middle Ages, the easiest way to hint to guests that they?d overstayed their welcome was to serve them a heaping mound of cold cow parts.

Humble Pie
In the 13th century, British families tended to divvy up food after a hunt by giving the best portions of meat to the man who shot the stag, his eldest son, and his closest male friends. Those of lesser importance (the man?s wife and his remaining children, for example) were graciously offered the umbles?organs like the heart, the brain, the kidneys, and the entrails. Years later, some punster added an ?h? to the phrase, and ?to eat humble pie? became synonymous with any sort of humiliation.

Bring Home the Bacon
What today means coming home with a paycheck used to be a bit more literal. In the 12th century, the Dunmow Church in Essex County, Britain, began awarding cured bacon strips to newly married couples if they could swear after one year of marriage they had never once regretted the decision. Standards got a little stiffer in the 16th century when the church turned the event into a competition: Couples had to appear before a jury of six bachelors and bachelorettes and plead the magnitude of their happiness in order to ?bring home the bacon.?

The common term for someone guilty of overacting is abbreviated from the slightly longer, slightly more offensive ?hamfatter.? Low-grade minstrel actors often didn?t have the cash to spring for cold cream, so they resorted to applying ham fat to their faces to help remove their stage makeup. The facial application soon became permanently connected to the actors who wore it.

To Stew in One?s Own Juices
Meaning to suffer the consequences of your own actions, the phrase goes back to the 13th century when ?stewing in your own juices? was a euphemism for being burned at the stake.

Pleased as Punch
Believe it or not, the punch in the phrase doesn?t refer to a tasty beverage, but instead to the main character in the old-time Punch and Judy puppet shows. A staple at European carnivals, the ?Punch and Judy? show was madly popular in the days before TV. The humorous puppet act always ended in a pleased Punch outwitting his shrewish wife, hence the phrase.