Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Eating your words

Have you ever had to avoid hot potatoes? Or have you finally found your gravy train? If that answer is a yes, then you must be the cream of the crop and will soon become big cheese and if the answer is a no, then I suggest that you use your noodle, chew the fat and ensure that you don’t jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

So have you been able to guess what we are going to talk about today? I am sure you must have done so by now. We are stepping into the world of idioms inspired from food. Food occupies a major portion of our lives and it is no surprise that there are so many idioms inspired by food.

Let us begin with the sweet example of the cake and see what some of the idioms using cake mean. The first one that comes to mind is a fairly common one. Can you venture a guess? Yes it is to ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’. This refers to having the best of both the worlds.

Interestingly the idiom is used with some variation in many languages all over the world. For example in Bulgarian the saying goes ‘both the wolf is full and the lamb is whole’. In German you have the idiom roughly translated into ‘please wash me but don’t get me wet’. Or look at what they say in Portuguese ‘to want the sun shine in the threshing field while it rains in the turnip field’. Closer to home a similar meaning saying in Tamil goes ‘desire to have the moustache and drink the porridge.’

With these examples you must have noticed how the food consumed in a certain part of the world influences the saying from there. Another cake idiom very commonly used is ‘the icing on the cake’. This means a situation or an opportunity that makes an already existing one more lucrative. Yet another one using cake is to ‘take the cake’. Taking the cake means to be the best or the worst of something.

A close relative of the cake, bread also finds use in various sayings. The one that has quickly marched into my head at this point is ‘breaking bread’ and here comes another close on its heels ‘bread and butter’. To ‘break bread’ usually refers to eating with someone but could also be used to point out to sharing of one’s possessions with someone. ‘Breaking the bread’ or more correctly ‘breaking of bread’ is a phrase that occurs around five times in Bible. It is a common Jewish expression from pre-Christian times where it refers to the act of breaking the bread at the beginning of the meal by the host or the head of the household.

‘Bread and butter’ refers to a person’s means of livelihood. Here is an interesting nugget for you. Do you know which state in the USA is referred to as the bread and butter state? The answer is Minnesota which is also called the land of 10,000 lakes and these waters along with the jungles and wilderness areas help harbour many grain and dairy products in the state leading to the nickname bread and butter state.

I guess that is enough food for thought for one column. I suggest that now you raid the library and cull out information regarding the few idioms mentioned at the beginning.

How about you think of some more idioms on your own and share them with me?

(This appeared as a column first in The New Indian Express on Mar 1, 2013)

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