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Interesting Origins of 5 Food Idioms

Origins of Food Idioms

This week’s topic is about food idioms.

Idioms have become so common in everyday life that we often don’t realise when we use them! They can be especially difficult for people who are learning English as they usually have a completely different meaning to the actual words in the phrase. For example, the idiom ‘cold feet’ has nothing to do with your feet being cold!

So where did these idioms originate from? Below you will find the meanings, origins and examples of 5 common food idioms:

Spill the beansfood idioms, spill the beans

Meaning

To reveal secret information accidentally or maliciously, often ruining a surprise or other plan.

Origin

It is believed that this phrase originated in ancient Greece, where people cast secret votes by putting white or black beans in a jar (a white bean indicated a positive vote and a black bean was negative). If someone accidentally or deliberately knocked over the jar, the beans would pour out and the ‘secret’ would be revealed early, so they would have “spilled the beans”.

Examples

“We’ve arranged a surprise party for Sarah on Wednesday. Please don’t spill the beans.”

“Come on, spill the beans! What did you buy me for my birthday?”

A piece of cakea piece of cake

Meaning

Something which is very easy to do.

Origin

It is thought that this food idiom originated in the 1870s when it was tradition to give cakes as prizes in competitions. In some parts of the USA at this time, slaves would participate in ‘cake walks’ where couples would perform a dance mocking the mannerisms of their masters. The most graceful couple would receive a cake as a prize. From this, the expression ‘a piece of cake’ started being used to describe something that was easy to achieve.

Examples

“I’m sure the test next week will be a piece of cake for me. I’ve been studying for weeks!”

Jane: “Thank you so much for changing my tyre. I had no idea how to do it!”
Pete: “No problem. When you’ve been a mechanic for 30 years, changing a tyre is a piece of cake!”

Pear-shapeda pear

Meaning

When something goes wrong.

(You can also use pear-shaped to describe when something has the shape of a pear – e.g. a pear-shaped vase is wide at the bottom and narrow at the top and a pear-shaped woman has wide hips and narrow shoulders.)

Origin

The exact origin of this expression is unknown but many people believe that it originated in the late 1940s in Britain. Aircraft pilots in the RAF would practice flying in loops but it is very difficult to fly in a perfect circle. Therefore, loops which were not performed correctly were called “pear-shaped”.

Examples

“It looked like they were going to win the football match but in the last 10 minutes it all went pear-shaped.”

“He practiced the song every night for a month but when he got up on stage he got very nervous and it went pear-shaped unfortunately.”

Cool as a cucumbercucumber

Meaning

Extremely calm, relaxed and in control of your emotions.

Origin

This phrase may have originated from the fact that even in hot weather, the inside of cucumbers are approximately 20 degrees cooler than the outside air. Therefore, a person who stays cool, calm and relaxed in a difficult situation can be compared to a cucumber staying cool inside, even in hot weather!

Examples

“I know that Tom was really nervous before his bungee jump but he looked as cool as a cucumber.”

“I don’t understand how you can stay cool as a cucumber when you give presentations to more than 100 people. I get so nervous and I always mix up my words.”

Bite off more than you can chewa stressed man

Meaning

To try to do more than you are able to do or to try to do something that is too difficult for you.

Origin

There are two possible origins of this idiom; however, we know that it started being used in America in the late 1800s. Some people believe that it originated at the time when many people chewed tobacco. When they were offered tobacco, some people would take a big “bite” of the tobacco – much bigger than they could chew! Others believe that the phrase was created by people watching children stuffing their mouths full of food and not being able to swallow!

Examples

“They offered me the job but the work was so difficult! I definitely bit off more than I could chew.”

“Don’t bite off more than you can chew – you have so many things to do at the moment, why don’t you ask someone else to organise the party?”

Do you know any other food idioms?

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