The Curious Origins of 9 Delicious Phrases

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1. 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. A few platters of nothing but shoulder were supposed to drive away even the most persistent of guests.

2. Humble Pie
In the 13th Century, British families tended to divvy up food after a hunt by giving priority (and the best portions of meat) to the man who shot the stag, his eldest son and his closest male friends. Those of lesser importance, like the man's wife, his remaining children and the family of his friends for example, were graciously gifted the umbles (a.k.a. the heart, the brain, the tongue, the kidneys and the entrails). Coating these scraps in seasoning and then baking them into a piecrust made the umbles a little more appetizing, but not much, apparently. Years after the delicacy was discontinued, some punster added an "h" to the phrase, and "to eat humble pie" became synonymous with an embarrassing drop in social status, then generalized as any sort of humiliation.

3. Take the cake

Lifted from Southern black lingo, the phrase originated at cakewalk contests, where individuals would strut their stuff to the audience's delight. The owner of the most imaginative swagger would take home first prize, which was always a cake. While "take the cake" became standard English, some of the fancier cakewalk motions became standard parts of tap dance.

4. Bringin' home the bacon
baconmints.jpgWhat today means coming home with a wad of cash used to be a bit more literal. In the 12th Century, the Dunmow church in Essex County, Britain, began awarding salted and cured bacon strips to newly married couples if they could swear after one year of marriage that they had never once regretted the decision. Standards got a little stiffer in the 16th Century, however, 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."

"Eating crow", "Gone to pot" and much more, all covered after the jump...

5. Gone to pot
Pot_on_Stove.gifThe common phrase for something that's fallen apart or disintegrated goes back to the 16th Century, basically in reference to things that were actually going into the pot. While the chopping and stewing of meats and vegetables definitely illustrates its colloquial usage, "gone to pot" evolved into a 17th-Century euphemism for those who'd fallen victim to cannibals.
6. To eat crow
This saying, which means to humiliate oneself, has a pretty amusing legend behind it. During a truce in the war of 1812, a New Englander ventured over to the British camp to do some hunting. Frustrated by the lack of wild game, he decided to shoot the first thing he saw—a crow, which he nailed. A British officer, hearing the gunshot, decided to punish the American for trespassing, but since he was unarmed he used a bit of cunning. The Brit complimented the American on his aim and then asked to see the fine weapon with which the damage was done. The unsuspecting Yank handed over the weapon, after which the British officer turned it on the American, berated him and ordered him to eat a bite of the crow he'd killed. After a bit of useless begging, the American complied. The officer then gave the gun back and told the American to go home. But before the Brit could leave, the bitter Yank quickly turned the gun on the officer and forced him to eat the rest of the bird.

The tale would have gone unknown, except that the infuriated British officer went the next day to the American camp, demanding retribution. After hearing the tale, the U.S. commanding officer had the soldier brought to him and asked him if he'd seen this Englishmen before. After several attempts to respond, the soldier managed to stutter, "W-why y-y-yes, Captain, I d-d-dined with him y-y-yesterday."
7. A real ham
The common term for someone guilty of overacting is abbreviated from the slightly longer, and 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 before they put their make-up on. The fat was a viable substitute as it made removing makeup after a gig a whole lot easier. Consequently, the facial application became permanently connected to the actors who wore it.

8. Pleased as punch
punch-bowl.jpg 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.
9. A Bakers' Dozen
Bakers of old weren't exactly the most ethical creatures. In fact, it was pretty well known that bakers used to dupe customers regularly by making loaves of bread that contained more air pockets than solid material. By 1266, Parliament was fed up (or not fed up, as it were) with their airy substitutes, so they enacted a law where bread had to be sold by weight. Most bakers didn't have the proper weighing equipment, but the penalties were pretty extreme. Bakers quickly decided that forking over an extra loaf for every dozen was an easy way to avoid a sentence: hence the number 13.

--note: This article was lifted from mental_floss' Saints and Sinners Issue. Be sure to check out our online store to purchase this or other back issues.

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October 3, 2007 - 6:13am
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