Pass It On

Tidbits and treats from the Sunnyvale Public Library Reference Division

The Language of Food December 21, 2009

Filed under: cooking,History,Holidays,research,Uncategorized — svref @ 4:53 pm

Holiday eating season is upon us, and with it, the strange language of food. Many people were “talking turkey” on Thanksgiving. Perhaps someone is threatening to “cook your  goose” for another holiday meal.  Whatever is on your menu, here’s a quick primer on some of the  food-related phrases that flavor our conversations  at the dinner table and beyond.

Let’s talk turkey.” Some sources attribute this expression, meaning “let’s get down to business,” to a story about a Pilgrim and a Native American  dividing up the spoils from a hunt. But according to Common Phrases and Where They Come From, by Myron Korach, the phrase more likely originated with modern day turkey hunters. Those who most successfully imitated turkey calls,  attracting the birds to shooting distance, were getting down to business by “talking turkey.”

Gravy train.” The term was born in the 1920s, when railroad workers dubbed easy runs that paid well “gravy trains.”  As an expression, gravy refers to an extra benefit that comes without much extra work. (Why You Say It, by Webb Garrison.).

To cook [someone’s] goose” means to ruin someone’s plans. Sources do not agree on the origin of this phrase.  Here are some theories:

  • A goose that is being fattened for a special occasion is killed and eaten early — leaving no goose for the feast. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)
  • Eating the goose that lays the golden eggs — meaning no more gold eggs! Not a very good trade off. (Why You Say It)
  • Sixteenth century villagers, under siege, “hung out a goose to show their attackers they were not starving.”  But when their attackers set fire to the village, the goose got cooked. (Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches)
  • A Swedish king sent his army to subdue an unruly province. Knowing the king loved roast goose, fighters hung up a large goose to taunt the royal fighters.  When the King’s army won, the monarch asked for the goose as a condition of surrender. He then cooked it and “ate it with a victor’s relish.” (Common Phrases and Where They Come From)

To drink a toast.” Toasting, or raising your glasses in honor of a person or idea, is a common part of holidays and celebrations.  The phrase originates from a piece of toasted bread that used to be put into the cup, according to Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Celebrants would dip the toasted bread into their wine at a call for a toast, and then eat it, according to Common Phrases and Where They Come From.

Pie in the sky.”  This expression is used to describe a promise or wish that likely won’t be fulfilled. It was coined by labor activist Joe Hill in 1911, as part of his parody song “Preacher and the Slave.” (From Loose Cannons, Red Herrings, and Other Lost Metaphors, by Robert Claiborne.) Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the “Wobblies.” Angry at religious organizations  that  encouraged workers to accept unfair circumstances, Hill wrote a set of parody lyrics to the tune of the Salvation Army’s “In the Sweet By and By.” In the chorus of his version, “The Preacher and the Slave,”  preachers promise to hungry men that they will one day have “pie in the sky.”

Joe Hill

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and Pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

Hungry for more? Click on the book titles to see where you can find them in the library, and learn more about oddball idioms and expressions.


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