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12 Food Phrases Explained

I'd better make a quick disclaimer on this one: sometimes there are many theories as to how a phrase came about. These 12 explanations are just some of the possible origins. We've been using some of these phrases for so long that we've lost the original meanings, so our explanation of them is based on the the best guesses of linguists and historians. Take the explanations with a grain of salt (haha).

1. "Not worth his salt." In Roman times, salt was a highly valued commodity used for trading. To say a soldier was not worth his salt was the same as saying he wasn't worth his salary; he was absolutely worthless. Photo from What's Cooking America.

2. "Pie in the sky" is actually only half of the phrase - the whole thing is "there'll be pie in the sky when you die," and it's a sarcastic remark that means heaven is a silly notion.

3. Money is sometimes called "dough" or "bread" because money is what puts the bread on the table. By that logic, the two are basically interchangeable.

4. "Egg on your face" may come from the times of Victorian live theater. While we're most familiar with the fall guy getting a pie in his face, Victorian theater had the embarrassed party getting raw eggs cracked over his head. However, another explanation suggests that people who eat eggs often get yolk all over their faces, which is embarrassing. Photo from

5. "Won't amount to a hill of beans" (or the like) comes from the practice of planting bean seeds in clumps in a mound of soil (the hill). This is a very small hill indeed, so saying you won't amount to a hill of beans is pretty insulting.

6. "Apple of my eye" is thought to have originated from an old English idea that the pupil of the eye was solid, like an apple. So the "apple of my eye" is the pupil of my eye. I guess that sort of poetically means what catches my attention most.

7. "Cool as a cucumber" exists because the high water content of a cucumber keeps them pretty cold. Lettuce and celery both have high water contents as well, but I guess "cool as lettuce" doesn't have the same ring to it. Photo from FoodMomiac.

8. "Cream of the crop" is because if you have a pail of freshly-squeezed milk, the cream will rise to the top of the pail because of the high fat content. Since cream is so rich and delicious, it's considered the best - so if you're the cream of the crop, you're obviously the best!

9. "Top banana" and "Second banana" probably come from the same place. The term comes from the early 1900s vaudeville days, and may have come from comedian Frank Lebowitz, who used bananas in his act.

10. "The greatest thing since sliced bread" is pretty self-explanatory - how great is it to just pull out a couple of pieces of bread and not have to be bothered with getting out a knife and trying to cut even slices without hacking up the loaf? It's hard to believe, but pre-sliced bread actually wasn't really a practice until 1928 and wasn't marketed until 1930 by Wonder Bread.

11. "Cut the mustard" has always seemed pretty strange to me, but it actually makes sense: it means to be up to a challenge. And if you think about it, cutting mustard? Pretty difficult. Photo from English Shop.

12. "Dollars to doughnuts" means "most assuredly," which I explain because I'm not sure how common it is. I use it, but I don't know if it's weird midwest slang or what. An example would be, "Dollars to doughnuts, Heath Ledger is going to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar." Anyway, it comes from the fact that if you're willing to bet dollars to something that's essentially worthless (although Homer Simpson would probably argue with you), you must be pretty sure that you're right. Variations include dollars to buttons, cobwebs and dumplings.

"Dollars to doughnuts" is the shortened form of "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts," from an age when doughnuts cost a heckuva lot less than a buck each.

Anyone willing to make that lopsided a bet would be very sure they were right.
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Alan, that's my understanding as well.

'Apple of my eye' comes from a time when apple was the word for 'fruit' (the apple in the garden of Eden was the same. There's a lot of old English references using the word apple as a general for fruit, in fact).
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"[Q] From Lindsay Chalson: “I was wondering if you could tell me where the phrase pie in the sky came from?”

[A] It comes from the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist-syndicalist labour organisation formed in the US in 1905, often called the Wobblies. The Wobblies concentrated on organising migrant and casual workers; one of the ways in which they brought such disparate and fragmented groups together was by song. Every member got a little red book when he joined, containing parodies of popular songs or hymns (the book had a motto on the cover: “To Fan the Flames of Discontent”). One of the early ones, predating the IWW, was Hallelujah, I’m a Bum."

..."The song was a parody of the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

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. "
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Concerning #7, being as cool as a cucumber... in Spanish, the phrase is "Tan fresca como una lechuga", which translates to as fresh as lettuce. So perhaps it doesn't sound great, but it doesn't sound too bad in Spanish. n_n
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I agree with koneko...this story is poorly researched. No2 Pie in the sky is actually unrelated to belief in heaven, No11 Cut the mustard has its origin as the military word muster and No12 Dollars to doughnuts referenced a doughnut as a zero.
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I think no matter what, whatever site you peruse these days on the net there will probably be a variation on interpretations.

Otherwise, I love reading stuff like this. It's always cool to know where the things we say come from.
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@ John Spreitz

Ah now that makes more sense than either the previously given explanation or the one that I had.

And the one I had been told was better than the given one...well to my mind at least.

Mustard was not sold in jars in the UK, it was sold as a powder that was mixed with water as and when it was needed. Coleman's English Mustard is ferociously hot.

SO I was told the phrase meant to Cut the Mustard was literally to cut it with cornflour to make a milder condiment.

So to "make a thing right" is to cut the mustard.

No doubt this is balderdash.
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On 'cut the mustard':

Nothing to do with the phrase 'to pass muster' it seems.

And ditto on the homework. I'm surprised it got enough thumbs up to make it through.
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"It’s crazy that a phrase like “not worth his salt” dates all the way back to the Roman times."

You do understand that a significant part of our English vocabulary comes from Latin, right?
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marcusbacus: 'People (soldiers) were paid in salt, and the word “salarium” comes from that.'

And just to spell it out: That is the root word the modern English "salary" is based on.
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"He's too old to cut the mustard any more" in the old song so I always pictured an old fellow who couldn't bend down low enough to snip the mustard greens from the field.
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re: salt
this guy says it wasn't a phrase til the 19th century,

and just to throw a kink in it all, I was of the impression it was meaning his equivalent in salt, or worth his weight in salt, as salt had a value, and your work efforts were tied to your comparative weight...
so, homework or not, this one is still not confirmed
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Yeah, most of this BS. The person writing this obviously made crap up for the phrases that required more than a cursory google search to find, and didn't authenticate those that they did find. This is how people become dumber. Thanks Neatorama. There are people that make up lists of fake "facts" and post them on the internet as legit. I fully expect to see one of those in a day or two.
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Oh, and one more thing: "However, another explanation suggests that people who eat eggs often get yolk all over their faces, which is embarrassing." Really? Who are these idiots? I don't know anyone who gets yolk all over their face when they eat eggs, not even my 2 year old.
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Well, neatorama is not an encyclopaedia and the blog is meant for entertainment. Posts like these make the comments-part so much more worth while reading and give some of us a good opportunity to show off their knowledge ;-)
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-- Cut the mustard --

This is not really a food phrase. The real phrase dates back to middle English and the English Navy.

Muster (not mustard) by definition means "representative specimen" - in the English Navy calling to muster was a reference for the drills and the time it took to get all hands on deck (for evacuation or battle). Making the muster cut means that you and your team were good/fast enough to pass the drill. Those who passed made the muster cut, those who failed had to re-drill and possibly got additional duties.
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The definition of "Cream of the crop" needs a bit more information. It comes from the French phrase, "Creme de la creme" directly translated to "cream of the cream". It means the best of the best, not just the best of the 'crop'. It loses its exact meaning in translation.
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I think everyone needs to settle down for a second and quit being trolls, I think that many of these phrases came about some time ago and that there original meaning/meanings have changed over time. I also assume the author was just giving us a brief history of how these phrases came to be. I am sure you could take each one of the above phrases and do a whole story on it.
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10. "The greatest thing since sliced bread"
I heard that the guy who invented the automatic bread slicer used to say of other inventions, "That's the greatest thing since I invented sliced bread."
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I'm glad I'm not the only one who does not automatically buy into these explanations. They are weak and suspect at best. Some are completely made up. See #11 How old is the person posting this? Sounds like a 12 yr. old. Not to be mean but I used to like reading neatorama but I can't continue if they will let anyone post anything like this crap.
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Spreading misinformation is a disservice. This article should be labeled fiction. Thanks for all the correcting comments; some of them are even funny. BTW, the EPA-requiring phrase I know is "cut the cheese," not "cut the mustard." Think limburger.
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Whoa! Did ANY of you read the disclaimer at the top of the post? Get over yourselves!! If you don't like it, move on to something else or write something yourself. No one's forcing you to read it.
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People have the right to complain if they don't like it. If you don't like that fact, get over it and move on to something else. Nobody's forcing you to read their comments.

I have to agree with the criticism of the facts. It looks as if this piece was cobbled together out of urban legends and wishful thinking. Neatorama readers have a reasonable expectation of reading something that is well-thought-out, researched, and checked for facts.
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Number one, "Not worth his salt" was actually an ancient Greek term, pre-dating the Romans, referring to slaves that worked in the salt mines . . . the worst slaves were sent to the salt mines, and the worst of them were "not worth their weight in salt."

This passed on from there to a euphemism about all slaves to a euphemism about any person.
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Here's a few for you, not food related but more Southern country-ish:

"More (money, women, troubles, etc) than Carter has liver pills." "Carter" was a company that made liver pills that it seemed at one time in American history everyone was taking for one ailment or another.

Her pants are "tighter than Dick's hatband." Hat bands on fedora hats commonly worn in the 30/40/50s were actually sewn to the hat so that would be pretty damned tight.

sneeze "Bless you" This came from the medievel(sp) belief that a sneeze was so traumatic that your heart stopped momentarily and thus released a part of your soul which needed to be blessed.
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Well, as far as "the greatest thing since sliced bread"is concerned, a slightly different perspective.

I used to work with a Cuban guy, and he said that Cubans said "greatest thing since toilet paper", because, which would you rather have, sliced bread or toilet paper?
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#6 Apple of my eye

See Deuteronomy 32:10. He found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the apple of His eye.

Psalms 17:8 Keep me as the apple of your eye. Hide me under the shadow of your wings

Proverbs 7:2 Keep my commandments and live! Guard my teaching as the apple of your eye

Zechariah 2:8 For thus says the Lord of Hosts:'For honor he has sent me to the nations which plundered you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye

All long before the English stopped painting themselves blue ((grin)).

It seems that I will have to do my own research on Neatorama lists for now on...
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Yeah! Lighten up people! It is meant for discussion and not belittling others. Oh, and by the way, to "cut the cheese" is probably self-explanitory but needs a mention anyway!!
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We need a new phrase to replace "the best thing since sliced bread." The best thing since...DVR?

So much for Stacy's suggestion that readers take the explanations with a grain of salt.
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