50 Idioms About Meat and Dairy Products

By Mark Nichol

Expressions that figuratively to livestock and other animals and animal products abound in English idiom. Here are many such morsels.

1–2. To “bring home the bacon” is to earn money at a job, but to “save (someone’s) bacon” is to help or rescue someone when they are in trouble or risking failure.
3–5. To “beef about (someone)” is to complain or criticize, but “have a beef” with someone is to hold a grudge, while to “beef up” something is to strengthen it.
6. “Where’s the beef?” is a challenge or claim indicating that an idea is without sufficient substance.
7–8. A “chicken” is a fearful person, and to “chicken out” is to opt, out of fear, not to do something.
9. A “chicken-and-egg argument” is a circuitous one.
10–12. “Chicken feed” is an insubstantial amount of money, and “chicken scratch” is illegible writing, while to “play chicken” is to engage in a standoff to determine who will back down first.
13. To say that “the chickens have come home to roost” means that consequences are imminent.
14. The exhortation “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” cautions one not to act as if a hoped-for outcome has already occurred.
15. One who is “no spring chicken” is not young anymore.
16. To “run around like a headless chicken” (or “like a chicken with its head cut off”) is to panic or worry aimlessly.
17–19. To have “bigger fish to fry” is to have more important things to do, but a “fine kettle of fish” is an unfortunate situation, while “a different kettle of fish” suggests something is unrelated to the topic
20–21. To “make hamburger” or “make mincemeat” of someone or something is to defeat or destroy the person or the thing.
22. To be a “meat-and-potatoes” person is to like simple things.
23. A “meat market” is a venue people frequent to seek sex partners.
24. Something that is “meat and drink” to someone is a skill or pastime that they enjoy and that is very easy for them.
25. One who is “dead meat” is a target for harm or punishment.
26. To say that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is to say that what one person may like, another may dislike.
27. The “meat of the matter” is the essence of an issue or problem.
28. Something that is “pork barrel” is a government spending project cynically designed to garner support.
29. To “pork out” is to eat too much.
30. To stop “cold turkey” is to do so abruptly.
31. To “butter (someone) up” is to flatter that person.
32. To say that “butter wouldn’t melt in (one’s) mouth” is to imply that they are feigning innocence by looking calm and cool.
33. To “cheese (someone) off” is to anger or disgust someone.
34. A “big cheese” is a leader or somewhat important (sometimes jocularly rendered in French: le grande fromage).
35. To “cut the cheese” is vulgar slang meaning “produce flatulence.”
36. “Say, ‘Cheese!’” is an exhortation to smile for a photograph.
37–38. The “cream of the crop” is the best in its class; the “crème de la crème” is the best of the best.
39–40. A “good egg” is a good person, and a “bad egg” is a bad person.
41–45. To “put all (one’s) eggs in one basket” is to risk everything at once, but to “lay an egg” is to perform poorly, and to have “egg on (one’s) face” is to be left embarrassed or humiliated, while to “egg (someone) on” is to goad someone to something that is generally ill advised. A “nest egg” is a savings fund.
46. To say that one “can’t make an omelette without breaking some (or the) eggs” means that nothing can be accomplished without some difficulty.
47. To “cry over spilled milk” is to dwell over something that cannot be undone.
48. To be “full of the milk of human kindness” is to generously display kindness and/or sympathy.
49–50. To “milk (someone) for (something)” is to pressure the person, but to “milk (something) for all it’s worth” is to exploit something to the greatest extent possible.

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5 Responses to “50 Idioms About Meat and Dairy Products”

  • Bill

    I guess I’m showing my age when I can’t see “Where’s the beef?” as anything other than a fast food company’s catchphrase, as it was in 1984 for Wendy’s.

  • venqax

    @9. I think a chicken-egg argument is one that is circular, or where cause and effect can’t be distinguished. Not simply an argument that is long, winding, or tortuous.

    @Bill: I was always under the impressiong that that was where the phrase came from. The Wendy’s commercial phrase was latched onto by the Reagan presidential campaign in 84. I’m not aware of the phrase used before that, but I’m not at all sure.

  • Bill

    Wikipedia’s entry on “Where’s the beef?” says it’s a catchphrase only in the U.S. and Canada and that the 1984 campaign use had to do with Walter Mondale vs. Gary “Monkey Business” Hart. Mondale, Wikipedia says, “used the phrase to sum up his arguments that program policies championed by his rival, Senator Gary Hart, were insubstantial, beginning with a March 11, 1984 televised debate prior to the New York and Pennsylvania primaries.” It seems to be the newest phrase on the list!

  • Sally

    @29, the usual expression here is “pig out.”

    And, of course, we have ‘pig’ = “police officer,” ‘pigpen’/’sty’ = “police station” and “pig truck” for any police vehicle.

    Here are a few more from Australia and the commonwealth:
    • “A face like curdled milk” = A ‘sour’/angry face (also “to have a face that would curdle milk”).
    • “Cream rises to the top” = “The best will emerge” (to which one might reply “so does sh*t”)
    • ‘Cheese’ = ‘A person/friend’ (How are you, old cheese?” is slightly old-fashioned); also “old cheese” = “a woman older than oneself.”
    • “Hard/stiff cheese/cheddar” = Bad luck.
    • ‘Cheesy’ = ‘False, inferior’ (or ‘showy’).
    • ‘Cheesecake’ – Soft porn aimed at straight men (and lesbians – hey, I like a nice pic too) and the corresponding ‘beefcake,’ aimed at straight women and gay men.
    • “Cackle berry/fruit” = Egg (colloquial and slightly old fashioned).
    • “Run around like a chook (= chicken) with its head cut off” = Dash about aimlessly/hysterically (often when trying to get a lot done).
    • “Play ducks and drakes” = To act slyly.
    • A ‘goose’ is a “silly person.”
    • The Galah (Rose-breasted Cockatoo) combines both stupidity and boastful self display – to call a person a ‘galah’ is no compliment. The galah gets into the list because people have eaten them, though not very successfully. An old recipe for cooking galah goes, “Put the bird into the pot with a stone and cook for at least 12 hours. Take the galah out and throw it away. Then eat the stone!”
    • “That’s your pigeon” = “That’s your affair/area of expertise.”
    • “Mutton dressed as lamb” = An older person trying to look younger.
    • “May as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb” = If one is going to risk one’s neck, one should go for the bigger prize.
    • “Like a flock of sheep” = Following the leader.
    • ‘Beefy’ = Muscular or (politely) overweight.
    • “Pigs might fly” – Unlikely.
    • “Pig’s a*se/bum/eye!” or just ‘pig’s!’ – Nonsense!

    Some of us also eat goat meat, so I might add:
    • “Act the goat” = To fool around.
    • “Get someone’s goat” = To annoy someone.
    • “Run like a hairy goat” = To run very fast.

    There are also piscine and equine idioms, since some folks eat them as well, but we Aussies sometimes also enjoy kangaroo meat (very lean, so best cooked slowly, in curries or casseroles). Among the many ‘roo-based idioms is one describing a practice that used to be de rigeur for travellers here, particularly in rural areas:
    • “Kangarooing the dyke” – Back in the days when people were less concerned with hygiene and toilets (dykes) – especially public ones – were less than spotless, patrons would sometimes squat *on* the seat, thus appearing like ‘roos who sit on their hind legs. This was both illegal and dangerous, but when needs must… When backpacking through SE Asia at the end of high-school, I found this ‘skill’ useful pretty much everywhere.

  • Silvia G. Martínez

    Sally, you’re a genius!

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