Food Idioms

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A universal preoccupation with food is apparent in the many idioms based on it. Here are just ten:

1. apples and oranges: two things that are inherently different or incompatible. For example, “To compare The Chronicles of Narnia to the Twilight series is to compare apples to oranges.”

2. bad apple: a negative or corrupting influence on others; a troublesome or despicable person. For example, “One official of a national motorcycle organization argued that a few bad apples shouldn’t be allowed to ruin all motorcyclists’ reputations…”

3. bring home the bacon: to bring home the prize, to achieve success.

In American usage “to bring home the bacon” means “to earn the living for a household.” The expression probably originated from the custom/legend of the Dunmow Flitch. A “flitch of bacon” is a side of bacon, salted and cured. Married visitors to the town of Dunmow in Essex who knelt on two sharp stones and could swear that during the past twelvemonth they’d never quarreled with their spouse or wished themselves unmarried could claim a free flitch of bacon. Another possibility is that the expression derives from greased pig contests at county fairs. The contestant who succeeded in catching the pig “brought home the bacon.”

4. chew the fat: originally the expression meant to argue over a point, perhaps because people arguing make energetic mouth movements similar to what is required to masticate gristle.

In British usage, both “chew the fat” and “chew the rag” mean to argue or grumble. In American usage, the expressions mean “to engage in friendly conversation.”

5. cream puff: literally, a cream puff is a shell of puff pastry with a cream filling. In British usage, a “cream puff” is an effeminate person. In American usage, a “cream puff “is a used car in especially good condition.

6. cup of tea: something that suits a person’s disposition

The expression is used in both positive and negative contexts:
“A Mozart concert? Just my cup of tea!”
“A ball game? Sorry, football is not my cup of tea.”

7. a pretty/fine kettle of fish: an awkward state of affairs; a mess or a muddle. For example, “As the crisis dragged on to the eleventh month, Bishop Segun introduced a pretty kettle of fish to the whole matter when he instituted an ecclesiastical court…”

In researching this post, I discovered that the expression “a pretty kettle of fish” (with the meaning “a fine mess”) seems to be morphing into “a different kettle of fish” or “another kettle of fish” with the meaning “something else entirely.” For example, “Your website needs to be a whole different kettle of fish.”

8. a lemon: something that is bad or undesirable.

Anything that fails to meet expectations can be called a lemon. For example, “Her first husband was a lemon.”

Most often, the term is used to describe a car that has problems from its time of purchase. Individual states have “lemon laws” intended to protect consumers from substandard vehicles. The federal lemon law (the Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act) was enacted in 1975 and protects citizens of all states.

9. full of beans: full of energy and high spirits. For example, this headline: “Hollins still full of beans as he settles in at Crawley Town”

In current usage the expression “full of beans” is so frequently associated with children that it has been adopted as a brand name by child care centers and a children’s clothing store. I’ve always assumed that the expression derived from the idea of a frisky bean-fed horse, but recently I read that at one time beans were considered an aphrodisiac.

10. hot potato: a delicate situation that must be handled with great care. For example, this headline: “Herbert’s ‘Healthy Utah’ Plan Could be a Political Hot Potato”

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23 thoughts on “Food Idioms”

  1. Funny, I had always thought “full of beans” was another version of “full of it” or “full of bologna,” as in “saying untrue nonsense.”
    I don’t recall ever hearing it used to mean full of energy, though clearly I may have assumed the wrong intent on occasion.

    Right or wrong, a quick Google search shows that others thought it meant the same as I thought, so at least it wasn’t just me!

  2. ApK,
    I think that this may be one of those idioms that has begun to morph because of confusion with another expression, “not to know beans.”

  3. I’m with ApK and had never heard the “lively” or “energy” reference before. So, I would think the morphing came about as an alternative for using an acceptable word in place of a crude or vulgar two words for “untrue nonsense” that begin with a B[S]…..also like “full of bull-loney.”

    “Spill the beans” – inadvertently disclose a secret.

  4. Before declaring that the “energetic” interpretation demonstrated the true meaning of “full of beans,” I looked in several dictionaries. Full of beans appears to mean energetic outside the US, but it means erroneous or dishonesty in the US.

    When you eat too many beans, you become gassy, bloated, and full of… uh…. My mom had a alternate term. She used to tell me I was “full of prunes.” She did not mean I was energetic.


    Hot potato goes a bit further than “a delicate situation that must be handled with great care.” The associated visual picture shows somebody juggling a hot potato between his hands or even multiple people tossing around a hot potato because nobody wants to handle it.

    The meaning parallels that of passing the buck. Passing the buck focuses on the person refusing to accept responsibility or accountability whereas hot potato focuses on the subject being avoided.


    Bean — noun, one’s head; verb, to hit the head

    Full of prunes (see above)

    Carrot, dangle a carrot — enticement, promised reward; from the phrase, carrot and stick

    Let them eat cake — A quote attributed to somebody to describe them as oblivious to the plight of some group of people.

    Duck Soup — Something easy to do, but why?

    Dough, bread, cabbage — money, cash

    Sow wild oats — commit hazardous activities and youthful indiscretions

    Feel your oats — to experience the urges that lead to sowing wild oats

  5. Advice for a married man who wants to “mess around” with other women: “Why go out looking for a humburger when you can have steak at home?” (in bed with your wife).

    Lewis Grizzard once wrote that he wasn’t even looking for a hamburger, but rather, he was looking for a baloney sandwich! His meaning was the he was afraid that someone would have a party and he would miss it. His first wife, Paula, left him because he was not home very much, and she was lonely because of that.

  6. Down South, a peanut butter sandwich is a delicasy for free people, but a baloney sandwich is something that is given to prisoners in jail or prison to eat. Then once they get set free, they never want to eat a baloney sandwich again!

    When I lived in northern Illinois, some Midwesterners told me that a baloney sandwich was something good they they looked forward to eating. On the other hand, a peanut butter sandwich was something to give to prisoners for a meal.
    Wow, what a contrast, North and South!

    I can tell you that I grew up in the South, and I never have liked baloney sandwiches. In contrast, I have seen people here who not only each baloney, but they put mayonaisse on their baloney sandwiches, and that is another food that I think is despicable. How to make one worse? Baloney, mayonaisse, and pickles!

  7. Baloney, mayonaisse, mustard, and pickles on burnt toast!
    I would go hungry for a long time!

  8. “Full of beans” also means “full of nonsense and ready to give off a lot of hot gas” — because of the effect of some kinds of beans on the human digestive system.

  9. Back during World War II, during the bomber offensive of the U.S. Army Air Forces against Western Europe:
    “A milk run” was an easy bombing raid against relatively little opposition. For American bomber crews based in England, who were the ones who were doing the daylight air raids, milk runs were generally against targets in France, Belgium, Austria, and Luxembourg.
    The very tough and dangerous air raid were against Nazi Germany, and the raids when they had to fly all the way across Germany to bomb targets in western Czechoslovakia and Poland. Those raids endured heavy opposition from the Luftwaffe and from flak, and over 100,000 American aviators were killed on those, especially during 1943.

  10. The word “flak” came from a German acronym for “FLieger Abwehr Kannonen” = FLAK = “cannons for defense against aviators”.

    The word “strafe” came from a German sentence: “Gott strafe England” = “God punish England”, and that came into use during World War I on the Western Front.

  11. “Fish” is the American, British, Canadian, and Australian sailor’s nickname for their torpedoes.

    On the other hand, the Kriegsmarine (German) sailors called their torpedoes “Aalen”, which is the German word for “eels”. However, I think that “Fisch” was also used.
    The German word for the West German Navy, now the navy of all of Germany, is “Bundesmarine”, which is the navy of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland = the Federal Republic of Germany.

    Austria-Hungary used to have a navy, but not since November 1918, since Austria and Hungary are now landlocked countries. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had seaports along the Adriatic sea, but those ports are now in countries like Bosnia, Croatia, and Herzigovena. Also, the seaport of Trieste has been in Italy since about 1947.

  12. “Beanball” – a pitch in baseball or softball that hits the batter in the head – or threatens to do so. Ducking your way out of the path of a beanball is a good thing to do!

  13. “Eggs sunny side up” is an idiom.

    In German, those are called “Spiegeleier”, where “Spiegel” is the word for “mirror” and “Eier” is the word for “eggs”.
    Golly, you look into your plate, and it is like looking into a mirror, because your eggs look back into your eyes!

  14. “Juice” is a North American idiom for “electricity”. (Do they use it in the British Isles, too?)
    I think that “juice” refers to orange juice, and orange juice is about the color of an electric arc.

  15. I think that a cigar can be referred to as a “pickle” or a “cucumber”. Some people might call this a metaphor, but isn’t a metaphor a kind of an idiom? Likewise, dachunds are referred to as “wiener dogs” or “weenie dogs”. A certain part of the human anatomy can be referred to as the “cucumber”.
    The human head can be referred to as the “coconut”, such as to “crack the coconut”? “To crack his coconut” or “to crack the enemy’s coconut” seem to be idioms.

  16. In the film 2010: ODYSSEY TWO, there were three American astronauts on board a Russian spaceship with a larger number of Russians. (The captain of the ship was played by Helen Mirren, who was born in England but from a Russian family.)
    There was one Russian astronaut who was a good engineer, and one who spoke English, but with some problems.
    He said “a piece of pie”, but the Americans corrected him to “a piece of cake”. A moment later, he said “as easy as cake”, but the Americans corrected him to “as easy as pie”.

    One of the Americans was played by Roy Scheider, as Dr. Heywood Floyd of the Univ. of Hawaii, and another one was played by John Lithgow, as “Curnow”, a very bright space engineer who was sent to work on the American spaceship DISCOVERY ONE, which was in orbit around Jupiter. Curnow got the DISCOVERY ONE back into operation, and the third American there was a computer expert who got HAL 9000 back into operational condition.

  17. I seriously doubt any connection between OJ and electrical arcs. Far more likely is that juice applied to electricity comes from the long history or juice being used to express the idea of an enlivening fluid or lifeblood. That’s also likely where “creative juices” and the “juiced” for drunkenness come from.

  18. To ApK: I don’t think that it makes much difference about whether there is a connection between orange juice and electricity or not. I don’t see any reason to get wracked up about “the origin” or a word or phrase, especially when it probably had MORE THAN ONE origin. That happened often.
    Also, you did not live 200+ years ago, so how do you know? The world and its technical vocabulary were a lot different back then, especially since nobody knew what electricity was back then. The electron was not discovered until 1897, but J.J. Thomson in England.

  19. Correction:
    The electron was not discovered until 1897, but J.J. Thomson in England did it.

    Before then, lots of scientist thought that electricity had to do with a mysterious substance called “aether” or “ether”, but other scientists, including Albert Michaelson and Albert Einstein showed that aether does not exist.

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