There are quite a few common colloquialisms that are centered around food. Phrases with meanings that have little or nothing to do with food … or even eating. Here are a few of my favorites.
Dollars to donuts ~ A certainty
I’d bet dollars to donuts. Why are people betting donuts? Are they Krispy Creme employees, perhaps with a gambling problem? Seriously, what is up with that?
This is a uniquely American betting term. However, I was relieved to discover it did not originate from actual bets that involved donuts. It’s an expression that indicates short odds. Dollars being valuable, while donuts are not. The phrase first appeared in mid 19th century in the newspaper The Daily Nevada State Journal, February 1876:
Whenever you hear any resident of a community attempting to decry the local paper… it’s dollars to doughnuts that such a person is either mad at the editor or is owing the office for subscription or advertising.
The phrase doesn’t appear in print again for some years, but is still used today.
I’ll eat my hat ~ A display of confidence
This next phrase is about something to eat, but not something you’d actually want to. Why someone would offer to eat their hat is beyond me. Where do people get this stuff? Absurd as it is, this phrase has been around since the late 16th century!
“I’ll eat my hat” is an expression used to convey confidence in a specific outcome. For example, “She’d forget her head if it weren’t screwed on. I’ll eat my hat, if she remembers my birthday.”
The earliest example of the phrase found in print is in Thomas Brydges’ Homer Travestie, 1797:
For though we tumble down the wall,
And fire their rotten boats and all,
I’ll eat my hat, if Jove don’t drop us,
Or play some queer rogue’s trick to stop us.
Charles Dickens used another version of the expression in The Pickwick Papers, 1837:
If I knew as little of life as that, I’d eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole.
The expression later became popular in the United States, and is still used today. No one wants to actually eat a hat. Which is why the phrase is only used when there’s certainty about the outcome of an event.
Take the cake ~ Get all the honors
We’re on a roll (no pun intended) with food obsessed idioms, but back to something more enjoyable … and much more logical. Like taking a cake. Because most everyone likes cake.
This phrase was used by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. The Greeks used ‘take the cake’ as a symbol of a prize for victory. Surprisingly, there’s no evidence of the English use of this phrase until it caught on in the United States in the 19th century.
In the US, the phrase became popular due to the cake-walk strutting competitions in the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The following is from The Indiana Progress, January 1874:
The cake-walk, in which ten couple [sic] participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs Sarah and John Jackson.
In cake-walk competitions, couples were judged on their strutting style. The winners were said to have ‘taken the cake’, which was the prize.
In modern-day usage, the meaning has changed somewhat. Today, the expression is often used with sarcastic overtones. For example, “She got perfect scores on the SAT, but has a 2.0 grade point average. If that doesn’t take the cake…”.
Pie in the sky ~ A fantastical idea or promise
Pie in the sky … seriously? Why is there a pie in the sky? What were they smoking? You have to wonder.
The ridiculousness of this phrase makes it even harder to believe that it first had a religious connotation. I am not kidding. Originally, it implied the promise of heaven while continuing to suffer on earth.
The phrase originated in America in 1911. A Swedish laborer named Joe Hill–a leader of a radical labor organization called the Wobblies, for which he wrote songs–first used the phrase in his song The Preacher and the Slave, a parody of the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye.
The phrase didn’t become popular until the Second World War, however. Then it was used figuratively, to refer to happiness that was unlikely to ever come about. Similar to how the phrase is used today. The following excerpt is from the California newspaper The Fresno Bee, November 1939:
The business world is fearful that Roosevelt’s obsession with war problems will mean a continued neglect of questions which still restrict trade and profits. They are highly skeptical of Washington’s promise that they will ‘eat pie in the sky’ solely from war orders, which they decry publicly.
[Photo Credits: morguefile.com]
Bite the Dust ~ To die
This phrase has nothing to do with eating anything, not even dust. I wrote about this idiom in a previous post. To learn more, go here.