mmm, delicious idioms

James shackell investigat­es the origins of some very tasty-sounding terms.


SPILL THE BEANS In Ancient Greece, citizens would elect council members by placing white and black beans in special clay jars. A white bean meant ‘yes’ and a black bean meant ‘no’ (a baked bean was probably a donkey vote). The thing is, voting was meant to be anonymous. Nobody knew the colour of your bean. Unless the jar Clumsycles was holding sort of… slipped and cracked open, and the beans were spilled all over the floor, and they had to start the whole damn thing again. This is possibly where the idiom ‘spill the beans’ comes from, i.e. giving away a secret to someone who’s not supposed to know the secret. But some etymologis­ts have pointed out that people didn’t start saying ‘spill the beans’ until the early 20th century, so maybe the whole Greek beans thing is a myth. Another possible explanatio­n is simple word evolution: the verb ‘spill’ has meant ‘divulge’ since the 1500s, and ‘beans’ has often stood for ‘informatio­n’.

RED HERRING Seriously, who are these red herrings, and why do they keep interferin­g with murder investigat­ions? For starters, there is no actual species of ‘red herring’. Herrings are usually a fishy kind of silver-blue. The term – referring to a piece of informatio­n that’s intended to mislead – goes back to the 13th century when people used to brine-cure or smoke their kippers, turning the flesh a deep red (and, incidental­ly, stinking out the entire house). For a while, people thought the idiom came from old-school hunting techniques: hunters would train young dogs by dragging an alluring smoked herring along the trail. But it turns out that was also a red herring. Now, etymologis­ts reckon the fish were actually used to train horses, not hounds. Either way, the herrings were a useful guide, not a misleading distractio­n. Radical journalist William Cobbett is probably responsibl­e for the misunderst­anding: in 1807 he published an article in the Political Register with the term “political red herring”, and the idiom kind of stuck. Or did it…

THE BIG CHEESE Cheese pops up in idioms all the time. You can be ‘cheesed off’. A bad movie might be ‘cheesy’. We say ‘cheese!’ when taking cringewort­hy family photos. And, of course, there’s ‘the big cheese’, which means someone who’s powerful and important and cheese-worthy. The phrase seems to come from 19th-century London, where people started comparing other people to dairy products, saying things like, “He’s the cheese,” or, “That’s quite the cheese.” (As an aside, can we please, please bring back “that’s quite the cheese”?) By the early 20th century, Americans had added the ‘big’, perhaps in reference to the ridiculous 561kg Mammoth Cheese given to Thomas Jefferson during his presidency in 1802 – this seems unlikely, since Americans didn’t start saying ‘big cheese’ till the 1920s, but it’s still a fun cheese-related anecdote. One last theory harks back to publicity stunts in the early 20th century, where giant blocks of cheese would be displayed then ceremonial­ly sliced up by important people. (It was a simpler time.)

TAKE THE CAKE If something ‘takes the cake’ it’s especially remarkable – either the best or worst of its kind. This idiom goes all the way back to pre-civil War America, where slaves on Southern plantation­s would compete in a special dance called a ‘prize walk’ – the prize being an elaboratel­y decorated cake. In the tradition of deeply troubling practices that were once commonplac­e, Black couples would dance for a judging panel of white plantation owners (in a prancy style that, ironically, mimicked white people’s hoity-toity attitudes), and the winners were said to have “taken the cake”. By the 1870s, ‘cakewalks’, as they became known, were popular in travelling minstrel shows. This is when the idiom really started taking off. By 1892, New York’s Madison Square Garden was hosting cakewalk championsh­ips – these dances also came with their own music, which evolved into what we now know as ragtime. Eventually the cakes, and the dances, and even the ragtime tunes went away. But the idiom stayed, as idioms tend to do.

BRING HOME THE BACON The year was… well, it was some time in the 1100s. The town was Great Dunmow in Essex, England. According to legend, the Great Dunmow church would award a side of bacon (also known as a ‘flitch’ for some reason) to any man who could honestly claim that he hadn’t argued with his wife for a year and one day. Why a church would do this, why pigs became standard marriage currency, and why the men of

Great Dunmow were so dishonest is anyone’s guess, but ‘bringing home the bacon’ apparently came to mean ‘providing for your family’. That’s one story, anyway. Others reckon the idiom originated in county fairs in the 1500s, where contestant­s had to catch a greased pig. If they caught the pig, they got to keep it – hence ‘bringing home the bacon’. Eventually, ‘bacon’ came to denote money in general, and the idiom kind of snuffled its way into the public consciousn­ess.

BROWNIE POINTS Like most idioms, no one is 100 per cent certain how ‘brownie points’ got started. The phrase now refers to some kind of ethereal good-deed currency: you can earn brownie points through foot massages and doing the dishes, and lose them by forgetting anniversar­ies. Brownies were originally mythical Scottish creatures who came out at night and did household chores (teenagers know them today as ‘parents’). Some people think the phrase ‘brownie points’ originated there, or perhaps from Girl Guide ‘Brownies’, who borrowed the moniker and earned badges by helping people. Another option is American wartime rationing, where people were given ration ‘points’ of different colours. Red and brown points were used for buying meat – a big deal at the time. The term ‘brownie points’ also crept into the 1944 edition of American Speech, meaning “a person who stays after class to try to insinuate themselves into the teacher’s good graces.” Whatever the origin, it seems brownie points have nothing to do with actual chocolate brownies, which we can all agree are delicious.

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