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  Brazos Living
 

Say what?

By CHRISTINA MINOR Tribune-Herald staff writer

Wednesday, March 3, 2004 - pages B1 & B2

Stop for a minute and think about how you speak.

I'm not talking about the slow Texas drawl escaping from your lips. I mean really listen to what's being said.

How many times have you used phrases such as "cool as a cucumber," "piece of cake" and "nutty as a fruitcake"?

How about "I'm hungry enough to eat a horse" or "My eyes are bigger than my belly?”

Do you know what they mean and where they come from?

Most sayings about food or referencing food are valuable to the time when they were created, said Lani Raiber, an assistant professor of hospitality and management studies at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

"Think about the saying, ‘Bring home the bacon,’ ” Raiber said. "If you had enough money to bring home bacon, something that wasn't common on the dinner table, then you were making good money."

The phrase currently pertains to wages earned, not the pieces of sizzling meat served for breakfast. Its original meaning refers to entertainment at some of America's first county fairs when contestants had to catch and hold down a greased pig. The winner got to take home the slippery hog, as in he got to take home the bacon and spare ribs and so on, said Robert Lukey, Arts and Sciences Department chairman at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C.

Some sayings, such as "apple of my eye," have nothing to do with eating. The phrase is a biblical reference dating back to the Garden of Eden. Although the Bible never names the fruit Adam and Eve devoured, most people believe it to be an apple. Scholars speculate that early church fathers listed the fruit as an apple because it relates to a Greek legend, Lukey said.

The legend tells the story of Paris, a prince, presenting an apple to the goddess who most appealed to his eye. The consequence of his choice led to a curse, the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Lukey said.

The apple also was a revered fruit in Druid culture. Making it seem wicked could have been a ploy by the church to win converts, Lukey said.

Clay Butler, an English lecturer at Baylor University, cites in the Bible Proverbs 7:2 and Zachariah 2:8 as mentioning the phrase "apple of my eye." The phrase also is found in Deuteronomy 32:10 and Psalm 17:8. But in each instance, apple has to do with the pupil of the eye, not fruit.

Food typically reflects people's religious backgrounds, socioeconomic status and personality, said Raiber, who also studies the psychology, anthropology and history of food.

"It's natural for food to intertwine into the vernacular," she said. "It's impossible for us to disconnect food from our lives. It's an act we do every day. It's such a part of our lives, it becomes a part of our language."

Some people change meanings of phrases to fit into their current lifestyle or generation. Butler said the phrases are similar to slang. They start out with a meaning, but as the definitions are used by different generations, they begin to change. Each group makes up or adds on to the meaning.

"It's a form of group identity," Butler said. "It's a type of bonding, a code that only that group understands."

Definitions also can change between cultures.

Have you ever had to eat humble pie? It's not very tasty, having to swallow all that humility in one large bite. If you looked at the original meaning, you might not want another bite.

The saying is a take on a British phrase "eat numble pie." In jolly old England, numble once referred to the innards of animals. When the Britons came to the New World, the "n" got replaced with an "h" and the phrase became synonymous with being humble, Butler said.someone is crazy or insane, people might describe that person as "nutty as a fruitcake."

These sayings also serve as great metaphors, Butler said.

Take the popular phrase "I'm hungry enough to eat a horse." In just a few short words, an entire story that dates back to the 1800s unfolds.

During 1846 and 1847, when the Donner party began their treacherous journey West, horses and oxen were the primary means of transportation. Back then it was considered taboo to eat them, Lukey said. But when the brutal winter hit the trapped group in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the 81 travelers didn't care about taboos. They needed to survive. The supplies quickly vanished, and the animals were eaten. The group turned to cannibalism before the few survivors were rescued.

The phrase also could have a less serious interpretation.

"It's a total exaggeration," Raiber said. "When you say that you're hungry enough to eat a horse, you're saying that you're completely ravenous. There's no way you could eat a horse. It would never happen."

Christina Minor can be reached at 757-6901 or at cminor@wacotrib.com.
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