7 Surprising Places We Got Phrases About Food

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 15, 2016
Episode #525

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food idioms

Today we’re going to talk about idioms that come from foods. We'll take a peek into history, traveling all the way back to ancient Rome. Some of these foods may be more appetizing than others: We cover everything from cake to liver.

1. Take it with a Grain of Salt

Our first food idiom is to take it with a grain of salt, which means to accept something but to be somewhat skeptical of the information. [1] For example, if you're unsure about a relative's knowledge of the stock market, you might say, “I took his financial advice with a grain of salt.” 

We all know that salt improves the taste of food, but perhaps you don't know that the expression to take it with a grain of salt originated with a recipe for an antidote to poison. [2] Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23 to 79 AD, [3] wrote an encyclopedic work titled Natural History in the year 77. He tells the story of a Roman general, Pompey, who encountered a ruler named Mithridates VI. [4] This king was famous for building up his immunity to poison, and Pliny reports on the king's recipe for his antidote. The last line of this recipe read, “to be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt.” [2] Pliny probably didn't intend for readers to doubt this recipe; he likely meant that salt actually was added to the other ingredients. [2] When the expression to take it with a grain of salt came to be used, starting in the 17th century, [1] individuals at that time probably misunderstood what Pliny had written. [4] They thought that adding salt to something would make it easier to swallow.

2. In a Nutshell

We also have Pliny to thank for our next food-related idiom: in a nutshell. This cliché means “in a few words” and has been used since the 1570s. [5] Just now, we learned that an old antidote to poison literally involved a grain of salt. Surprisingly, in a nutshell literally involves something tiny in a real nutshell. Well, maybe. In Natural History, Pliny writes that he had heard about a version of Homer's The Iliad being written in such small letters that the whole book could fit inside a nutshell. This story seems unlikely because in Homer's day, writing was done with a stylus on clay tablets. [6] And, of course, The Iliad is a long book! Pliny's anecdote might have been forgotten except that someone named Philemon Holland translated Natural History into English in 1601. Holland noted, skeptically, that “The same writer maketh mention of one who could see to the distance of 135 miles.” [6] Nevertheless, the association between compactness and nutshells stuck, and Shakespeare uses language to that effect in Hamlet. [6] In a nutshell, when it comes to what Pliny wrote, it sounds as if we should take much of it with a grain of salt.


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