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Food phrase origins, part 2

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A few weeks ago, this column spilled the beans on a few commonly used food phrases. There are plenty more of these sayings out there, so we're going back for second helpings.

Here's the scoop on spilling the beans: The Old English Dictionary (OED) gives a 1574 quote for spill it, meaning, "to divulge, let out." The full phrase "spill the beans," however, is first seen in the book Man from Tall Timber by T.K. Holmes (1919): "'Mother certainly has spilled the beans!' thought Stafford in vast amusement."

Popular folk etymology claims that in ancient Greece, applicants for membership in secret societies were voted upon by having existing members drop beans into an opaque pottery jar. White beans indicated votes of approval and black beans were negative votes. When the jar was turned over and the beans spilled out, the result of the vote was revealed.

Easy as pie: Anyone who has ever attempted to make a pie from scratch knows that it's far from easy. It turns out that the "pie" in this phrase has nothing to do with baking. In Australia, to be "pie at" or "pie on" something means to be very good at it (from the Maori word pai, which means good). If you're good at something, it's easy — as pie.

Speaking of pies, the origin of the term upper crust — referring to the aristocracy or the wealthy class — has been the subject of much debate. Visitors to Anne Hathaway's house in England (you know Anne — she was Shakespeare's wife) are told that the term comes from bread cooked in the ovens of Shakespeare's day. The ovens heated unevenly, so the bottom of the bread — the part that came into contact with the oven floor — burned, while the top of the loaf was nicely browned. The servants got the burnt part, and the "upper crust" was reserved for the wealthy and their guests.

Not so, according to word-detective.com, which says that the metaphorical use of "upper crust" seems to have first occurred in early 19th century America, and was widespread enough by 1848 to be included in Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms. The term simply refers to the upper layers of society, not to the perceived superiority of any portion of a loaf of bread. Of course, those high society people are the ones with all the bread.

So the veracity of that English tour guide's story doesn't cut the mustard — it can't quite stand up to scrutiny. Mustard could be a mispronunciation of "muster," as in passing muster. Alternatively, the phrase might refer to the difficulty of cutting the mustard seed because it is extremely small.

Where these food phrases really came from is anybody's guess. It seems that trying to root out their origins, though, made a fine kettle of fish.


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