Breakfast At Whiskers

 
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Today, I’m looking at breakfast idioms, that is, idioms that include breakfast foods. The fun thing about these phrases is that they don’t have anything to do with food. So, join me for breakfast:

Let’s start with a little fruit, shall we?

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While etymologically, this phrase could mean the aperture of one’s eye, colloquially it means someone who is cherished above all others. The origins of this phrase go all the way back to Old English. In fact, they’re biblical, coming from the King James Bible-

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.
— Deuteronomy 32:10 (KJV, 1611)
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When my mother was pregnant with me, she ate a banana a day, sometimes two. When I was born and throughout my childhood, she called me her banana baby. I have an affinity for bananas. I really love them. Whole, mashed, baked, blended, fried- you name it, I’ll try it. I supposed you could say that I go bananas for bananas. But where did this phrase come from?

For such a common phrases, you’d think it would be more than a handful of decades old, but the OED places the first recorded use of the phrase go bananas back in the late 1960s in a Kentucky university publication. This does not surprise me. In fact, it recalled my Donovan to me. In the song Mellow Yellow, Donovan declares:

Electrical banana’s gonna be a sudden craze, electrical banana’s bound to be the very next phase.

This lyric references the thriving rumor that one could smoke bananas in a similar fashion to mushrooms to effect a psychodelic experience. While the rumor turned out to be false, I could see how the phrase go bananas could be attributed to the wackiness of the hippie movement of the day.

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Bacon

Many colloquialisms deal with bacon. The English, and consequently, the Americans, do love their bacon. And who can blames us, really? I mean, everything’s better with bacon. The adulation and adoration of bacon dates back to the olden days. In fact, in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue, there’s reference to the flitch of bacon-

But never for us the flitch of bacon though,
That some may win in Essex at Dunmow.

The reference to the flitch of bacon dates back to 1104 when a couple demonstrated such sublime marital devotion in the presence of the Prior of Little Dunmow in Essex that he sent them a flitch (side) of bacon. From that time, the Dunmow Flitch became an annual tradition, awarding a side of bacon to the most devoted couple in the town.

Suffice it to say, bacon is prime real-estate. That’s why there are so many phrases that deal with it.

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While writing that phrase out, all I could think of was Jerry McGuire. You know, when he screams Show Me The Money. The origin of this phrase, near as we can tell, dates back to a boxing bout between Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson in 1906. Apparently, Gans’ mother, who did not attend the fight, sent her son a telegram which instructed him to bring home the bacon. Gans won the fight, and telegraphed his mother that he not only had the bacon, but also the gravy. Then he sent her a check for $6,000.00 which was nothing to scoff at in 1906. From that time on, bring home the bacon has been well used in the boxing world, infiltrating into the modern colloquial, too. In essence, this phrase means, to take the pot, win the match, and generally be successful at whatever endeavor you are undertaking.

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Now this phrase’s origin is much older than the last one. When we think of bacon, we generally envision the cured meat that we fry up to enjoy with our breakfast. However, the word bacon was defined differently in the Middle Ages. Then bacon actually referred to any meat taken from any part on the pig’s body. Bacon encompassed the whole pig. Therefore, to save one’s bacon meant to protect one’s entire self from harm or injury.

And since we’re on the subject of breakfast, let’s get to the eggs.

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I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with this phrase. It means to encourage someone to continue in some mode of action or behavior, usually with the connotation that said action or behavior will be detrimental or unwise. The origins of this word are very cool. The word egg here derives from edge as in to urge forward; both egg and edge here comes from the Old Norse eddja. That’s right, dear readers, this one had roots in the Vikings. However, the first recorded use of the phrase egg on, is found in Thomas Drant’s translation of Horace in 1566:

Ill egge them on to speake some thyng, whiche spoken may repent them.

From egg on, it’s a hop, skip, and jump to egg on one’s face. However, while the first expression uses egg in the verbal sense, this second one refers to the literal egg, the one whose sequential existence is so often wondered about. (For indeed, was it the humbler egg or was it the chicken which came first?) There are numerous theories about the origin of this phrase. There’s the idea that it references the fact that bad actors were often pelted with eggs during a performance to force them off the stage- hence, egg on one’s face meaning embarrassment or dishonor. There’s also the idea that it comes from a simple embarrassing scenario when someone is eating an egg and get’s it crusted around their mouth. Then there’s the farmer’s approach, when they find their dog with egg on his muzzle. You see, it appears that there are numerous instances of Trusty Fido being a bad dog and raiding the hen house of her eggs while he’s supposed to be guarding her from foxes and other such villains. Regardless of the origin, though, the phrase means someone whose been left looking embarrassed or foolish.

But, perhaps you prefer oats with your breakfast. Well, there’s an idiom for that, too.

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This phrase has its roots in Merry Old England. Wild oats are a real nuisance to farmers there, and back in the day, they caused no end of headaches for those who wanted to plant their field with cultivated oats. Wild oats are an actual genus of oats that grow up within the cultivated oats and make the crop inordinately difficult to harvest. There is no application for wild oats, as they are a useless cereal grain. Therefore, to sow one’s wild oats is to spend oneself in inane and fruitless endeavors. The sexual connotation that the phrase has taken on also applied to the debauched young men who spread their seed without purpose.

And as we’re thinking of England, let’s continue with a hardy English breakfast. So, we can’t forget the beans. While they may be a worthless lot, they do pop up quite frequently in idioms.

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I’m a big Caasablance fan (see post here and here), and if you’re like me than this phrase will recall Rick’s words to Ilsa at the end of the film:

Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Inferring from the line alone, you can deduce that hill of beans means something that is worth little in value or estimation. Etymologists differ on the true origin of this phrase. Most maintain that the phrase derives from American colloquialisms circa late 1800s. P.G. Wodehouse used the expression in one of his writings in the 1860s, but there’s written use of the phrase earlier than that, from an agricultural book by J.J. Thomas, which discusses the proper manner in which to plant lima beans. Literally, one plants them in little hills of beans in a row.

However, I like to think the origin of this phrase dates back further. In my research, I’ve found etymologists who ascribe its origin to the kings of England. The First Earl of Gloucester, Robert, is recorded as describing a missive from the King of Germany to King John of England as being altogether not worth a bean. And, given the duration and widespread understanding of the worthlessness of beans- a.k.a. Jack and the Beanstalk- whether it’s a bean or a whole hill of them, the expression stands to this day.

Looking at this one, I can see how the meaning of the phrase does correlate with the words and food discussed. Full of beans can mean lively, but it can also mean prone to exaggeration. Now, as we all have been told by the kids in our lives, beans are the musical fruit for the more you eat the more you do toot. That’s were the prone to exaggeration comes from- you know, tooting would signify that one is full of hot air. However, if we’re talking about beans as in coffee, the lively works perfectly well, too.

And since we’re talking about coffee, let’s move on to dairy items.

I have long loved this phrase, and since it’s approaching archaic today, I want to include it in today’s culinary idioms. Quite simply, hard cheese means tough luck. The origins of this one are less linear, but it’s a simple enough understanding to explain. The English love their cheeses. However, if a cheese became hard- the moisture leeched from it because it is old- it is indigestible and unsavory. And, there’s nothing worse then making your grilled cheese sandwich with a cheese that has dried out. The oils aren’t there, the moisture is gone, and the result is an unsatisfactory meal. Hard cheese, indeed, for there is nothing so tough as a meal that leaves you hungry and wanting at the end.

In centuries gone by in England, the word cheese meant the most important person. In the United States, the adjective big was added, further amplifying this meaning. Why? We don’t know. We’ll just chock it up to the English and American’s love of cheese. In the US, fairs and carnivals would advertise for visitors to come and see the big cheese which actually referred to ginormous wheels of cheese that dairies and dells produced. You can see how using a huge wheel of cheese as an attraction could evolve into the big cheese being a big deal, as in the most important person. In fact, in that old child’s rhyme we sang as children- The Farmer in the Dell- the concluding line is that the cheese stands alone, meaning everything at the dell revolves around the cheese. It’s the center, the focal point, the all important.

So, now that we’ve spanned the gamut of breakfast idioms, I hope you have found a few phrases with which to pepper your language. They’re a bit esoteric, sometimes frivolous, but always fun. So, take another idiom at its word and let’s eat, drink, and be merry.