10 food idioms and what they mean

There aren’t any bad apples on this list. Adding a few to your writing could even help you bring home some more bacon.

A universal preoccupation with food is apparent in the many idioms based on it. Here are just 10:

1. Apples and oranges: Two things inherently different or incompatible. For example: “To compare ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ to the ‘Twilight’ series is to compare apples to oranges.”

2. Bad apple: A negative or corrupting influence on others; a troublesome or despicable person. For example: “One official of a national motorcycle organization argued that a few bad apples shouldn’t be allowed to ruin all motorcyclists’ reputations.”

3. Bring home the bacon: To bring home the prize or achieve success.

In America, “to bring home the bacon” means “to earn the living for a household.” The expression probably originated from the custom/legend of the Dunmow Flitch. A “flitch of bacon” is a side of bacon that’s salted and cured. Married visitors to the town of Dunmow in Essex who knelt on two sharp stones and could swear that during the past twelve months they’d never quarreled with their spouse or wished themselves unmarried could claim a free flitch of bacon. Another possibility is that the expression derives from greased pig contests at county fairs. The contestant who succeeded in catching the pig “brought home the bacon.”

4. Chew the fat: Originally the expression meant to argue over a point, perhaps because people arguing make energetic mouth movements similar to what is required to masticate gristle.

In British usage both “chew the fat” and “chew the rag” mean to argue or grumble. In American usage the expressions mean to engage in friendly conversation.

5. Cream puff: Literally, a cream puff is a shell of puff pastry with a cream filling. In British usage, a “cream puff” is an effeminate person. In American usage, a “cream puff “is a used car in especially good condition.

6. Cup of tea: Something that suits a person’s disposition.

The expression is used in both positive and negative contexts:

  • “A ball game? Sorry, football is not my cup of tea.”

7. A pretty/fine kettle of fish: An awkward state of affairs, a mess or a muddle. For example: “As the crisis dragged on to the eleventh month, Bishop Segun introduced a pretty kettle of fish to the whole matter when he instituted an ecclesiastical court …”

In researching this article, I discovered that the expression “a pretty kettle of fish” (with the meaning “a fine mess”) seems to be morphing into “a different kettle of fish” or “another kettle of fish” meaning “something else entirely.” For example, “Your website needs to be a whole different kettle of fish.”

8. A lemon: Something that is bad or undesirable.

A lemon can be anything that fails to meet expectations. For example: “Her first husband was a lemon.”

Most often people use the term to describe a car that has problems from its time of purchase. Individual states have lemon laws intended to protect consumers from substandard vehicles. The federal lemon law (the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act) was enacted in 1975 and protects citizens of all states.

9. Full of beans: Someone who is full of energy and high spirits. This headline is an example: “Hollins still full of beans as he settles in at Crawley Town.”

The expression is so frequently associated with children that child care centers and a children’s clothing store have adopted it as their brand names. I’ve always assumed the expression derived from the idea of a frisky bean-fed horse, but recently I read that at one time beans were considered an aphrodisiac.

10. Hot potato: A delicate situation that one must handle with great care. This headline is an example: “Herbert’s ‘Healthy Utah’ Plan Could Be a Political Hot Potato.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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