Selfie Next post: Words on the radar: June 2012

Forgotten language of fathers Previous Post: Are you father-waur or father-better? The forgotten language of fathers

Don’t get honey-fuggled, you doughnut! And other inventive uses of food in English

A few Fridays ago, it was National Doughnut Day. Did you celebrate or did it completely pass you by in the way that most of these days probably do? At least with this particular festivity, there would appear to be an appropriate way to celebrate. The same might not be said for, say, National Stapler Day (other stationery days are inevitably available). So as I envisaged how those celebrations might have gone, i.e. stuffing my face with the aforementioned treat, my lexicographic mind turned to the link between language and food.

If you can’t say something nice…

Initially, my first thoughts were of food and insults. It struck me that there are rather a lot of (mostly mild and affectionate) insults involving food. Along the lines of ‘don’t do that, you doughnut’ and ‘what a silly sausage’, or my personal favourite ‘you pilchard’. Or, if you are feeling more affectionate, something like ‘nice to see you, treacle’. However, perhaps these are not as common as I imagine. A quick look on the Oxford English Corpus reports only seven examples of ‘silly sausage’, two of  ‘you doughnut’, and a measly one ‘you pilchard’ (as immortalised by Jarvis Cocker in his song Pilchard).

What is undeniably true is that food of all types is used rather inventively in the English language, when it is applied to something other than the original fruit. Since it was the humble doughnut that got me thinking about this in the first place, I thought I might take a look at a few of the sweeter examples, and leave savoury for another blog post. Fruit seems an obvious place to start.

Bananas for nanas, and strawberries, and raspberries…

When it comes to the yellow bendy-shaped fruit, we have a choice. Banana or the more colloquial nana. We have the sense of ‘the person at the head of an organization’ as in top banana. This phrase actually has its origins in theatre slang, when it referred to the person receiving the highest billing in a burlesque or comic show. It seems less of a leap then to see the link to someone being a little zany, as in going bananas. The more colloquial nana can also be used as a general term of abuse.

Of course, bananas are not the only fruit. Raspberry is another that springs to mind, in that decidedly quaint idea of blowing a raspberry. Its use comes from good old rhyming slang, as in raspberry tart…. (I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks). The Oxford English Dictionary also gives another sense, meaning an expression of disapproval or a reprimand, as in ‘My plans got a huge raspberry from the boss’.

Given their rather fragile nature, it is not unexpected to find the idea of injury associated with fruit. Strawberry, for instance, is used rather evocatively in the US to mean ‘a sore or bruise, especially one caused by friction with the ground’. The phrase to bruise like a peach is certainly familiar to me. It also gives rise to the more pleasant peaches and cream applied to someone with a lovely and healthy complexion. If something is described as a peach, then it is usually something quite exquisite or a particularly fine example of its type. But then with every silver lining comes a cloud  – if you peach on someone, you inform on them.

When life gives you lemons, have some plums, honey

Lemon, perhaps surprisingly, gives rise to a number of extended senses. It can mean ‘an unsatisfactory person or thing’ either by itself (that car is a lemon), or you can hand someone a lemon when you swindle them. The OED also records lemon as meaning ‘a person who is easily swindled’, ‘the head’, and, in the US, ‘a person who turns State’s evidence’.

Returning to a more positive place, if something is described as plum, then it is seen as highly desirable. It also has a slang meaning of the sum of one hundred thousand pounds, or a large fortune in general (both recorded in the OED). If something is like a ripe plum, then it can be obtained with very little effort. And we can’t fail to mention ‘to speak with a plum in one’s mouth’ used to describe someone who is thought to speak with a stereotypically British upper class accent.

With honey, we get the ubiquitous term of endearment (“Hi honey, I’m home!”) as well as the familiar ‘excellent example of its type’. There are also the delightful honeybunch, honeybun, honey pie, and honey chile, all used as a form of address. Lest we drown in all this sticky sweetness, OED also offers us the decidedly less saccharine honey-fuggle which means to swindle someone.

Pretty please, with icing on the top, and a cherry

The cherry on the top is seen as giving something good that extra flourish – a pièce de résistance, if you will. And with a bite at the cherry, this humble fruit also gives us an opportunity to do something (sometimes for a second or third time). Perhaps that opportunity will afford us to choose the best out there, or cherry-pick (people have been doing that since 1966). Lest you think this is all looking too positive, we might want to remind ourselves that life is not a bowl of cherries.

Take the rough with the smooth

Apple is a particularly productive fruit, giving rise to many an idiom or proverbial phrase. Yet, as with so many of the other fruits, it straddles both the negative and the positive. Who would complain about being the apple of someone’s eye? This phrase has its origins in Old English, when apple of the eye was used to mean the pupil (as it was originally thought to be a solid, spherical body). You might be less keen, however, on being described as a rotten apple. As with so many other fruits, it appears you have to take the rough with smooth. Apple is also used (chiefly in Australia and New Zealand) as a slang term to describe a good state of affairs (in the phrase she’s apples, or it’s apples). Somewhat confusingly, it can also occasionally mean the reverse.

The OED tells us that an apple of discord is not a good thing, but then an apple a day should keep both your teacher and doctor happy. But think carefully before you upset the apple cart.

Why don’t we blow a gooseberry?

Someone who is an unwelcome presence on a romantic encounter is described as a gooseberry (and has been since at least 1837), somewhat inexplicably. It apparently relates to lovers using gooseberry picking as a pretext to spend time together. One can only wonder if this bears any kind of relation to the allusive use of gooseberry bush to explain the mysteries of childbirth to very young children. It still makes me wonder why gooseberries? Why not some other fruit? This could also be said of the aforementioned raspberry. Yes, raspberry tart provides the rhyme, but doesn’t gooseberry tart do exactly the same? Ah, the vagaries of language.

There will, of course, be many more that I haven’t mentioned here, and I hope in coming posts to turn my attention to other foodstuffs, including the savoury. In the meantime, feel free to add some more fruit to our basket in the comments below.