The greatest thing since bread idioms
When it comes to offering both nutritional and linguistic value, no food is more nourishing than good ol’, plain ol’ bread. For centuries, bread has been a symbol of the ultimate sustenance – and bread idioms and proverbs further emphasize its dual status as a provider of life and a measure of how well that life is lived. As the month of July marks the anniversary of the first mechanical production of sliced bread, we look at some of the ways that the ubiquitous food has permeated the English language.
Bread and the Bible
It should come as no surprise that many bread idioms and expressions can be found in, or in relation to, biblical verse. The use of bread in some Christian religious services is a longstanding tradition; in the ceremony known as the Eucharist, bread and wine are served (symbolizing the body and blood of Jesus Christ), and bread is called the Host.
The phrase daily bread is present in the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer found in the Gospels, and spoken during liturgy in which God is entreated to “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Both in- and outside of religious contexts, the daily bread is the nourishment (spiritual or otherwise) one needs each day to live one’s life.
A common idiom meaning to start or share a meal with others, breaking bread also means to celebrate the Eucharist.
Meaning “to do good without expecting gratitude or reward,” these are words to live by for anyone who values charity and generosity. The phrase is originally found in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, this oft-spoken proverb alludes to two biblical passages, one in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and one in the New Testament (Matthew). In the religious context, one also depends on following the word of God in order to survive. Ralph Waldo Emerson added his own interpretation to the saying, writing in 1878 that one must also live “by faith, by admiration, by sympathy.”
Break the staff of bread
Another expression with biblical allusions, breaking the staff of bread, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “to cut or diminish a supply of food.” Bread is also historically considered to be a “staff of life.”
Bread and wealth
Bread and its ingredients have long been used as signifiers of wealth. From as far back as the 17th century gingerbread was known as informal slang for money, and dough and bread continue to be used as such. In a similar vein, bread idioms are used in reference to both the “haves and have-nots.”
The person who earns the money to support a household is often called a breadwinner. When one speaks of the “sole breadwinner,” oftentimes this comes with the implication that this person is also in charge of decisions regarding the household.
Bread and butter symbolizes the average person’s income. In this day and age, one’s source of income, i.e. one’s bread and butter, is vital for survival and affects your every decision. Bread and butter are also so essential that they’re commonplace; bread and butter things are just expected to be there. (Following this line of thought, a bread-and-butter is a letter of thanks for hospitality that ought to be sent as a matter of course.)
The two meanings for this idiom are perhaps not originally, but currently mostly incongruous with each other. One’s income may be absolutely vital for survival, but it is certainly not wise to expect that it will always be there.
This proverb has served as a reminder of take heed of one’s own self-interest since at least the 16th century. You’re likely to have a better, preferred outcome to any situation if you know where the advantages lie.
When one is part of the upper class, they are the “upper crust” – well-connected, wealthy, and wield the greatest political power.
It may seem obvious, but a pan loaf is a loaf baked in a tin, and has a soft crust all the way around. The concept is familiar, but the term is used predominantly in Scottish English to distinguish it from a plain loaf, a traditional loaf with crusts only on the top and bottom (rather than all the way round). Pan-loaf (and the related pan-loafy) has been used as an adjective to describe a person or their manner as affectedly refined or cultivated. Why? A pan loaf, being more expensive to make than the plain variety, was seen as sign of affluence.
To “separate the wheat from the chaff” is to distinguish what is useful or valuable from what is not. While wheat is seen as a commodity as a food source, useful for making bread with healthier properties, chaff is considered mostly worthless because it’s inedible to humans. This idiom on value is also derived from biblical verse, the Gospel of Matthew, in which the winnowing of wheat and chaff is used by John the Baptist as a metaphor for how humans are judged (by God).
Sliced bread: a brief history
The bread slicer was an early 20th-century invention of American engineer Otto Rohwedder, and it revolutionized the packaging and serving of the pre-sliced loaves of bread. The expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread” didn’t come into prominence until the 1960s, but its general use harkens back to the impact that the innovation of sliced bread had on society during the Great Depression and the industry (such as the Wonder Bread brand of packaged sliced bread) that blossomed because of it.
Proverbial bread: a mini-quiz
How well can you interpret a bread proverb? Match the proverb to the correct meaning to test your aptitude.
Highlight the answers below to see the correct matches.
|1. Half a loaf is better than no bread – English proverb, mid-16th century||a. If something goes wrong, the outcome is likely to be as bad as possible.|
|2. Acorns were good till bread was found – English proverb, late 16th century||b. Opportunities and pleasures come too late for them to be enjoyed.|
|3. The bread never falls but on its buttered side – English proverb, mid-19th century||c. Until something better is found, what one has will be judged satisfactory.|
|4. Bread comes to those who lack teeth – translation of a French proverb, “Le pain vient à qui les dents faillent”||d. To have part of something is better than having nothing at all.|
Answers: 1. d; 2. c; 3. a; 4. b