Unusual food and drink phrases explained: meanings and origins of 16 idioms such as ‘piece of cake’

Reading this article may make you feel hungry . . .

In the English language, there are many phrases which are used to help people express how they feel. Some of these are idioms, ie. expressions which have a meaning that is not immediately apparent and does not match the literal meaning of the words. There are a number of them which relate to food and drink - even though they have nothing to do with food or drinks at all.

So, what are some of the most common food and drink expressions, what do they really mean and when did they first start being used? Keep scrolling down this article to find out everything you need to know.

To learn even more about the language and etymology, check out our dedicated words and meanings page and also articles such as unusual English phrases explained: meanings and origins of 14 idioms such as ‘break a leg’, also unusual animal-based phrases explained: meanings and origins of 15 idioms such as ‘get off your high horse’ and why do you say white rabbit on the first of the month?

Butter wouldn’t melt

Meaning: This phrase is used to refer to someone who doesn’t look like they would do anything wrong - though it’s usually said in surprise when someone actually has done something wrong. It can also be used to refer to an individual who is a little naïve and innocent.

Origin: This is an old phrase which dates back to the 16th century. It is believed to have first been written in 1530, in John Palsgrave’s L’éclaircissement de la Langue Française : "He maketh as thoughe butter wolde nat melte in his mouthe."

You’re the apple of my eye

Meaning: This is a phrase people say when they are talking about their favourite person, someone they love more than anyone else.

Origin: This expression has religious foundations. The phrase is from the Bible, and it appears in four books of The Old Testament: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Proverbs and Lamentations.

It’s a piece of cake

Meaning: A term that is used to mean that something is or was very easy to do.

Origin: There is some debate about where this phrase comes from, but many seem to think it dates back to the slave trade in the 1800s when slaves would perform a competitive dance known as cakewalk. The winner of the dance would be rewarded with cake, and over time the expression came into use.

Have your cake and eat it too

Meaning: This phrase is used when a person wants to have the best of both worlds, but these things do not match up well together and can’t be achieved at the same time. For example, if someone wants to get a good grade in a test but they don’t want to study much to achieve this and instead want to do sociable things then this would apply. The expression is usually used in the context of telling someone they can’t have their cake and eat it too.

Origin: The oldest known use of the phrase was in a letter from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell in 1538.

As different as chalk and cheese

Meaning: This phrase is used to compare two people, or ideas, which are completely opposite and fundamentally incompatible.

Origin: There are two theories about where this expression came from. One is that it was first used by John Grower in his book in Confessio Amantis in 1390 where he wrote “Lo, how they feignen chalk for chese”. There are others who believe the saying can be traced to Wiltshire, South West England. Farmers from one side of the area had to raise sheep because of the chalky land, but farmers from the opposite side of the area raised cattle and made cheese. They only met at markers where they were selling their wares.

Like two peas in a pod

Meaning: This phrase is used to describe two people who are very similar.

Origin: One of the earliest instances of the use of this expression is in Euphues and his England by John Lyly in 1580. He wrote: “Wherein I am not unlike unto the unskilful painter, who having drawn the twins of. Hippocrates (who were as like as one pease is to another)." It literally refers to two peas which are in the same pod being virtually identical.

16 unusual food and drink idioms explained, including ‘piece of cake’, ‘how the cookie crumbles’ and ‘two peas in a pod’.
16 unusual food and drink idioms explained, including ‘piece of cake’, ‘how the cookie crumbles’ and ‘two peas in a pod’.
16 unusual food and drink idioms explained, including ‘piece of cake’, ‘how the cookie crumbles’ and ‘two peas in a pod’.

Cool as a cucumber

Meaning: This expression is used to refer to a person who is very calm and relaxed, even in the face of something which could cause worry or concern. It’s all about someone’s temperament rather than their temperature.

Origin: The phrase was first written in a poem by the British poet John Gay called “New Song on New Similes” in 1732. He wrote: "Cool as a cucumber could see the rest of womankind".

Bring home the bacon

Meaning: This is an expression which simply means “to earn money”.

Origin: The phrase is said to have its history in a 12th century game which took part in Essex, England, called the Dunmow Flitch Trials, where competitors literally took home some bacon if they won. It’s open to married couples, and they simply have to persuade the judges that they have not argued in 12 months. The trials still take place today and the next one takes place in July 2024.

Don’t cry over spilt milk

Meaning: The expression means there’s no point in being upset about something that has already happened and can’t be changed.

Origin: The phrase is a modern take on the historical idiom “no weeping for shed milk” which was first written down in 1659 in “Paramoigraphy”, a book by Welsh historian and author James Howell.

That’s not my cup of tea

Meaning: This expression is used when someone wants to politely say that something is not to their liking.

Origin: The phrase has changed meaning over time. When it was first introduced into the lexicon in the 18th century, people used it favourably to say someone was their cup of tea, meaning something is just what they like. By the 20th century, however, the usage had gradually changed and people tended to use the expression in the more negative context that we still use it in today.

Take it with a pinch of salt

Meaning: This expression is used when people have an awareness that something someone has told them may not be totally true and may be exaggerated or even purposefully misleading. It means that what someone has said should not be taken as complete truth, though there may be some elements of truth there.

Origin: It is believed that this phrase comes from ancient times, specifically in 77 A.D. from Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder. It’s thought that he used the phrase when translating an antidote for poison, advising that it should be taken with a grain of salt.

You’re comparing apples and oranges

Meaning: To compare two things that are completely different and have no properties in common. It is often used by people who are saying that the comparison between two things would be unfair.

Origin: The idiom can be traced back to 1670 in the author John Ray’s proverb collection. In this context, the phrase referred to oysters as something which can never be compared with the apples. It’s not clear how oysters came to be changed to oranges over time.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles

Meaning: This expression is used when people are talking about the natural way that things happen. It’s usually said in the context that something has happened in a negative way but there’s nothing that could have been done to change the outcome.

Origin: This phrase is newer than many others and is said to have come into use in the 1950s. Its exact origin is unknown, but it was first used in America as a cookie is the American word for biscuit.

Half baked idea

Meaning: This expression is used to refer to an idea that isn’t fully thought through and lacks a solid foundation. It is also sometimes said if someone thinks a concept is somewhat foolish.

Origin: When the phrase was first used in the 1600s it literally meant undercooked or underbaked food. By the 1800s, however, it was used by people to express their opinion that an idea was silly.

Bigger fish to fry

Meaning: The expression is used by people when they mean that they have more important things to do or more interesting things to give their attention to.

Origin: The phrase originated in the work “Memoirs” by John Evelyn in 1660.

Best thing since sliced bread

Meaning: This phrase is used when people want to express how excellent they think something is and it helps to convey their enthusiasm. It can be used when talking about a new product, a person or any other activity or occurrence.

Origin: The phrase is adapted from a literal meaning. In 1928, the advertising slogan used by the Chillicothe Baking Company, who were the first company to sell sliced bread, was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”.