Where Did ‘Cold Turkey,’ 'Top Banana,' and These 8 Other Food Idioms Come From?

Editor
Who don’t we quit ‘cold chicken’ and go see the "top apricot" instead?

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Why did the phrase "working for peanuts" catch on?

Even when we’re not talking about food, culinary-themed idioms and expressions have worked their way into our lives. When we give up a vice all of a sudden, we quit “cold turkey.” When something’s easily done, we call it a “piece of cake.” But why do these terms exist? Where did they come from?

Where Did ‘Cold Turkey,’ 'Top Banana,' and These 8 Other Food Idioms Come From? (Slideshow)

The English language is insanely complex. Words and phrases come into vogue all of a sudden, slang terms appear seemingly from nowhere, words that meant one thing suddenly mean another, and then just like that they fade from popularity. The definition of words change over time — everything is “awesome” these days, but not really as per the word’s original definition: “Causing a feeling of respect, fear, and wonder,” according to Merriam-Webster — and expressions come and go.

There are scores of expressions that were once popular but have fallen out of use; nobody seriously calls something they like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas” anymore. At the same time, it’s impossible to tell whether lingo du jour like “on fleek” or “bae” (email us for definitions) will stick around for good or will vanish just like “as if” and “all that.” (Our money’s on the latter.)

Some expressions, however, have stood the test of time. When we tell someone to chill out, when we get with the program, when we encounter a pain in the neck, when we screw around at work… we're using common slang terms that we don’t even think twice about using. For some reason, food has worked its way into common slang in more ways that you may realize. Maybe it’s because eating is a universal experience, so terms that incorporate food are easier to understand than ones that reference, say, auto parts. Whatever the reason, these  terms aren’t going anywhere soon. Read on for the meanings and origins behind 11 popular food-themed expressions.

Bring Home the Bacon

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When someone’s successful enough to earn a decent living, they’re said to “bring home the bacon.” Like most phrases, the origin isn’t set in stone, but this one looks like it originated in the boxing world, according to The Phrase Finder. In its coverage of a 1906 championship bout, the New York Post-Standard reported that the mother of one of the fighters, Joe Gans, telegrammed her son, telling him to “bring home the bacon.” The phrase quickly became a popular boxing term, and soon made its way into common use. Whether Mrs. Gans invented the term is unknown, but she sure helped popularize it.

Cold Turkey

Photo Modified: Flickr / Don McCullough / CC BY 4.0


When we abandon a habit abruptly, we’re quitting “cold turkey.” This odd phrase first appeared in print in the early twentieth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are a few possible reasons why it exists, according to Mental Floss. It could have stemmed from the older idiom “talking turkey,” which means “speaking frankly” (the term “talking cold turkey” appeared in the late 1800s); it could stem from the little preparation it requires to literally serve cold turkey (like quitting something abruptly with little preparation); and it may take its inspiration from the skin of someone in withdrawal: cold, clammy, and covered in goosebumps, like a cold turkey. 

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