Table Talk

Roost or roast?

The expression "to rule the roost," meaning "to show mastery," is more than 400 years old. Etymologists are still unsure on whether its origin is "rule the roost" or "rule the roast." One thing is sure: The phrase you use depends on where you live.

"To rule the roost" (as on a perch) suggests a rooster overseeing a chicken coop. "To rule the roast" refers to the master of the house, who presides over the cutting and serving of the roast meat. According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Americans prefer the first expression, while British use the latter. To complicate matters, "roost" used to be mispronounced "roast," and "roast" was often pronounced "roost."

Giving the cold shoulder

One can imagine the expression "cold shoulder," meaning a rebuff, growing out of lovers' quarrels, when one party turns away from the other. Not so, according to etymologist Robert Hendrickson, who insists its origin lies in its full expression: "to give a cold shoulder of mutton."

During the Middle Ages, it was customary to serve a hot meal to welcome guests. A cold shoulder of mutton or beef was given to a visitor who had overstayed his welcome - or who was not welcome in the first place.

After a few unsubtly cold meals, most guests probably took the hint.

Eating humble pie

There really is a dish called humble pie. But its "humbles" have nothing to do with humility. Its root is the Latin for "loin." Humbles are the innards of a deer, which were served in a pastry crust during the 11th century. While the lord of the manor and his guests feasted on venison, servants and huntsmen ate humble pie. Later, "humble" shed its culinary meaning, though humble pie is still humbling.

To bring home the bacon

Today, it means to return in victory or be the family breadwinner. It may also refer to catching a greased pig at a country fair. But historical records suggest that it dates to the 12th century, when bacon was awarded to the happiest married couple.

In Essex County, England, a side of cured and salted bacon was presented to the husband and wife who, after one year and a day of matrimony, could swear at the church door that there had been no marital discord between them, only bliss and joy.

One record shows but eight such awards between 1445 and 1772. "Eight claimants in over 300 years is at least a tribute to British honesty," quips linguist John Ciardi.

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