Words at Play

Words That Come From the Dinner Table

'Cold shoulder,' 'Barmecidal,' and more surprising food-related terms


The etymology of the word satire is a full plate, figuratively and literally. In the early 16th century, satire had a meaning closely related to the senses in which it is still used today. It was a term for a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn, and though no longer necessarily literary, the function of the term remains much the same.

Satire is derived from Latin satira and its earlier form satura, which in classical times meant "a satirical poem." Before the development of this style of poetry, however, the preclassical satura was a poem dealing with a number of different subjects often treated in a number of different manners, even sometimes shifting back and forth between verse and prose.

This sense of "a poetic medley" gives a clue to the early development of the word. According to classical Latin grammarians, satura evolved from the phrase lanx satura, literally "a full plate." Satura is a form of satur, meaning "sated" or "full of food," and the grammarians specify that lanx satura once meant a plate filled with various fruits or a dish made from a mixture of many ingredients. This derivation of satura accords with the "satirical poem" sense of satire and the word's beginnings as a poetic medley full of variety, like a dish of mixed ingredients.

If you're invited to a Barmecidal feast, it is recommended that you eat beforehand.

Barmecidal (or Barmecide) describes something that provides only an illusion of plenty and abundance. The adjective derives from the name of a rich and powerful ruling family in 8th-century Persia, the Barmecides, or Barmakids. One of the Barmecides was the subject of a tale told in the The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. This story led to the figurative use of the Barmecide name.  

The Barmecide prince, it is told, invited a local beggar, Schacabac, to dinner. The prince served the hungry man course after course of empty dishes, pretending that they amounted to a sumptuous banquet, in order to test the beggar's sense of humor. It was Schacabac who had the last laugh, however. Schacabac went along with the prince's joke, pretending to enjoy his illusory meal. Upon being offered some imaginary wine, the beggar pretended to fill and refill his goblet. In feigned drunkenness, he clumsily knocked the prince over. Amused rather than angry at Schacabac's actions, the prince rewarded the good nature of the beggar with a real feast.  

The imaginary meal led to the use of the prince's name to mean an illusion of abundance. Thus, nowadays, a Barmecidal feast, banquet, meal, etc., is one that, however inviting to the eye, fails to satisfy or live up to expectations. 

MWH Americas Inc., for instance, charged the city $5.4 million for overseeing repairs to the auditorium. If you happen to be passing by any time soon, and see no sign that anyone has laid a finger on it, do not fear for your vision. This is MWH's version of the Barmecidal meal.
— James Gill, The Times Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 17 Mar. 2010

Lucy ... has a slightly far-away look in her eyes, as if the bottle of wine is a prelude to some Barmecidal feast that will suddenly drop from the rafters onto a dozen gleaming gold plates.
— D. J. Taylor, The Windsor Faction, 2013

Being given the cold shoulder makes you feel unwanted, but you can bounce back from that feeling. In the past, that wasn't as easily done—it left a bad taste in your mouth. Being given the cold shoulder meant you were served a cold shoulder of mutton—a less than mouthwatering presentation of a not very choice meat—as a meal. After the inhospitable meal, it was hoped you wouldn't stay long or return.

Eventually, cold shoulder of mutton was shortened to cold shoulder, bringing about a disassociation with the cut of meat. As early as the 19th century, cold shoulder was applied to dealing not just with unwelcome guests but with any unwanted attention and a physical display of intentionally cold or unsympathetic treatment developed in association with the term's use in phrases such as to give the cold shoulder and to show the cold shoulder.

A saltcellar is a small container for holding salt. In the past, it was placed at about the center of the dining table and served as a hierarchical dividing line. Those who sat above the saltcellar were among the higher ranks; those who sat below were of inferior social standing. Although the saltcellar is no longer used to physically demarcate social rank, the custom has influenced figurative uses of the phrases above the salt and below the salt as indicators of social importance.

[George H. W.] Bush, the acknowledged front runner in the undeclared race for the 1988 nomination, settled in above the salt with former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi….
— Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 10 Feb. 1986

The learned prose is peppered with slangy expressions from below the salt: the elderly John Ruskin was "cuckoo"; "rightwing loonies" used to oppose fluoride in drinking water; Goya painted "things that went bump in the night"; and "Licht is certainly right on the beam about the essential ... modernity of Goya's challenging cutie."
— John Updike, The New Yorker, 3 Nov. 2003

Seeing a disembodied hand writing on the wall during dinner can mean one of two things: you’ve imbibed too much or your name is Belshazzar. 

According to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, King Belshazzar is said to have had a great feast during which he had the golden vessels that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had taken from a temple in Jerusalem brought out so that he and his noble guests might drink from them. At this sacrilege, a human hand appeared and wrote on the wall the words mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. The king demanded of the prophet Daniel an interpretation. Translated from Aramaic, the words mean: "numbered, numbered, weighed, divided," which Daniel interpreted as God has numbered and weighed Belshazzar and his kingdom and has found them wanting—thus, his kingdom has been divided. Belshazzar was slain that night. 

It is from this story that the phrase writing on the wall or handwriting on the wall, meaning "an omen or sign of one's unpleasant fate," originated. The expression began being used outside biblical contexts in the 18th century. An early example is from English satirist Jonathan Swift who used it to decry the precariousness of financing in his 1720 poem "The Run Upon the Bankers":

A baited Banker thus desponds, From his own Hand foresees his Fall; They have his Soul who have his Bonds; 'Tis like the Writing on the Wall.

Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi effectively applied the phrase in an appeal to Britons in 1940:

This war has descended upon mankind as a curse and a warning. ... It is a warning that, if nobody reads the writing on the wall, man will be reduced to the state of the beast, whom he is shaming by his manners.

Today, unexpected guests are often served "potluck" for dinner, or whatever happens to be in the pot (or the refrigerator) that evening. And potluck suppers are an American affair in which those invited bring a dish to share, and with luck a balanced menu falls into place.

The term originated several hundred years ago. One account of its origin, perhaps a bit more colorful than factual, says that peasants of that time, since they received no appreciable wages and had no local grocery store at which they could do their shopping, depended mostly on whatever bits of meat they could scrape together or their lord felt like giving them. When there was enough meat in the pot, they would make a stew. It was never exactly the same kind of stew twice because on different days, different things had the "luck" of falling into the pot.

While eating a homemade soup having a base from boiled bones, you may find an occasional bone. It has been suggested that the source of the expression to make no bones about, meaning "to be straightforward, unhesitating, or sure about something," may have something to do with bones in a soup. 

Back in the Middle Ages, finding bones in a soup was fairly common, and a person had to eat with some degree of caution. When no bones were found, it meant one didn't have any obstacles in the enjoyment of the soup and found no objection to eating it. The theory on the origin of the phrase to make no bones is based on this association of bones to objection. Much like a person eating a soup and upon finding bones says they can't eat the soup, a person may find (or make) figurative bones about doing something objectionable. To make no bones about then implies that there is no objection and, hence, no reason for hesitation or uncertainty.

Another theory about the expression equates bones with dice, which have been called bones since at least the 14th century from their being originally made of bone. If some gamblers made a big deal about throwing their "bones" by mumbling good-luck charms over them and breathing on them (the way some people still do), it could conceivably follow that to make bones was to do something with great hesitation.  

However, since an early record of the expression also refers figuratively to swallowing, the soup theory seems more likely.

Supped it up at once; She founde therein no bones.
— John Skelton, Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng, 1545

Furthermore, the expression was at first used in highly literary contexts, a circumstance seemingly less likely if the expression had originated in gambling slang more familiar to the criminal underworld.

When you are invited to dinner, it's good to know the reason for the occasion—just ask Damocles

Damocles was a courtier of Dionysius the Elder, a tyrant who ruled over Syracuse from 405 to 367 B.C. A flatterer, Damocles often spouted off about the happiness that Dionysius enjoyed in his position as king. According to legend, Dionysius became annoyed by Damocles' constant references to his power and decided to teach him a lesson. He invited Damocles to be a guest at a banquet. Damocles was delighted until he discovered that above his head at the table hung a sword suspended by a single hair. He spent the remainder of the banquet in fear for his life. In this way, Dionysius vividly demonstrated the precariousness of a sovereign's position and life. As a result of this story, sword of Damocles came to refer to an impending disaster or doom. 

A famous use of the expression is by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 1963:

Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

The allusion behind the expression to hang by a thread, meaning "to be in a very dangerous situation or state," is also tied to the legend of Damocles.

A salver is a tray for serving food or beverages. Considering the history of the tray's name, you may want to think twice before taking your next finger food or drink from one. Its name is an adaptation of French salve, a word for a tray used for presenting objects to a king that itself was derived from Spanish salva. Salva refers to an old practice in royal and noble households of sampling food or drink to see whether it was poisoned; the word was also used for the tray on which the tested item of food or drink was served. It is a derivative of the verb salvar, "to save, render safe, test food or drink."

English did not borrow the unsavory historical uses of salva: since the 17th century, salver has simply meant "tray." However, it cannot be overlooked that a salver may still hold items that might cause some doubt about their edibility.

A skeleton in the closet can be kept secret, but one brought to a feast or banquet must be dealt with.

The origin of the expression skeleton at the feast (or banquet) has been traced back to a description by ancient Greek moralist and essayist Plutarch (circa A.D. 46 to 120) of the Egyptian custom of bringing in a skeleton or mummy at a feast or banquet as a reminder of mortality amidst the festivity. It is unclear whether this reminder was meant to encourage indulgence or put a wet blanket on things. Either way, the skeleton surely made an impression on the guests, but apparently not on writers: the exact phrase, skeleton at the feast, didn't debut in English literature until the 19th century. Generally, the expression is used in reference to someone or something that serves to bring unpleasant memories or prospects to the minds of pleasure-seekers.

You lucky dogs! Let me sit here while you talk. I shan't be a skeleton at the feast.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed, 1891

In that mansion used to be Free-hearted Hospitality; His great fires up the chimney roared; The stranger feasted at his board; But, like the skeleton at the feast, That warning timepiece never ceased ...
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Old Clock on the Stairs," 1893

The expression's heyday was in the 19th century, but it still makes an appearance from time to time.

Last Tuesday, cities and towns across the nation honored their veterans. And in almost every such celebration, the skeleton at the feast was Americans' embarrassed awareness that, for more than a decade, virtually the entire burden of successive wars has been borne by only a fraction of the citizens on whose behalf those wars presumably have been fought.
— Richard Hart Sinnreich, The Lawton (OKlahoma) Constitution, 16 Nov. 2014




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