Friday, October 30, 2009

In The Soup = In Trouble

The whole enchilada


There is a wealth of food-related phrases that add flavour to the English language.

WITH ayam percik, roti jala, nasi kerabu, ikan bakar, lotus paste mooncakes with golden egg yolks, murukku, vadai, laddu, thosai with tomato chutney still fresh on my tastebuds (and thoughts), various food-related phrases come to my mind.

The English language has sprinkles and dashes of foodie phrases which may or may not be related to food at all. As a firm believer in a balanced diet, I would like to share with readers some morsels (or metaphors) for you to chew on.

Bread and butter

Bread is a staple food in the West while in in our region, rice is the grain of choice.

Bread and butter refers to the way one earns a living (similar to the phrase one’s rice bowl) and a breadwinner is the one who supports the family.

Bread and water means “the plainest and cheapest possible food”, which has its origins in the way Christians observe a fast in imitation of Jesus surviving in the desert. To know which side one’s bread is buttered is to know “what will be to one’s advantage”.

For example: “Leela’s family was living on bread and water when their father, the breadwinner, died in a car accident. Although selling fresh cow’s milk was his bread and butter, her mother has now started a small business offering tailoring services. While she appreciates friends and family dropping by for a chat, she knows which side her bread is buttered and attends to her customers promptly.”

Potato is a staple food in South America. A common phrase that incorporates this root vegetable is a hot potato – a “thing or situation that is difficult or unpleasant to deal with”.

For example: “The issue of whether to teach Mathematics and Science in English is such a hot potato, I wonder if we’ll ever hear the end of it.”

A couch potato is simply a lazy person whose life is confined to the couch.


While bread has positive meanings, butter is very much like its greasy and oily properties. If you have butter-fingers, you are likely to drop anything you hold. If you tend to be extremely pleasant to someone in order to get something from them, you’re buttering somebody up. Worst of all, if you look as if butter would not melt in your mouth, you’re acting innocent, kind and gentle when you may be the total opposite!

The whole enchilada

An enchilada is a popular Mexican dish, which is a tortilla (corn pancake) filled with a meat, chicken or tomato-based sauce (or salsa), rolled and topped with sour cream, guacamole (avocado sauce), grated cheese and peppers.

The whole enchilada, much like the dish, refers to something impressive or outstanding e.g. “Did you know that Becky is a celebrity now? She’s got a blog, an agent, a chauffeur, a personal assistant, a personal shopper, endorsements, VIP invitations, speaking engagements – the whole enchilada!”

In the soup

The ultimate comfort food, soups are associated with warmth and tender loving care. However, you would not want to be in the soup because it means “being in trouble” in informal British slang as defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

In hot soup seems to be the popular phrase now especially in newspaper headlines highlighting the misdeeds of politicians.

Letting someone stew in his or her own juice means you let someone suffer the unpleasant consequences of their own actions without helping them.

Clams up

Most people enjoy a beach holiday and digging into seafood. Interestingly, seafood-related phrases are not as pleasant. For instance, if your brother clams up, he’s not talking and if he’s crabby, he’s bad-tempered or miserable. He could be feeling like a fish out of water or he feels awkward because he is in strange surroundings. Hopefully, he’s not a cold fish also because that would mean he’s a hard-hearted, unfeeling person.

Or he has bigger fish to fry i.e. to have more interesting or important things to do. Perhaps, he smells something fishy i.e. he is doubtful or suspicious over what you’ve asked him!

Salad days

Fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you but it’s not good if someone says that you’re still in your salad days as it means you’re young and inexperienced. Another favourite phrase, in a pickle, refers to “a difficult or unpleasant situation”, which reflects the fruits or vegetables preserved in salt or vinegar the phrase originates from.

Sour grapes refers to someone pretending that something they cannot have is not important to them e.g. “Alexa says she doesn’t care if her sister is prettier, more popular and getting married but her best friend says it’s just sour grapes.”

On the other hand, peachy refers to a situation where everything is fine e.g. When you ask Alexa how she’s feeling, her answer is always, “Just peachy.”

Dripping with honey

Always a hot spot, the dessert table serves a mix of metaphors e.g. if a man’s or woman’s words are dripping with honey, beware that they may be buttering you up. I’m rather suspicious when anyone tells me something is as easy as pie because in my experience, a pie is anything but easy to bake.

Don’t be flattered if someone dubs you a fruitcake for they may think you’re mentally unsound and unless you enjoy the pancreas of a young calf or lamb, do not order the sweetbread from the menu! Bon app├ętit!

Christine Jalleh is a communications specialist with a Master’s degree in English Language Studies. She blogs about English, culture and travel at


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