What follows is a bit of a dogís breakfast. You donít care what dogs eat, let alone to find a piece of it in your daily paper? Iíll explain my point.
It is: the number of English idioms that involve food. The dog figures in one. Like many idioms, theyíre rooted in British life, often long-past life, not Indian. So you may have met them and been baffled. Many modern Britons are too.
Hot potato youíll have met, some task or issue hard to handle. A big cheese too, though why cheese Iíve no idea. I once enraged a few Economist readers by calling some Greek-Orthodox bishop in America a big feta ó a dull kind of Greek cheese. I could see what their beef was (complaint: it also serves as the verb) but I thought they were making a meal of a weak but harmless joke (taking it far too weightily). And I didnít give a row of beans if Iíd offended a few readers to entertain many. I was ready to sit down, cool as a cucumber, and tell the complainants to get lost.
Not so my editor. He told me to eat humble pie. Now plum jobs in journalism like mine at the time donít grow on every mulberry bush. Why plum? Itís been used to mean a tit-bit, something special, since the 18th century. But mulberry bush? Donít grow on trees is common, but why pick out the mulberry ó rare in Britain, and thus unsuited to this metaphor? Anyway, I duly ate, and sent the angry Greek-Americans milk-and-water apologies.
Some such idioms just reflect physical fact: the pork-pie hat has little brim; sheepish face; egghead; as like as two peas; going pear-shaped, an ugly new phrase mirroring the female figure after a certain age; peasoupers for Londonís old dense fogs; tripe for nonsense ó animal innards which northern England (itís role in English regional mythology is that of Punjab in Indiaís) used to eat, and the French still do.
Others reflect a distant past. Mediaeval menials ate at the far end of the nobsí table, below the salt ó hence worthy of his salt. Likewise peppercorn rent, literally one peppercorn per so long to show some land was indeed rented, not owned, by the occupant. Others are older still: young men have been sowing their wild oats before marriage since forever, shepherds getting back to their muttons, farmers making hay.
Time has killed some phrases. Who now says neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring (a sea-fish, actually silvery, though it turns red-brown when smoked ó Ďkipperedí ó that once abounded around Britain)? Or fears some virtuous deed will butter no parsnips (a root vegetable that peasants in fact seldom ate).
Some idioms defy explanation. A dim banker doesnít know how many beans make five; why beans (and now bean-counters for statisticians)? Why did anyone ó it was before P.G. Wodehouse ó invent old bean or bad egg? Just what is corny about (American) corn? Itís plain why Yanks find some easy task a piece of cake, easily chewed and nice to taste. But why does some outrageous action take the biscuit?
And some explanations are false. We all know a red herring, a misleading clue. But the usual explanation ó that the smelly kipper used to be dragged across some trail to mislead hounds, or train them not to be misled ó is probably fiction.
And so back to the dog. If youíre asked the square root of pi and you produce six pages citing Euclid, Freud, Srinivasa Ramanujan and the Mayan calendar, youíve written a dogís breakfast of an answer: a mess.