Four weeks ago, I was caught in a web of prepositions; I’d written one column about them, but left so much out that I felt impelled into a second. Much the same has happened this week: having served up a meal of English idioms involving food, I’m offering yet another course of them — driven this time not by my own feelings but a reader’s.
He felt my column two weeks ago didn’t cut the mustard: I’d omitted that curious way of saying ‘wasn’t up to the job’, and he was keen as mustard to learn more. That latter phrase is easily explained: mustard bites one’s taste-buds, it’s sharp, in that rare but usable sense keen. But why — more often of people than things — cut (or, usually, can’t cut) the mustard? I’ve never known.
Google the phrase and you’ll find many would-be explanations. The dottiest involves the alleged technicalities of the alleged old British craft of mustard-making. Fun, but I don’t believe a word of it.
So I left the phrase out. Ditto that odd phrase in apple-pie order, that is, ‘very good order’. Why? An apple pie (America’s national dish until hot dogs were invented) is no neater than other pies. And there’s no help in another use that’s odder still. Younger boys at British boarding schools used to so (mis)make some pal’s or enemy’s dormitory bed that he couldn’t get his feet to the bottom: an apple-pie bed. I no doubt enjoyed such practical jokes 70-odd years ago.
Apples figure also in what’s called cockney rhyming slang, in which two nouns serve for one: for example, dog and bone for ‘phone’, tea leaf for ‘thief’, apples and pears for ‘stairs’. The second noun is often left out: a recent online dispute whether any cockney actually uses apples and pears these days was settled by a London furniture-remover, who said his workmates used apples for ‘stairs’ constantly. But the slang is dying these days — or bogus. I myself, no cockney but not alone, readily use take a butcher’s for ‘take a look’, from butcher’s ’ook; but I’d feel and be a pretentious fool if I used any other of the many supposed cockney phrases. Many British foods may figure among them, but so what, now that east London houses as many Bangladeshis as cockneys?
The Jews who used to live there have given us (mostly middle-class “us”, such as journalists) kosher — not a food but the adjective for food that Jews can properly eat, so meaning ‘okay’. Bread and butter is an old phrase for ‘everyday’; the meat of the matter a quite recent one for — sorry, vegetarians — ‘the things that really count’; small beer survives as ‘something trivial’, though long dead in its original sense, ‘weak beer’: three phrases as natural in British mouths as, I imagine, unnatural in many Indian ones.
Natural too to an island race is there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it, the cynical if realistic phrase, seeing fish as items on the menu, not as swimmers, with which young men console a mate who discovers the girl he fell for hook, line and sinker has fallen for somebody else. Some such phrases are self-explanatory: as slippery as an eel; or pepper-and-salt cloth, a woollen fabric that looks made up of small white-and-brown dots; or off his nut, once you know that nut is slang for ‘head’. But why bananas, with the same meaning? Fair enough, a girl at a party sitting out because no man invited her to dance was, in the days of such parties, a wallflower, but why is a person unwanted — eg, by some courting couple — playing gooseberry? Why are elderly ladies derided as old trouts?
Here again, I can’t cut the mustard. But here’s light on a truly odd phrase, now dead but still mystifying if you do meet it: all Lombard Street (a former bankers’ alley in the City of London) to a china orange, ie, ‘overwhelming odds’. Why? What is a ceramic fruit doing here, as at least one expert has asked? Answer: for china read China. Sinaasappel — Chinese apple — is simply the Dutch for an orange.