Breakfast Idioms: A Short and Sweet History
While breakfast is not really thought of as a time for inventive wordplay—not until after the coffee has been poured anyway. But the breakfast table and its contents have inspired a number of proverbs and idioms over the past century or two. Whether it’s coffee or tea, doughnuts or pancakes, here’s a few of turns of phrase courtesy of the first meal of the day.
You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs
Meaning: You cannot achieve a goal without sacrificing something else.
Origin: The phrase’s origin is attributed to one François de Charette, a French naval officer at the time of the French Revolution. He led royalist troops in the Vendée region, participating in numerous battles, as well as becoming an expert in guerilla warfare. When Charette was eventually captured, he was ordered to account for the many deaths the caused in the course of battle and reportedly proclaimed, “on ne saurait faire d'omelette sans casser des œufs“ and it’s been used as a fair-to-poor excuse for wanton destruction ever since.
Example: Sure, we got a $50 parking ticket, but we weren’t late for the concert: You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole
Meaning: Focus on what you have, instead of what is missing.
Origin: This phrase was popularized by Mayflower Donuts as part of “The Optimist’s Creed”—“As you ramble through life/Whatever be your goal/Keep your eye on the doughnut/Not on the hole.” Doughnut Corporation of American founder Adolph Levitt embraced it as his personal credo and printed it on every package, whether powdered sugar or plain, and hung it in every Mayflower Coffee Shop from Boston to Chicago. Recently, it’s been popularized by none other than David Lynch, who uses it as the basis of his directorial philosophy.
Example: Sure, you lost your purse so you don’t have your wallet or your keys, but at least you still have a bottle of wine: Keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole.
Bring home the bacon
Meaning: To earn a salary, bring home a paycheck, earn a living.
Origin: The first officially recorded use of the idiom was in 1906, in a telegram to World Lightweight Championship contender Joe Gans from his mother, assuring her son that he would be victorious and “bring home the bacon.” It was most memorably used in the Enjoli perfume commercials of the 70s, in which a glamorous blonde stood in front of a wind machine, magically changing outfits while bragging that “I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up I a pan/And never, never let you forget you’re a man.” It was either empowering or unrealistic depending on how one felt about frosted lipstick and the idea of “having it all.”
Example: I’ve been experimenting with various forms of blank verse for years, but waiting tables is how I bring home the bacon.
Wake up and smell the coffee
Meaning: To become aware of reality, no matter how unpleasant.
Origin: The birth of this idiom is lost in the sands (grounds?) of time, but it was popularized by advice columnist Ann Landers, who began using it in the late 50s when telling a woman that her terminally unemployed son-in-law was just lazy or er “working late” husband was cheating. Landers used the phrase as the title of her eleventh book of advice but in another book, Ann Landers in Her Own Words: Personal Letters to Her Daughter, Landers claims she picked up the coffee bit from an old friend named Rosie Phillips and “thought it was funny.”
Example: Wake up and smell the coffee, Heather, no one is wearing Uggs anymore!
The first pancake is always spoiled
Meaning: The first attempt is usually a failure.
Origin: This phrase has its origin in a Russian proverb that translates as “the first pancake is always a blob.” It is meant to be encouraging—you must crawl before you can walk, failure is the mother of success, etc. In reality, the bad first pancake is usually caused by a griddle that’s not hot enough. Make whatever metaphor of that you will…
Example: The prototype of the Android Galaxy 7 just spontaneously combusted but, hey, the first pancake is always spoiled.
Have egg on your face
Meaning: To be embarrassed by something you have done
Origin: This idiom popped up in the 1930s—the first recorded use is in a January 1936 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. It is believed that it comes from the idea that, in the theater, lousy performers would be pelted with eggs—as can be seen in the 1930 film, The Blue Angel, when professor-turned-clown Emil Jannings forgets his clown routine on stage, gets an egg smashed on his face, goes nuts, and tries to strangle Marlene Dietrich before keeling over dead in his old classroom. Not a good day.
Example: … and after I’d given this big introduction to the Ambassador from Greenland, it turned out he was the Ambassador from Iceland. Boy, did I have egg on my face.
To settle one’s hash
Meaning: To get even with someone, give them what they deserve
Origin: There are two stories of how dealing out retribution became synonymous with a diced breakfast food, both stemming from the mists of the late 19th century. One contends that the term employs the term “hash” as meaning mess or muddle, thus “settle one’s hash,” means to fix their mess. Another notion springs from the idea that “hash” is derived from “hatchet” and it means to, well, take an axe to your enemy. Which usually does “settle” them.
Example: I told him if he tried to grab me again, I would settle his hash.
Not your cup of tea
Meaning: Not what one likes or is interested in
Origin: The phrase “cup of tea” was first heard in Great Britain (where else) in the early twentieth century. Novelist Nancy Mitford first used the affirmative “my cup of tea” in her 1932 book, Christmas Pudding. The negative version came into popular use during World War II—there’s a lot more to not like during wartime than to like, natch--arriving stateside in Hal Boyle’s column Leaves from a War Correspondent’s Notebook.
Example: I know gory splatter films are not your cup of tea—actually, they’re a cup of tea many may choose to spit out into the sink.
I’ll teach your grandmother to suck eggs.
Meaning: To give advice to a person on a subject about which they know more than you.
Origin: First seen in an early eighteenth century English translation of a play by the Spanish author Francisco de Quevedo, the phrase has since been used by such lauded English authors as Henry Fielding and Percy Shelley, as well as in the classic Ren & Stimpy tune, “Happy Happy, Joy Joy.”
Example: So after I taught the new girl how to log on to the server, it turns out she’s I.T. She didn’t say anything, basically just sat there for 10 minutes letting me teach my grandmother to suck eggs.