The Grammarphobia Blog

From soup to nuts

Q: Can you shed some light on why the phrase “from soup to nuts” represents the concept “from A to Z”? After all “soup” doesn’t begin with “A,” nor “nuts” with “Z.”

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as “US colloq.” and defines it as “from beginning to end, completely; everything.”

All the published references in the OED are from the 20th century. The earliest is this one from Won in the Ninth, a 1910 book of sports stories by the pitching great Christy Mathewson: “He knew the game from ‘soup to nuts.’ ”

However, the word sleuth Barry Popik has discovered several much earlier appearances of the expression, including one that offers a clue to its origin.

Here’s how The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor (1852) describes the pace of an American dinner:

“The rapidity with which dinner and dessert are eaten by our go-a-head friends is illustrated by the boast of a veteran in the art of speedy mastication, who ‘could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.’ ”

Why, you ask, “soup” and “nuts,” rather than, say, “apples” and “zucchini”? Because an old-fashioned dinner often began with soup and ended with nuts.

As avid readers of 19th-century novels, we’ve come across many a scene in which a meal ends as a bowl of walnuts and a nutcracker are passed around with the port.

And as Popik reports on his Big Apple website, the idea of using the first and last courses of a dinner to mean the whole shebang didn’t begin with Americans.

The Roman poet Horace used the phrase ab ovo usque ad mala (“from the egg to the apple”) to mean from start to finish. Or as we’d put it, from soup to nuts.

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