English English language Etymology Expression food Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.)

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.”

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.”

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company.

The word “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.”

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.”

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados.

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.”

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent.

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?”

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too.

We’ve written before on Grammarphobia about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.”

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Bone appétit

Q: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story about a wealthy landowner and a shepherd that ended with the proverb “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” I’ve seen many theories about the origin and meaning of the proverb. Are you aware of the actual origin and meaning?

A: The proverb originated in the Middle English of the late 14th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a 13th-century Latin work compiled by Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“Þe nerre þe bone, þe swetter is the fleissh” (“the nearer the bone, the sweeter is the flesh”).

The passage is from a section of the encyclopedic work about why some foods are sweet and others bitter, why some stimulate the appetite and others suppress it. No story is mentioned. The one you heard from your mother probably appeared later and used the proverb to make a point.

The OED‘s citations for the proverb include versions with “closer” as well as “nearer.” The first citation with the usual modern wording is from a May 13, 1778, letter by Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister in Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, who was then the American ambassador to France: “We all agree the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat.”

The dictionary doesn’t comment on the meaning of the expression, but the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as a proverbial saying that reflects “both the belief that meat close to the bone has the best taste and texture, and the idea that it is valued because it represents the last vestiges of available food.”

The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge has noted that it’s also used as a “low catch-phrase applied by men to a thin woman” (from the 1937 first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

The OED cites Partridge’s comment as well as this passage from Shibumi, a 1979 novel by Trevanian, the pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker: “A little skinny in the arms and waist for my taste but, like my ol’ daddy used to say: the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat!”

In a post we wrote a few years ago, we included an analysis by the philologist Neal R. Norrick of two proverbs: “Like father, like son” and “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.” (“NP” and “VP” are short for “noun phrase” and “verb phrase.”)

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father,’ ” he writes. And “another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone.’ ”

As we say in our earlier post, Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers. To put things simply, proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

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