Bread, Food Facts & Lore, Fricassee of Words

Fricassee of Words – To Butter Someone Up

We can hardly believe that it has been three years since we’ve posted an article about food expressions. We must resume this playful practice at once, for we have barely scratched the surface. Hmm, that’s another expression to investigate right there! But first, here’s a brief recap to explain our choice off words to identify this segment.

A Fricassée is a dish of meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy, usually along with a medley of vegetables. Thus, Fricassée of Words refers to a stew of musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play. Here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to nibble at.

“Are You Trying to Butter me Up?”

Meaning: To butter up someone means to be especially nice, and more specifically to flatter them in an attempt to get something from them.

While the meaning of this expression is clearly illustrated by the choice of words, its origin is not so immediately assessed. The more pragmatic linguists estimate that it stems from associating the opulence off a well-buttered slice of bread, and the utterly smooth and satisfying sensation of buttering it, with smoothing the path to making a special request of someone we have reason to believe might not respond favorably without all the fuss. In this instance, spreading nice words is akin to spreading golden butter.

Placing this in a historic context, we might conjure up the position of the servant buttering toast for his or her master or mistress at a time when only the wealthy could secure such refined assistance. This fails to fully satisfy the meaning of the phrase, however, the moment we recognize that the use and enjoyment of butter was by no means restricted to the household of the upper class. But it is not merely about the butter, is it? It is about the demeanor. And so someone who butters up another individual is, at least symbolically, adopting for a moment the demeanor of a servant. Something to think about the next time you catch yourself rehearsing your best butter-up script.

History buffs prefer the second, shall we say, more epic origin of the phrase “to butter someone up.” The setting is ancient India; the ammunition, ghee butter. Also known as “clarified butter,” ghee is what’s left after water has been evaporated and milk solids separated from butterfat. It is the traditional butter of South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking.  And it has been used in ancient religious rituals and traditional medicine since ancient times. This, some believe, is the source of our butter-inspired expression.

In ancient India, it was common practice to spread (or throw, according to some accounts) small balls of ghee butter onto sculptures representing various deities at the time of worship. This offering was, intended to secure favors from them, such as good fortune, abundant crops, peace and health. This practice may have originated as far back as 1600 BCE.

More recently, in Tibet, sometime between 600 and 900 AD, sculptures were made out of colored butter and put on display for all benevolent beings of heaven to see. This practice was common at the time of the New Year celebrations.

Offering food to the powers that be is indeed an ancient practice and butter is an especially significant choice. It embodies a people’s connection to the land, and the shared labor that brings sustenance and progress. With this in mind, the meaning of “buttering up someone” might be revised to mean honoring our shared experiences. This, of course, would change the game when it comes time to set the stage for requesting a favor. You are so wise and clever, we know you’ll give this some thought. 🙂

You may also enjoy: Pass the Butter, Hmm… Margarine, Please

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