Our conversation is sprinkled with phrases that are not literal, yet we know what they mean. We don’t give a second thought to our language. Pretend you were a foreigner just learning English and you overheard this conversation.
Joe: I can rebuild your website from soup to nuts, with all the bells and whistles.
Jill: That’d be great. My computer crashed last week and it killed me! I pounded my head against the wall for day before I called you.
Joe: Yep, out of the blue things happen.
Let’s see. What does a website have to do with food? And are there really bells and whistles? Can a computer crash, as in hit something? Did someone actually die? Do people really bang their heads? If things come out of the blue, can we put stuff into the blue? Do things come from any other colors?
Our phrases and idioms are common to us, but it’s fun to listen with new ears. I actually did have a computer guy tell me he could fix up my website from soup to nuts so I looked up the origin of that phrase.
Dear old wikipedia proclaims: “’Soup to nuts” is an American English idiom conveying the meaning of “from beginning to end.” It is derived from the description of a full course dinner, in which courses progress from soup to a dessert of nuts. It is comparable to expressions in other languages, such as the Latin phrase ab ovo usque ad mala (“from the egg to the apples”), describing the typical Roman meal.”
My meals don’t usually go from soup to nuts, but I get the gist. Now perhaps I’ll start saying from eggs to apples and see if anyone notices.
The origin when the phrase “bells and whistles” came into popular use is not clear. Bells and whistles were used to draw attention so that has something to do with the meaning. Jingle bells on a sleigh, for example, were a signal of oncoming traffic, not just to sound pretty and to be fodder for Christmas carols.
Now all the extra features of an item are attention-getters, saying, “Hey look at me.” You can get a car with all the bells and whistles, meaning all the cool gadgets. Cars now have horns and don’t need bells and whistles to notify people that they’re coming.
The other explanation for the phrase is that back in the old days, sometimes people were presumed dead prematurely and buried alive. You could buy a coffin with bells and whistles in case your loved one woke up six feet underground and thus would be able to signal for help. Fact or fiction, I do not know.
Perhaps a computer crash is easy to understand. We have car crashes, computer crashes, and when we fall asleep on our friend’s couch, we say we crashed there for the night. Crash conveys an abrupt ending. Probably every culture also has terms of frustration that exaggerate into killing or banging heads, etc.
Out of the blue is short for out of the clear blue sky or fell out of the sky. When something happens unexpectedly, with no warning or advance notice, we say it came out of the blue. Like a storm that comes up quickly and suddenly. It just seems to come out of the sky, out of the blue.
We use many phrases without thinking about the origin or literal meaning. If something comes easy, it’s a piece of cake. For me, that’s also dessert. How about a new phrase? From soup to cake, anyone?
(Kelly Epperson Simmons is an author/speaker/coach who helps people become authors. Visit www.kellyepperson.com, call toll free 888-637-3563 or write email@example.com.)