What Is The Origin Of (286)?…

Know on which side your bread is buttered

Bread is the staff of life, they say, and I do enjoy a nice slice from a crusty loaf. In my rather half-hearted attempt to control my cholesterol intake, I eschew butter. In days when the range and supply of foodstuffs was not as plentiful as it is today, a coating of butter, freshly made preferably, would be the veritable icing on the cake, topping off a nourishing and filling repast.

The custom was to plaster only one side of the bread with butter, we will come on to the concept of buttering both sides later, so that the eater had a side they could hold without getting greasy, smeared fingers. The buttered side held the riches of the repast and was the enjoyable part. The phrase to know on which side your bread is buttered uses the image of a slice of bread in a figurative sense to denote that someone has the sense to realise where their best interests lie.

The 16th century in England was a period of religious turmoil and if you were a public figure, or at least a courtier, you needed to be particularly savvy and back the right horse in the ongoing battle for ascendancy between the Catholics and Protestants. Our phrase originates from at least the middle of the 16th century, appearing in a compendium of proverbs compiled by the playwright and epigrammatist, John Heywood; “thou knowst not who doth ye harm, who doth ye good/ yes yes (quoth she) for all those wyse words vttred/ I knowe on whiche syde my brease is buttrd”. The sense has remained the same to this day.

Having both sides of a piece of bread buttered is not only extremely messy and makes it difficult to eat but also be seen to be a tad on the greedy side. Rather like wanting your cake and eat it, the phrase want one’s bread buttered on both sides is used to denote wanting something more than is practicable or reasonable to expect. There is a French equivalent, on ne peut pas avoir le beurre at l’argent du beurre, which translates along the lines of you can’t have the butter and the money for the butter. It is one or the other.

It is a phrase likely to have been used in common speech from at least the 18th century, although the earliest printed usage appeared, without a gloss, suggesting that it would have been understood by the readership, in The Morning Post and Gazetteer on August 13, 1801; “there will be no want of money while the terms are so good for the Lenders, who expect to have their slices of the Loan buttered on both sides”.

While we are on the subject of bread and butter, there is also a phrase used to denote that someone is well provided for, to have one’s bread buttered for life. Again, its early appearances in print were with quotation marks, suggesting that it was proverbial and understood by the reader. The Carlisle Journal printed on December 28, 1849 a story about one Colonel Grey who interposed himself between the gun of Lord Canning and the Prince of Wales who had inadvertently strayed into range. They had the good grace, or was it lordship, to admit it was a hoax, noting that “the story is truly a good one; and the Colonel’s bread appears to be buttered for life…but…the Colonel’s chances of promotion at once cut short by the announcement…that the whole is a fabrication!

That’s enough bread. I’m off to make a sandwich.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.