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We’re keen as mustard for condiment words

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Written by Stan Carey

Metaphors are part and parcel of English. Language lets us map the world around us, and metaphors are an important way of doing this. We take an image or idea from one domain and apply it in another, extending its use. This often takes the form of a physical idea being expressed in a figurative way.

Food is one such domain. The language of food is rich and varied, and refers to very common and tangible feelings and experiences. So food words lend themselves well to metaphorical use. So well, in fact, that we can take one small section of food – condiments – and find an array of these metaphors in use.



A condiment, per Macmillan Dictionary, is ‘something such as salt, pepper, or a sauce that you put on food at the table to make it taste better’. Each of the three examples in the definition has been turned into a common adjective – salty, peppery, and saucy – to refer to things other than salt, pepper, and sauce.

Salty featured in a recent Macmillan Dictionary quiz on trending words – try it out, if you haven’t yet. It has the primary meaning of ‘containing salt, or tasting like salt’. But it also has a couple of metaphorical meanings: ‘clever and funny, especially when involving humour relating to sex’ (this sense is labelled ‘old-fashioned’), and ‘bitter or argumentative because of being upset’.

Peppery, like salty, usually has the obvious literal meaning. But when it’s not referring to the condiment pepper, it can mean ‘easily annoyed’. Since pepper is known to make people sneeze by irritating their nose, you can see why the metaphor arose.

Saucy, by contrast, does not normally refer to sauce. It has two common metaphorical senses: ‘saucy pictures, jokes etc refer to sex in a way that is funny’, and ‘someone who is saucy shows little respect for people in authority’ (an old-fashioned sense). Similar to sense 1 here is spicy, derived from spice, another condiment.

Vinegar is sometimes used metaphorically to refer to sourness. This sense is not included in Macmillan Dictionary, which means it’s not very common. But if you saw the word used this way, you could guess its meaning based on the context and on what you know about vinegar.

Marmite, a British condiment and spread, is so divisive that the word has gained metaphorical use as an adjective that is ‘used for describing something that people tend to strongly like or strongly dislike’, as in: Our show was very Marmite with critics.

Some condiments, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, soy, and salad cream, have yet to gain common metaphorical use, but maybe they will one day. Others appear in fixed expressions, such as the comparative phrase ‘as keen as mustard’. If you’re unsure whether you should use condiments this way, remember: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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