Join 3,438 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Where does "bread and butter" come from?
March 19, 2007 5:12 AM   Subscribe

When walking on the strip in Vegas recently, a couple walking toward me was forced to split to either side of me, and the woman said "bread and butter!". I remember my mom using this phrase when I was a kid, but it was the first time I'd heard it from someone else. What's the origin of this phrase?

My mom's from Iowa/Kansas, and no telling what part of the States (or Canada) that couple was from. I'm wondering as well if any Brit MeFites have heard this expression.
posted by zardoz to Human Relations (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd never heard this myself, but I think that's really cute. The Word Detective has some information about it. If you scroll all the way down, it's the third-to-the-last question. It says:
But it's not so widespread as to be well-documented, evidently. Only one source (the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE) of many that I checked even mentioned the phrase. DARE explains it as "an exclamation used when two people walking together are momentarily separated by someone or something coming between them." The earliest citation listed by DARE is from The Federal Writers Project "Guide to Kansas" published in 1939, where the "bread and butter" ritual is described as a "ubiquitous" incantation among schoolchildren of the area. If it was ubiquitous in 1939, the ritual is probably much older, possibly dating back to at least the 19th century.

"Bread and butter" is not listed in one place I hoped to find it, Iona and Peter Opie's "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" (Oxford University Press, 1959). As this extraordinarily fine volume (now, unbelievably, out of print) covers only the British Isles, "bread and butter" may be a native American creation.

As to its meaning, I think it's simply one of a number of rituals children follow, on the order of "step on a crack and break your mother's back," designed to invoke magical protection from bad luck. In this case, the fact that bread and butter "go together" gives the ritual power as an affirmation of togetherness, lest a momentary separation be an omen of permanent one.
posted by diamondsky at 5:33 AM on March 19, 2007


The first time I heard this was in a made-for-tv movie about John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I'm not sure what that means.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:43 AM on March 19, 2007


This is still common in Glasgow (my hometown), Scotland. I've not heard it so much in Aberdeen (where I live now). Sorry I can't help with the origin but it's still used over here in the UK.

It's used as above (when a third party walking "through" two people causes a split) but it's used most often when the third party is a lamppost.
posted by dcbarker at 5:52 AM on March 19, 2007


My girlfriend, who's from Philly, has strong superstitions about not letting anything split a group walking together, but there isn't an incantation to fix it. If you're walking in a group and one of you walks on the wrong side of a pole, they need to back up and go around the other side. Same goes for other obstacles — bike racks, parking meters, and yeah, people.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:53 AM on March 19, 2007


I was actually just talking about this the other day -- My friends and I used to say it when we were kids (Washington, DC suburbs), but it seems that most folks around here have never heard of it.
posted by amarynth at 5:56 AM on March 19, 2007


My SO is from the Midwest and she says it all the time. According to her, if we don't say it, it's bad luck and we will fight later.
posted by MasonDixon at 6:09 AM on March 19, 2007


I remember this from an old (40's-era?) Looney Tunes cartoon. A train, I believe, has to split in two - or perhaps there were two trains passing closely, my memory is hazy - and the occupants kept repeating "bread and butter."
posted by Bud Dickman at 6:13 AM on March 19, 2007


my mom says it, she's from Miami Beach. I don't recall it being used by schoolmates, etc. when I was a kid (miami 'burbs)
posted by necessitas at 6:14 AM on March 19, 2007


I say it. It can be bread and butter, salt and pepper, or any other good pair.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:18 AM on March 19, 2007


Growing up in Ohio, my mom used to say it all the time. There wasn't any luck associated with it, either way; it was just a cute thing to do. Don't know anything more than that.
posted by olinerd at 6:18 AM on March 19, 2007


A friend of mine from Victoria, Canada uses the expression. I am from Vancouver and, before hearing her say it, I was unfamiliar with the expression.
posted by sindark at 6:19 AM on March 19, 2007


Boston, MA born and "bread", and this was a very common saying in my elementary school -- we did lots of walking field trips around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:32 AM on March 19, 2007


I use it all the time too- Long time New England family.
But I am NOT sure where I got it but I dont think school.
posted by beccaj at 6:39 AM on March 19, 2007


My grandmother from St. Louis is very serious about doing this. She believes it's bad luck to be split (usually by a lamp post) and will walk back around it. And also say "bread and butter." It's actually kind of amusing to set up such situations when we're walking on the street to watch it take place. ;)
posted by iguanapolitico at 6:43 AM on March 19, 2007


I've heard this on Monk.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:52 AM on March 19, 2007


My mom said it when my sister and I were kids, I guess as a cutesy thing to do with the kids. She would also have us come up with different "pairs" to say. She was a teacher. She liked to slip lessons into everything.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:56 AM on March 19, 2007


Oh, for geographical reference: Southern Illinois.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:57 AM on March 19, 2007


My mother did this, occasionally. According to her, one party said "bread and butter" and the other had to respond "cheese and cherries". I had forgotten about this till reading this post.
posted by zadcat at 7:30 AM on March 19, 2007


I've never heard of the "bread and butter" bit, but a friend of mine is seriously bothered when a group is split by poles. "Don't break the poles!" is pretty common, followed by him pitching a hissy when I do it just to bother him.
posted by cmyk at 7:43 AM on March 19, 2007


I remember this from an old (40's-era?) Looney Tunes cartoon. A train, I believe, has to split in two - or perhaps there were two trains passing closely, my memory is hazy - and the occupants kept repeating "bread and butter."

I remember something similar, also with Looney Tunes. A pair of animals (big cats, I think) pacing in their cages in the zoo have to walk around a pole, and each time, they say "bread and butter".

When I was a kid, I used to read books of old superstitions and their (alleged) origins, and those were the only other place I saw this. So count central and Eastern Kentucky out if it, if you map the occurrence.
posted by dilettante at 7:59 AM on March 19, 2007


I say it -- well, I rarely say it aloud, but always think it. It's applicable any time anything comes between the person/group and me, as we're walking. Technically, at least as I remember it, the person you're with is supposed to say it as well.

In my highly-superstitious mind, if I don't say it, then there will be a rift between me and that person.

Not sure where I learned it, but most likely as a kid living near Baltimore.
posted by nearandfar at 8:17 AM on March 19, 2007


I learned it from yet another Looney Tunes cartoon, this one involving, IIRC, two centipedes. As Bryan Ferry says, you can guess the rest....
posted by kimota at 8:28 AM on March 19, 2007


I don't know the answer, but you're not the first to ask (Scroll down to "What really bothers me is this silly rabbit's-foot coat she makes me wear.")

The earliest citation listed by DARE is from The Federal Writers Project "Guide to Kansas" published in 1939, where the "bread and butter" ritual is described as a "ubiquitous" incantation among schoolchildren of the area. If it was ubiquitous in 1939, the ritual is probably much older, possibly dating back to at least the 19th century.
<snip>
As to its meaning, I think it's simply one of a number of rituals children follow, on the order of "step on a crack and break your mother's back," designed to invoke magical protection from bad luck. In this case, the fact that bread and butter "go together" gives the ritual power as an affirmation of togetherness, lest a momentary separation be an omen of permanent one.
posted by contraption at 8:29 AM on March 19, 2007


Oh, so I meant to add that, clearly, it was a well-known thing in America by the early 40s. Has anyone had a chance to check for it in Lighter's Dictionary of American Slang?
posted by kimota at 8:31 AM on March 19, 2007


I say it all the time, always have. I'm from the North Western US. Had SO's that also said it, from both New England and Original England.
posted by French Fry at 8:33 AM on March 19, 2007


Not heard it even once here in England. A poster above reports use in Scotland, but it's certainly not UK wide.
posted by wackybrit at 8:41 AM on March 19, 2007


My mother (from Georgia) says this. She also sometimes says "My mother makes" (or eats, I forget which) "black-eyed peas on New Year's Day" when splitting a pole. She has no explanation for it.

It makes for a lot of fun when taking walks with her on streets with lots of street lamps. "My mother makes... My mother makes... Bread and... My mother makes - damn it would you stop that!"
posted by sephira at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2007


I'm from Ireland and I've never heard it ...
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:19 AM on March 19, 2007


I'm from Ohio and I said it when I was a kid (which I had totally forgotten until reading this post). My mom was from Virginia and my dad from Ohio.
posted by matildaben at 9:47 AM on March 19, 2007


My kids and I say it but with a twist - one person will say Bread & Butter, then the other will say Peas & Rice, then both will say "Hey! That's nice!" (thanks to Conjunction Junction for that twist).
posted by jazon at 10:20 AM on March 19, 2007


Further anecdotal evidence: Dick Powell and Ellen Drew say it in Preston Sturges's "Christmas in July" (1940).
posted by celkins at 11:37 AM on March 19, 2007


My mother (from rural Texas) says it.
posted by BluGnu at 12:03 PM on March 19, 2007


I remember Bugs Bunny saying it. Bugs Bunny rocked.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:14 PM on March 19, 2007


I don't have my copy of Annotated Alice here with me, but I really, really think the first time I heard any reference to it was in there. I believe Alice is talking to some female royal person, and that person says "bread and butter" in a place where it doesn't make total sense, and Gardner surmises that it may be from the expression? Please tell me someone else on AskMe is a Lewis Carroll nerd (or person in a library) who can look this up. It might only be in the Definitive edition, but I'm inclined to believe it's in the original.

I recognize that "Alice is talking to a royal person who says something nonsensical" doesn't narrow it down much at all. It so happens that there are tons of references to bread and butter in those books, so it could be one of any number of places. However, if I had to guess, I think it's the White Queen (& therefore Through the Looking-Glass, in the part where she and Alice are talking and she knows she's going to get pricked with the brooch.

In any case, I'm almost positive that AA makes reference to the school-age kid habit of saying this. Whether Gardner claims it goes back to Victorian times completely escapes me.
posted by crinklebat at 12:37 PM on March 19, 2007


I read a book in elementary school that said that there's a superstition about saying that when two people are walking along holding hands and have to separate.

Apparently the idea is that bread and butter are inseparable--not just a good pair, like salt and pepper, but actually inseparable after you put them together. (I mean, you can scrape the butter off the bread, but you won't get it all off and there will be crumbs in it.)

So basically what diamondsky said.
posted by Many bubbles at 2:41 PM on March 19, 2007


crinklebat, I can look it up!

The White Queen only looked at her in a helpless frightened sort of way, and kept repeating something in a whisper to herself that sounded like `bread-and-butter, bread-and-butter,' and Alice felt that if there was to be any conversation at all, she must manage it herself.

Gardner's note mentions several possible meanings, including this one:

In the United States a more common use of bread and butter occurs when two people, walking together, are forced to "divide" and go on both sides of a tree, post, or similar obstruction.

I was thrilled when the definitive edition was released. My old paperback copy of The Annotated Alice was in pieces.
posted by amarynth at 3:22 PM on March 19, 2007


Just chiming in to say that one of my grandparents said this. I think it was father's mother's second husband. I grew up calling him my grandfather. Anyway, it was for when you were holding hands and had to lift your hands over something. I had forgotten all about it and it was a pleasant childhood thing to remember.

I believe he was from New Jersey. I know my grandmother was, and I was living in Baltimore when I learned it.

I'll have to start using that again.
posted by bilabial at 6:57 PM on March 19, 2007


Late to the party, but my girlfriend and I say this (she learned from her grandmother when she was young). This is the first third-party confirmation I've ever had that it wasn't just a family ritual.
posted by rafter at 10:53 PM on March 21, 2007


All my life I've done this. One person says, "bread and butter", the other person says, "cheese and crackers". Mother is from St. Louis FWIW.

I wish there was a decent site collecting stuff like this, but though I've looked, I've yet to find one that wasn't regional.
posted by stinkycheese at 3:35 PM on March 22, 2007


« Older Visiting the Ashland/Medford a...   |  [BondFilter]: What is this bon... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.