Radio show hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett describe their show, “A Way With Words,” in three words: “‘Car Talk’ for language.” Enough said. On this week’s episode of Milk Street Radio, the hosts joined Christopher Kimball to dissect food phrases and rediscover the origins of terms that don’t make much sense at face value, like the uncomfortable reality of “being in a pickle,” or, what the word “pumpernickel” actually means.

Get an extended look at our interview with the linguists from the excerpts below, and listen to their full conversation with Christopher Kimball here.

Christopher Kimball: What does the term “in a pickle” really mean?

Martha Barnette: If you're in trouble and you're “in a pickle,” you're not actually inside a cucumber. It's a reference to the brine itself that was used to pickle cucumbers.

CPK: Let's pursue that for a second. Being “in a pickle” means you're in a dilemma or a spot of trouble. So, being in a pickling brine is problematic?

MB: Imagine that you're in a barrel full of it. It's going to be very uncomfortable, whether you're wearing clothes or not.

CPK: “Salad days” refers to our earlier days. I've always wondered about that. I've never gotten an answer about where that came from.

MB: That first appeared in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” when Cleopatra is referring to her earlier dalliance with Julius Caesar. She talks about her salad days when she was green in judgment. The green relates both to salad and to youthful immaturity.

CPK: How about making someone “eat crow”? There are pies made with all sorts of birds, but that probably has nothing to do with the explanation, right?

Grant Barrett: It's possible actually. To “eat crow” would be the same as to eat “humble pie,” or the undesirable innards of deer and other animals. It wasn't the best pies or the best meat, but it's what you would serve to the low staffers or give away to the homeless. Another layer to the expression is that “crow” itself can also mean animal intestines or the pluck of an animal.

CPK: How did your mouth get designated as a “pie hole”?

GB: I don't know. It's one of my favorite terms, so I hesitate to look into it. When you work in the language business, sometimes you don't look at things up because you don't want to ruin it. I don't want to know more about it. I want to use it and have fun with it.

CPK: Is there a good example of a word or phrase that either of you has looked up and wished you hadn't?

MB: Yes. Oh, gracious.

GB: Shambles.

MB: Or pumpernickel, I'd say. The nickel in pumpernickel bread has to do with an old term for the devil, and pumper comes from a German word for passing gas. Sometimes the etymology is changed, but the last time I looked at pumpernickel, it had to do with the devil passing gas.

GB: Shambles happens to be food-related because it refers to the blood- and fly-specked benches that butchers used in London. So, if you talk about a room "in shambles," you're saying this looks like a disgusting butcher's room.

CPK: I don't think I can order a roast beef on pumpernickel now. I know I asked, but you've ruined it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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