Butter Up! 7 Butter Expressions

Posted on 02 Aug 2014 20:32

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So Many Butter Idioms and Expressions!

Have you ever realized how important butter is? Cream cheese may think it is the cat's meow, but to English and American folks, if not Scottish and Irish folks as well, butter is where it's at. To realize this, all you have to do is count the number of expressions and idioms we have concerning butter.

Bread and Butter (Earning Your)

Your 'bread and butter' is your main or only source of income. It's how you pay your rent and basic bills. It's your primary occupation or the main aspects of that job. There was also a time when to butter your bread meant to secure a decent living.

Sometimes, we use the expression bread and butter to mean a dull, tedious, and unrewarding job. A factory worker on an assembly line might say "It's bread and butter work." The main product that your company makes, the one that earns most of the profits, is your bread and butter product. It may also refer to common or everyday things. The expression even found its way into boxing to describe a boxer's main punch or combo: His bread and butter punch is the right hook. Bread and butter, similarly, can be used to describe the main and most important components of anything.

There is an older saying: "Don't quarrel with your bread and butter." It means don't give up the way you earn your living. What we call today a "thank-you note" might once have been called a bread and butter letter, which is a letter written to thank someone for their hospitality. This usage occurred in America around the end of the 1800's.

We already know that bread is one of the most important foods in all of history. And bread has thus found its way into countless expressions, and superstitions. I've already written about the charm bread and butter for good luck.

Know Which Side Your Bread is Buttered On

The buttered side of the bread is the good side. We only butter bread on one side, so one side is always better than the other. To know what side your bread is buttered on then, means to know what is good for you. If you "bite the hand that feeds you" then you do not know what side your bread is buttered on. If you are rude to the people who can help you advance, then likewise, you do not know which side your bread is buttered on. This means we can't have our cake and eat it too, which leads us to the related expression:

Want Your Bread Buttered on Both Sides

If you want your bread buttered on both sides, you want more than a person should reasonably expect to have. So, if you butter your bread on both sides, you are burning the candle at both ends, and may be doing too much, and living too fast, etc. At the same time, the expression might refer to someone who lives in opulent surroundings, or who has a lot of wealth: "He has his bread buttered on both sides," might be said of someone who lives in a palace filled with servants, marble, and expensive furniture.

Butter Someone Up

If a person has their bread buttered on both sides, you might want to butter them up to gain their favor, and hopefully some kind of advantage. To butter someone up is to flatter them excessively. when you are a real kiss-up, you might "lay it on thick." Buttering someone up always has the connotation of being insincere, and done solely in the hopes of getting what you want. When you want to land a big contract, you might have to butter them up to get them to agree. A related Yiddish expression is to schmear, which means either to flatter or to bribe. There's that cream cheese again! Usually, a brown-noser who butters up important people will appear as if:

Butter Wouldn't Melt In His Mouth

This is an old idiom which refers to someone who looks innocent and as if they would never do anything wrong. Butter usually melts in your hand, let alone your mouth, so a person like this always appears calm and in control, and perhaps, self-satisfied, like the cat that ate the canary. This person might look quite gentle and innocent, but looks are deceiving. If you have watched the TV show Cold Justice you've seen people in interrogations about whom we might say, butter wouldn't melt in their mouth.

Of course, we usually don't put butter in our mouths, without first smearing it on something. After all:

Butter to Butter is No Relish

This means exactly what it seems to mean. Butter is something we use to elevate something more basic and substantial. We don't put butter on butter! A much older Scottish version of this saying is butter to butter's nae kitchen. A basic Gaelic version is butter to butter is neither food nor kitchen. This expression seems to have been used to refer to two women dancing together, or kissing each other. Bread to bread was used in the same way.


To call someone butterfingers means they often drop things they are holding or carrying as if their fingers are greasy and objects just slip right out of their hands. We often think of this as a modern expression, but it has actually been around since the 1800's, where it was at first exclusive to cricket and baseball (at least as far as we know). Dickens used the term butterfingers to describe a clumsy cricket player in The Pickwick Papers (1837).

Undoubtedly, there are more butter expressions I have yet to uncover!

If you are interested in exploring more idioms, check out Idioms Online.

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