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Bringing Home the Bacon

Q From Ed Smits, Canada: While looking in Wikipedia for something else, I found a page that said Bringing Home the Bacon came from a twelfth-century practice that survives only in the English town of Great Dunmow. The church promised a side of bacon (a flitch) to any man who could swear that he and his wife had “not wisht themselves unmarried again” for a year and a day. Men who “brought home the bacon” in this way were held in high esteem in their communities. This is one of those too neat explanations that defy belief.

A Agreed. It’s also been said that it refers to the old fairground contest of catching the greased pig, whose prize was the pig, so the winner brought home the bacon. Your story reminded me at once of one of the tales told in that infamous e-mail about life in the 1500s that endlessly circulates online. That claims “it was a sign of wealth that a man could ‘bring home the bacon’.”

That’s true today, though usually in a broader sense of supplying material support to one’s family or achieving success, but it’s hard to assert with a straight face that it was so back in 1500 or 1300. We can’t absolutely prove it wasn’t around then — proving a negative is always difficult — but its total absence from the historical record before 1906 rather gives a pointer to its being modern.

The first recorded user of the expression was Mrs Gans, mother of Joe. He was a famous boxer at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the first native-born black American to win a world title. That was in 1900, when he was 26. Six years later he fought Oscar “Battling” Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada, now virtually a ghost town but then a booming community, the largest in the state. The match has been rated as the greatest lightweight championship bout ever contested, whose fame has endured enough that its centenary was recently marked in the area.

This is the way the crucial linguistic moment was reported in the Reno Evening Gazette for Monday, 3 September, 1906:

The following telegrams were read by Announcer Larry Sullivan. Gans received this from his mother: “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring back the bacon.”

Various stories say that after he won the fight (it ended in Gans’s favour after 42 rounds when his opponent hit a low blow and was disqualified) he sent a telegram back to his mother in Baltimore: “Bringing home the bacon”. Other reports claim that what he really said was that he wasn’t only bringing back the bacon but the gravy, too. These are probably later elaborations of what clearly soon became a widely known story.

Was Mrs Gans repeating a saying that was already well known to her? Perhaps, even probably. But it isn’t recorded anywhere that I can discover before she sent that telegram. And it clearly struck a powerful chord of both originality and relevance with those at the 1906 bout. She repeated the phrase in another telegram at his next match the following January and her words were greeted with laughter and repartee.

Almost immediately — within weeks rather than months — it became common on the sports pages of the newspapers, at first referring to boxing but later to baseball, football, horse racing and rugby. By 1911 it had started to be used of politics. When P G Wodehouse used it in Ukridge in 1924 (“It may be that my bit will turn out to be just the trifle that brings home the bacon”) it had become firmly established in the US.

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Page created 06 Jan 2007