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From soup to nuts

Q From Dave Reeder: On reading your comments on from cellar to dome, I was struck by the resemblance to the phrase (used in the computing industry that I write about) of from soup to nuts, as in a supplier who covers the whole range of a customer’s needs. I’m guessing this originates in the US but am curious as to its origins. It clearly refers to an ornate meal or banquet, but why the assumption that the common listener would have had such a meal? I would welcome your insight, as always.

A The idea that everything, or the beginning to end of a matter, can be expressed by the first and last dishes conventionally served at a meal goes back a long way. The Romans had a similar idiom, ab ovo usque ad mala, from the egg to the apple, which described the typical meal.

You’re right to suggest that from soup to nuts is American. The current entry in the Oxford English Dictionary dates it from 1920 but with the aid of digital resources that can be taken back some way:

American Dinners. — The rapidity with which dinner and dessert are eaten by our go-a-head friends is illustrated by the boast of a veteran in the art of speedy mastication, who “could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.”

The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor, London, 18 Dec. 1852.

It may not have been an everyday occurrence, but formal or public set meals in the USA did commonly start with soup and ended with a dessert course in which nuts frequently featured. This is a sample dinner menu from a grander establishment than most:

Oysters on Half Shell, Mock Turtle Soup, Boiled Halibut, Roast Haunch of Venison, Chicken Patties, Baked Lemon Pudding, Jelly Kisses, Raisins, Nuts, Fruit, Coffee.

The Whitehouse Cookbook, by Mrs F L Gillette, 1887.

The tradition of such big meals lasted well into the twentieth century:

It was still the heyday of the big summer-resort hotel [in the US] ... with a vast dining room in which were served huge meals on the American plan, with a menu which took one from celery and olives through soup and fish and a roast to ice cream, cake, and nuts and almonds, with sherbet as a cooling encouragement in mid-meal.

The Big Change, by Frederick Lewis Allen, 1952.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 December 2010.