INTRO: Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti are back with an English lesson that's a piece of cake.
MUSIC - "EAT IT"
AA: A college student named Jo from Shanghai got us thinking about food. Jo writes, "There are a lot of expressions in English that are very useful, and what's more very interesting."
RS: Our listener says, an example is "when someone asks you to do something which is quite easy, instead of saying, it's easy, you would say, `It's a piece of cake.'"
AA: That's right, and, you know Jo, we read your letter at lunchtime, and so we jotted down a whole list of food-related expressions. We decided to talk them over with Slangman David Burke, who cooked up a list of his own. "Piece of cake," he says, means more or less the same as "easy as pie."
TAPE CUT ONE: DAVID BURKE
"'Easy as pie' comes from the time when making a pie was really easy. All you do to make the crust was (mix) water, flour and lard, and the pie was simply apples, cinnamon, and sugar, That's why bakers used to make hundreds of pies in the mornings. It was very inexpensive and easy to make."
RS: Moving from pie, back to cake and to the icing on the cake, we chewed over another expression.
TAPE CUT TWO: DAVID BURKE/SKIRBLE/ARDITTI
DAVID BURKE: "`Icing on the cake' simply means `This tops everything. It's the best we could possibly be talking about.' For example, going to France is wonderful, but to go there on the Concorde, now that's icing on the cake. You couldn't do any better than that."
RS: "What about (the expression) `That takes the cake.'"
AA: "Meaning you've almost gone too far. It's really outlandish."
DAVID BURKE: "Exactly. It means outlandish. And, it can be used either negatively or positively. For example, let's say you are at a party and a woman walks in who has tons and tons of makeup and her hair is about three feet off her head. You could say, `Wow, she really takes the cake.' Or say you were going to buy a car, and they show you the most beautiful car, `Wow that really takes the cake.' It means that it is the best!"
AA: According to the Dictionary of American Slang by Robert Chapman, the term "takes the cake"
was in use by 1847 and came from the prize awarded in black American dancing competitions known as cakewalks.
RS: We no longer dance the cakewalk, but we've kept the expression.
AA: Walking down the produce aisle we come across a bunch of bananas and some peas. David Burke helps us put these words into context:
TAPE CUT THREE: DAVID BURKE/SKIRBLE/ARDITTI
DAVID BURKE: "I'm tired of playing second banana to that pea brain."
RS: "Second banana!"
DAVID BURKE: "Second banana. Now why do you think that we say that one?"
AA: "As opposed to the top banana!"
DAVID BURKE: "Why you do think we say those expressions?"
AA: "Is the top banana the one that gets the most sun? It's on top of the bunch."
DAVID BURKE: "You just guessed that didn't you! You are absolutely right!" That's it.
"If you are the top banana, you're the one that is exposed to the sun. The ones below (the top banana) are the ones that don't really get as much sun. The second banana is not quite as sweet, but it is ok. So, you never want to play second banana, you always want to be top banana. But if someone calls you a pea brain."
RS: "Very small (brain)."
DAVID BURKE: "Very small, the size of a pea.
So, that one is pretty easy."
RS: Bananas can also mean "nuts," meaning either crazy or wildly enthusiastic, depending on the context.
AA: For instance: "She went bananas over the dress and bought one in every color."
RS: The "Dictionary of American Slang" suggests that this expression comes from the spectacle of an ape greedily gobbling bananas.
AA: Now, before we peel out of here, all this talk about food might whet your appetite for "Slangman" David Burke's web site, where you can learn about his newest books on American slang and idioms. The address is www.slangman.com. Slangman is spelled S-L-A- N-G-M-A-N.
RS: Have a question about American English? Let us know, and we'll try to answer it on the air. Write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington,DC 20547 USA or use our e-mail address, email@example.com.
AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.
MUSIC -- "Food Glorious Food"