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  • Ross Christieson

Dairy Idioms: The Cream of the Crop

English is a weird language with some really strange idioms. You can butter someone up and cheese them off. But where did these sayings come from and what do they actually mean? So let's get cheesy and dive into these bizarre dairy-focused phrases!

Milk something for all it's worth

Meaning: To exploit something to the greatest extent possible

Origin: Milking something became commonly used in theatre in the early 1500s as actors pushed for more laughs and applause from their audience, sometimes more than was warranted.

Butter someone up

Meaning: To impress someone with flattery

Origin: The phrase comes from a an ancient Indian religious act where followers would throw butter balls at the statues of gods in search of favour and forgiveness

Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth

Meaning: To imply someone is feigning innocence by acting overly calm and cool

Origin: This phrase dates back to the 1530s and references someone who is so cold they don’t even have the warmth to melt butter

The big cheese

Meaning: A leader or boss

Origin: The British colonisation of India in the 1800s led to the introduction of many new (and often bastardised) words to colloquial English. “Chiz” roughly translated to mean “thing” and became common vocabulary amongst Anglo-Indians to label something as genuine. This eventually merged with the popular English phrase “the big thing” to create “the big chiz”. “Chiz” was likely misheard by native Englishmen, bringing about the now infamous “the big cheese”.

Say “cheese!”

Meaning: Encourages someone to smile while having their picture taken

Origin: The phrase’s first use was in 1943 when it was printed in The Big Spring Herald. During an interview with Ambassador Joseph E. Davies he explained “just say cheese, it’s an automatic smile. I learned that from a politician, an astute politician, a very great politician. But, of course, I cannot tell you who he was…” The phrase quickly caught on and there are now comparable smile “hacks” in many other languages.

The cream of the crop

Meaning: The best in its class or best of the best

Origin: Cream is the richest part of the milk and rises to the surface. Cream has long been associated with the best of something, dating back to the 16th century. Cream of the crop was likely adopted thanks to its alliterative appeal as a creative reworking of the previously popular phrase “cream of the jest”.

Cheese someone off

Meaning: To be angry or disgusted

Origin: The history of this phrase is a mystery, its first usage was likely in the early 1940s.

Cry over spilled milk

Meaning: Dwell over something that can’t be undone

Origin: The first written usage of this phrase was in a document written by British historian James Howell in 1659. It likely dates back even further with origins in European folklore in which fairies were especially fond of milk and would drink spills left behind. Therefore spilt milk was not wasted but rather gifted to the fairies.

Full of the milk of human kindness

Meaning: To generously display kindness and/or sympathy

Origin: This idiom was actually created by Shakespeare in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth complains that her husband is unable to kill his rivals due to being “too full of the milk of human kindness”.


Meaning: Blatantly inauthentic, awkward, or unsubtle

Origin: In 1850s Britain, cheese meant fine or showy. As it spread to the US, in the 1890s students adopted the phrase and began using it in an ironic and derogatory way, eventually replacing the original British definition.

Milking a duck

Meaning: A comparison to a task or activity that are or appear to be impossible or time wasting

Origin: This phrase refers to the futility of attempting to milk a non-milk creating animal. The first evidence of usage of the phrase us in a short comedic news piece which said “Brother Johnathon - our young friend over the water will teach his granny to milk ducks by and by”.

’Til the cows come home

Meaning: Indicates a period of time that is both long and indefinite

Origin: Cows are, and have for hundreds of years, been known for their less than speedy pace, especially when coming back from the field. The phrase “’til the cows come home” became popular in the 19th century and was even included in print. An 1829 copy of the British newspaper The Times, while discussing a Duke running for a Ministerial position in government, included the quote “if the Duke will but do what he unquestionably can do, and propose a Catholic Bill with securities, he may be Minister, as they say in Scotland ‘until the cows come home’”.

We don't know about you, but we'll be milking these phrases for all they're worth 'til the cows come home!


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