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shameless pleading

Bringing home the bacon

Back when men were men and dinner was lard.

Dear Word Detective:  I really enjoy reading your columns. Every once in a while I think of something to send in, but then fail to follow through. I came across one that is not in your archives. Can you tell us about “bringing home the bacon”? — Craig Scheir.

Hey, I have the same problem, although from the other direction. I’ll think of something to write about while I’m wandering through the supermarket, but then promptly forget about it. I used to try to carry a tiny notebook in my coat pocket in which to jot down such things, but I forgot to bring it along so often that I finally gave up. Elsewhere in the land of fog, I could have sworn that I have answered this question before, but apparently I haven’t.

To “bring home the bacon” actually has two senses. The more common today is “to provide for” or “to supply necessities” in the sense that a family’s “breadwinner” earns enough money to support the household (“Pete is now a father who has relocated to the suburbs … and takes the long train ride into the city every morning to bring home the bacon” Mad Men review, 3/12). The other meaning, which seems to have been the original sense, is “to win; to succeed, to take home the prize.”

My sense that I might have dealt with “bring home the bacon” before is probably due to the fact that it’s one of a dozen common phrases supposedly explained by a chain email that appeared around 1999 entitled “Life in the 1500s,” apparently inspired by the movie “Shakespeare in Love.” I say that the email “supposedly” explained these phrases because, as I noted at the time, “even the parts of the essay that are not overtly insane are still utterly wrong.” In the case of “bring home the bacon,” this silly email claimed that pork was such a rarity in most households in the 1500s that prosperous families had a special rack in the dining room on which it was displayed to envious visitors, who would marvel at the husband’s ability to “bring home the bacon” while they were given small bits and encouraged to “chew the fat.” Givest me a break.

As a symbol of modest prosperity, meat has a long history (most recently perhaps in Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign ads featuring “a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”), and a side of bacon would indeed have been a boon to many working families in any age. But “bring home the bacon” is actually a much more recent phrase that you might imagine (and, in fact, apparently about four centuries newer than that email fable would have you believe).

The earliest citation for “bring home the bacon” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1924 (“It may be that my bit will turn out to be just the trifle that brings home the bacon,” P.G. Wodehouse). But Michael Quinion, of the World Wide Words website (worldwidewords.org), has located a use dating back to 1906, in newspaper articles reporting on a crucial fight in the career of Joe Gans, a famous African-American boxer of that time. Apparently, just before the fight, his mother sent him a telegram urging him to win and “bring back the bacon.” He did win, and telegraphed his mother back in Baltimore that he was indeed “bringing home the bacon.” As Michael Quinion notes, Mrs. Gans was probably using the phrase “bring home the bacon” because she had previously heard it elsewhere, but the newspaper article reporting the fight remains the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far. And Mrs. Gans’ use of the phrase boosted its popularity, first in sports reporting, then in politics, and finally in general usage.

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