Bread and Butter

Elsewhere in modern witchcraft…

Dear Word Detective:   A few weeks ago I was walking down the hall at work with my boss when we had to stop talking and squeeze past, one on each side, some guy staring at his phone smack in the middle of the hall. As we rejoined after the interruption, my boss said “Bread and butter.” I had no idea what she meant by that, but I chuckled anyway. Ever since that day I’ve been wondering what she meant, and worrying that I’ve missed the joke and/or somehow offended her. So what does “bread and butter” mean, apart from, um, bread and butter? — B.P.

Hello, old friend. Not you, the question. I first answered this one when Bill Clinton was president and anyone blocking traffic staring at his phone would have been considered weird.

As I said back then, I’ve heard this odd phrase from my wife for many years. We’ll be walking down the street, and every time we’re separated by an obstruction in our path (parking meter, movie star, alien spacecraft, whatever), she’ll urge me to say “bread and butter.” Usually I just cave in and say it, but sometimes I reply to “Say bread and butter” with “You say bread and butter,” whereupon she says, “I just did,” and I argue that saying it as an imperative doesn’t count. I have yet to win this tussle. I have also yet to remember to say “Say bread and butter” before she says it, but that’s probably a good thing. I’d just end up saying it twice anyway.

It took me quite a while to find anything about “bread and butter” used in this sense when I first went looking. As a literal phrase (i.e., bread spread with butter) “bread and butter” has been common since the early 17th century. Beginning in the early 18th century, “bread and butter” was used in an idiomatic sense to mean “everyday food” and “the necessities of life; one’s means of support” (“I won’t quarrel with my Bread and Butter for all that: I know when I’m well.” 1738). This sense of the idiom is still very widespread (“My first love is the stage, but TV is my bread and butter”). The related “to know which side your bread is buttered on,” meaning to recognize who and what are vital to your happiness and success, is also common (“I’m tempted to tell off my rich uncle, but I know which side my bread is buttered on.”)

“Bread and butter” in the sense your boss used it is, however, largely undocumented. One source that does mention it is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) which  explains it as “an exclamation used when two people walking together are momentarily separated by someone or something coming between them.” The earliest citation listed by DARE is from The Federal Writers Project “Guide to Kansas” published in 1939, in which the “bread and butter” ritual is described as a “ubiquitous” incantation among schoolchildren of the area. If it was ubiquitous in 1939, the ritual is probably much older, possibly dating back to at least the 19th century.

There may be a clue to the logic behind the phrase in the fact that it was at one time so common among schoolchildren. Children are (or used to be, before iPhones) fond of rituals or incantations thought to ward off bad luck (e.g., “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”). In this case, the fact that bread and butter “go together” gives the “bread and butter” ritual power as an affirmation of togetherness, lest a momentary separation be an omen of permanent one.

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