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shameless pleading

Bread and Butter letter

And thanks for all the toast.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the term “bread and butter letter” originate?  I do know that it is a “thank you” letter for staying in someone’s house. — Leslie Player.

Well, you’re one step ahead of me.  I thought I had never heard the term “bread and butter” used in that sense before, but then I vaguely remembered, in my childhood, hearing an older person using it.  I suppose I should have asked what it meant, but at that age I regarded it as just one more grownup mystery, like property taxes and why in the world any sane person would eat eggplant.  I still haven’t figured out the second one.

“Bread,” being the staff of life and all, is, of course, a very old word, though it’s interesting to note that in Old English the word simply meant “piece of food, morsel,” not necessarily the stuff cranked out by Pepperidge Farm.  “Butter” is even older, and comes from the Greek “boutyron,” meaning literally “cow cheese.”  By the way, that “staff of life” business comes from the Bible, where “to break the staff of bread” means to cut off the food supply that supports a people (as a walking staff supports an individual).

“Bread and butter” has been used, since at least the early 18th century, to mean  “everyday kinds of food” (“It was strictly a bread and butter dinner, not a snail in sight”), but more often in a figurative sense to mean “means of living, basic financial support,” often of a distinctly unglamorous sort (“Sure, I dabble in tech stocks, but repossessing cars is my bread and butter”).

The logic of “bread and butter letter,” a term first appearing in print in the US in the early 20th century, seems to fall somewhere between those two uses.  The writer is thanking his or her hosts for their hospitality (and food), but the letter is also a basic social formality, not likely to contain any exciting content.  A “bread and butter” note may not be eagerly awaited, but it’s the sort of thing expected and probably noticed most in its absence.

Speaking of bread and butter, I noted a few years back that my wife Kathy had grown up in Ohio with the tradition of saying “bread and butter” whenever an object (parking meter, UFO, whatever) or another person comes between you and your walking companion.  At first I was mystified, but it turns out to be a common childhood ritualistic incantation in the American Midwest, invoking the togetherness of bread and butter to insure that the two companions are not separated for longer than a moment.

17 comments to Bread and Butter letter

  • I was not aware that “bread-and-butter note” only applied only to a home stay situation. I thought it was any kind of pleasantry thank you note. Thanks for the clarification.

    Also, As a Midwesterner, I was unaware that saying “bread and butter” when something comes between two walking partners was strictly a Midwest phenomenon. If I write a blog post about it I will include a link to this article.

  • Firoze Sameer

    Didn’t Jane Austen use this term in her opus,
    Pride and Prejudice?

  • Bill Kalenborn

    I read on another website that it should go in the morning post the day after you got home (back when mail was more than once a day); therefore you wrote it at breakfast time.

  • deUz

    is somebody out there can give samples on how to use the Bread and Butter into a sentence…thanks.

  • There’s a lot of numerous different places for a effective holiday escape across the world. I don’t know why, though i do believe i find nice mostly this asian continent regarding my best getaway, as i do believe individuals you will find therefore helpful as well as useful

  • Audrey Massey

    I don’t think saying “bread and butter” when an object separates one from a friend while walking, etc. is strictly Midwestern, as my childhood friends and I said that in Middle Tennessee in the 1940′s-50′s.

  • Saying “bread and butter” when momentarily separated is common in my part of the country, too, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. I always believed it mean that the two people should stay close, like bread and butter, which when joined cannot be separated.

  • Juliet Bushinski

    I believe there is a quote that goes something like, “daily pleasantries and simple courtesies are the bread and butter that keep civilization from starvaton”…. so, therefore, a bread and butter letter is a standard thank you note.

  • Connie Confer

    In Pennsylvania in the 40′s and 50′s and even to this day. one person would say “bread and butter” and the person on the other side of the post or whatever seperated them momentarily would answer “salt and pepper”

  • I’ve never heard of a Bread and Butter letter before, We use it to describe an everyday thing or event. That’s his bread and butter etc.

  • In Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel, Coming Home, Judith Dunbar writes a “bread and butter letter” after her first visit to the Carey-Lewis home, Nancherrow.

  • Pernille

    I recently found this called a Collins letter (in plural: Collinses), surely after Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. It came in a 1935 novel by a rather upper-class female author, Ann Bridge (now long forgotten).

  • rowela

    i keep thinking if the bread and butter letter is a full block letter or not…????

  • marie

    I did not know the term “bread and butter note” applied only to thank you’s! My mother and my aunts wrote regularly to one another about ordinary everyday events, such as one would talk on the phone, or email or text today. They referred to these weekly notes as “bread and butter notes. They were beautiful notes, written in lovely hand.

  • patricia

    My mother used to say “bread and butter” about being separated by an object back in the 30s and 40s and she taught me it. My mother is most definitely a New Yorker.

  • Mary Ann

    I was always taught to send a “bread and butter” letter. I’m nearly 70 so maybe it’s considered “old hat” now Many people don’t bother to respond to an invitation unless they will be attending. Email has made things so much easier to be polite.

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