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shameless pleading

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.

4 comments to Bread and Butter

  • Moley

    Could it be that you separate the bread and butter for the ‘filling’ (i.e. obstacle) in the middle?

  • Dave

    The explanation of a charm against separation given matches what my dad told me when he used it and I asked about it. And he was from Kansas, which dovetails with the DARE citation.

  • Adam Adamson

    When I (slightly post WW II) participated in the folksy ritual of saying, “Bread and Butter,” when separating to pass on either side of an obstruction, the liturgy consisted of two parts, the initiator uttering the aforementioned phrase, and the response by the other party being, “Spread it.” I speculate that this was the original form, and that the whole thing was based on a whimsical association between two uses of the word “spread.” Spread out is a common phrase, meaning to increase distance between persons, as when walking together. The vague use of “it” in children’s phrases (“Shut it, Evan.”) is common and may extend back to the early 20th century. So, approaching an obstacle, one might have said, “Spread it,” and another might have replied, whimsically, “bread and butter.” It doesn’t take much to amuse children, and people tend to repeat punch lines of a shared jest in order to bring back the moment, and they even reverse the order of punch line and set up. Thus the B&B/spread it ritual (possibly) was born. Of course, it was not always necessary to say both parts to relish the merriment, so some might have dropped the “spread it” part, and if you weren’t in on the initial joke it wasn’t necessary to understand why in order to do what your friends were doing and be included socially. Hence the obscurity surrounding what “bread and butter” has to do with going around both sides of an object. All of this is speculation, of course, except my experience of the ritual having two parts.

  • Joyce Melton

    My memory of this phrase as a child in the Fifties was that the whole incantation went “Bread, and butter on my side.” And as I understood the meaning, I get all the luck or good fortune from what just happened.

    No clue if that was an original form or a development, perhaps local or idiosyncratic.

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