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In his book A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs: Explain'd and Made Intelligible to the English (1721), James Kelly offers this interesting saying (page 74, #138):

"Butter is Gold in the Morning, Silver at Noon, and Lead at Night."

Kelly then comments:

"A common Saying, of whose Truth or Reason I know nothing."

What is the literal sense of this adage? Does it refer to color changes in different light, to phase changes at different temperatures, to effects on the body at different stages of digestion, to monetary value at different times, or to something else? And what is its most likely figurative meaning? Thanks!

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The literal meaning is that butter is the element gold in the early hours of the day, etc. which is to say the only coherent meaning to this adage is figurative. –  Mitch Feb 5 '13 at 19:54
    
You're right, of course, Mitch. I'm trying to ask about two levels of nonliteral meaning, but I haven't come up with a way of expressing the question compactly, accurately, and intelligibly. On one level, I want to understand in what respect butter is equatable to gold, silver, and lead at different times of the day and night. But on a second level I want to know what abstract lesson or insight this adage is supposed to impart to its reader or hearer. Thanks! –  Sven Yargs Feb 5 '13 at 20:13
    
You might find this 1839 explanation for a related adage about apples interesting. I think it refers to how the food sits in your stomach when eaten at different times of the day. –  JLG Feb 5 '13 at 20:18
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This classification has now been superseded by HM Govt's Green - Amber - Red system. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 5 '13 at 23:43

7 Answers 7

In a treatise on nutrition, written at some time before his death in 1604, Elizabethan naturalist and physician Thomas Moffet or Muffet cites this as already an ‘old Proverb’, and provides a context:

 Butter is hot and moiſt, of gross Nouriſhment, ſoftening rather than corroborating the Stomach, hastening Meat into the Belly before it be concocted, rheumatic, and eaſily converted into oily Fumes, which greatly annoy both Throat and Head. It is ill for the Stomach, Rheum, and all Fluxes either of Blood, Humors, or Seed ; and in truth it is rather to be used as Sauce and Phyſic, than as Meat to feed upon. It is beſt at Breakfaſt, tolerable in the beginning of Dinner, but at Supper no way good, becauſe it hindereth Sleep, and ſendeth up unpleaſant Vapours to annoy the Brain, according to the old Proverb, Butter is Gold in the Morning, Silver at Noon, and Lead at Night.
    —Health’s Improvement, first published 1665 (this is from an edition of 1746)

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I should have known you'd beat my ca. 1654! –  Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 23:21

Taking the most common metaphorical uses:

The main metaphorical meaning of gold is of something that is of high value.

The main metaphorical meaning of silver is of something that is of high value, but not as much as what you are using gold to describe.

The main metaphorical meaning of lead is of something dull or heavy. (Though scientifically this is a tad unfair, gold is much denser).

So, butter is an extremely nice food in the morning, and is a very nice food at noon, but can be heavy and dull in the evening. (I can't say that I necessarily agree).

Another possibility though is that it uses a more obscure set of metal symbolism, that of alchemy and magical associations. Here gold and silver being linked with the sun and moon respectively associate them with key salubrious influences conducive to life (especially in balance with each other). Lead being linked with Saturn associates it with limitation, mortality and saturnine (dark, gloomy, melancholy) outlooks.

So, butter is healthy in the morning and noon, but a danger that could cause melancholy, limited health, and even death in the evening!


Edit: Considering that the earliest citation we've found was that found by StoneyB, and the source was a Paracelsian, this second possibility seems to more likely of the two.


Either way, it's saying it's great in the morning, good at midday, and bad late in the evening.

It's been used metaphorically:

Oh! how sweetly did the syren representative sing at first! How quickly it brought forth destruction, and proved a monster! Nero was pretty tolerable for five years, and this butter-print parliament was gold in the morning and lead at night.—The Loyal Satyrist; or, Hudibras in Prose. Written by an unknown Hand in the Time of the late Rebellion, but never till now published. (Printed in 1682, but five years after the start of the Interregnum would suggest written ca. 1654).

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+1 It almost certainly had the alchemical associations for Moffet, for he was a radical, a follower of Paracelsus rather than Galen. –  StoneyB Feb 5 '13 at 23:28
    
@StoneyB oh, well to a Paracelsian, those associations would be the obvious ones. They're much older than Paracelsus (and persist into magical use today) so even Galenians would have known—and possibly credited—them, but to a Paracelsian they'd be as familiar as multiples of 2 are to hackers. –  Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 23:37
    
Paracelsus however was apparently notorious for prescribing minerals and herbs rather than bleeding and purges. –  StoneyB Feb 5 '13 at 23:51

I believe this is a comment on the relative pleasure derived from eating butter at different times of the day, i.e. it tastes best in the morning after the night's fasting, not quite as good at lunchtime, and is perhaps too rich for supper.

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About oranges, we have a similar Saying in Italy. This similarity would suggest that we're talking about the best/worst moment in the day to ingest this kind of food. Amazing: we're living so far but we're thinking through the same schemes.

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I am not a nutritionist by any measure, but I submit that oranges are as different from butter as it could possibly get. In fact if I were to replace butter on a late meal with something healthier, fruit would be my very first choice. So with that in mind, the similarity suggests that we are not talking about the same thing. Either one of the proverbs is not about ingestion at all, or both are talking about ingestion alright, but from entirely different angles (like, Italians suffering from heartburn where the Scottish suffer from obesity). –  RegDwigнt Feb 5 '13 at 21:31
    
The source that JLG cites above indicates that at least some people considered eating fruit at night to be potentially unhealthful. According to The Good Housekeeper (1839) by Sarah Hale, "Apples and winter pears are very excellent food for children, indeed for almost any person in health ; but best when eaten at breakfast or dinner. If taken late in the evening fruit often proves injurious. The old saying that apples are gold in the morning, and silver at noon, and lead at night is pretty near the truth." (Ms. Hale also asserts, "Peach skins are very unhealthy and should never be eaten.") –  Sven Yargs Feb 6 '13 at 2:24
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So, by Ms. Hale's reckoning, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but an apple a night keeps the doctor in sight. –  Sven Yargs Feb 6 '13 at 20:43

Not adding anything here except for an earlier citation than the excellent one from @StoneyB. Here is from Thomas Cogan's (1584) The Haven of Health. He writes that the proverb is so common that he can omit explaining its meaning.

link

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I've heard this as "Fruit" and not "Butter", but it refers to the effect on the body. In the morning or at lunch time, the proverb is saying that butter is precious; a good thing to eat. At night, eating butter is more like eating lead; heavy and uncomfortable.

I've also heard a corollary with Whiskey where the gold is in the evening and the lead is in the morning.

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This might also have to do with how well butter keeps with no refrigeration. We live in Los Angeles, and between the months of May and November we have to keep the butter in the fridge (where it is too hard to spread). If we leave it on the table - as one would have had to do in 1721 - it is delicious in the morning, so-so at lunch, and either liquid or slightly off-tasting (or both) by supper.

A similar expression appears in Patrick O'Brian's The Truelove:

Padeen was useful too in heaving on the very heavy parts, and even more in warding off Davies, the ship's cook, the gunroom cook, the captain's cook, the ship's butcher, and all their respective mates, who were urgent to have their pieces out of the sun and into the relatively cool part of the ship or the salting-tubs; for swordfish was like mackerel in these latitudes, mate, prime before sunset, poor-John the second day, and rank poison the third.

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It's an English proverb. Unless it's the height of summer, you can leave it out for days. –  Jon Hanna Feb 5 '13 at 22:59

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