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I was at a dinner last night where some rather nice herb butter was served with the vegetables. Conversation close to me then turned to the English expression 'Fine words butter no parsnips'.

It seems rather odd in English, because by tradition the English tend to use gravy with their vegetables. That is until one appreciates that the expression exists in French 'Mots doux ne beurrent aucun panais'. Now French cooks, I can well imagine are more inclined to butter their parsnips, so it makes sense.

But I would be interested to hear of the possible use of this expression in other countries where English is used. Do Americans, Australians etc 'butter their parsnips', either actually or metaphorically?

  • They have for a long time. A quick search on Google Books yields many 19th-century recipes for "buttered parsnips", including one by the illustrious Fannie Farmer. The earliest use I find is from 1745, where a writer promoting colonial settlement in Madagascar speaks of plaintains being "as pleaſant, in taſte, [...] as buttered parſnips". And one Samuel Griswold Goodrich writes in 1856 of the learned Dr. Ripley of Long Island that he "digested Hebrew roots as if they had been buttered parsnips". – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 7 '13 at 21:37
  • @StoneyB I take it by 'they' you mean the French, since they settled Madagascar. – WS2 Dec 7 '13 at 21:41
  • As an American, I think it's not a very common vegetable among the masses, but I have had them, once, in a "foodie-type" restaurant, and they were buttered. – Jim Dec 7 '13 at 21:43
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    @Jim How on earth can you live without parsnips? I knew you didn't eat runner beans, or brussels sprouts, but no parsnips either? – WS2 Dec 7 '13 at 21:46
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    I'd like to know how you can say that is a French expression, as far as I know it does not exist in French, at least not in France. When you google the French Mots doux ne beurrent aucun panais the only hit (apart from you SE question!) is a commercial Californian site, they might probably have adapted the English saying for their purpose. Whereas if you google "Fine words butter no parsnips" you get hundreds of hits! it's an old English saying that's now gone out of use. The closest Franch equivalent to "Fine words butter no parsnips" would be Les mos doux ne servent à rien. – Laure Dec 8 '13 at 10:04
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According to this article, the term is less about the parsnips and more about the butter. An alternate variant is "fine words butter no fish". I think the expression is contrasting the conversational effects of flattery, empty promises, etc. (cf. "to butter up") with their lack of practical utility.

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    Yes 'buttering-up' is perhaps a derivation. Prior to recent decades butter would have been a far more scarce and hence prized commodity. – WS2 Dec 8 '13 at 0:08
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The association of parsnips with butter is of long standing. Fletcher alluded to it in his play ‘Womans Prize’ in 1625. The OED’s earliest citation for the acttual proverb is this from 1639: ‘Faire words butter noe parsnips, verba non alunt familiam.’

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    So did the French learn it from us or vice-versa? – WS2 Dec 7 '13 at 22:14
  • @WS2: Not quite sure what you mean, but historically (before margerine and other substitutes became widely spread in Britain, which is 20th c.) butter was more widely used in Britain than in France. Half of France was (still is in a way) part of the nations that would use oil and not butter. We must bear in mind that to produce butter you need cows (i.e green pastures, so lots of rain) and to keep it before coolers became electric was easier in cooler parts of the world ! – Laure Dec 8 '13 at 10:52
  • @Laure But given France's massive dairy industry that produces a different cheese for every day of the year, are you really telling me that butter is not a tradition. I am well aware that they do not spread it on bread, and they are amused to see English people putting it on baguettes to take with their cheese. – WS2 Dec 8 '13 at 12:20
  • @WS2: 1- Cheese and butter are entirely different things, whether for production and conservation. 2- I was making a comment in a historical perspective, nothing to do with what you call "France's massive dairy industry" (your words, I don't agree but that would be another debate) which could only be applied to 20th century. We are, after all, talking around the OP's question concerning an old English saying dating back at least to the 16th century, and his non yet justified assertion that this English saying existed in French, – Laure Dec 8 '13 at 12:35
  • @Laure I honestly feel I must defer to your greater knowledge on this matter. Perhaps like many English people I suffer from an idea that food metaphors must originate from French. 'On ne peut pas faire une omlette sans casser des oeufs.' You won't convince me that one is English as we don't by tradition eat omelettes. – WS2 Dec 8 '13 at 15:54
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When you say that "by tradition the English tend to use gravy with their vegetables" you are not putting it in a historical perspective. Butter was widely used in Britain in the Middle Ages as in the whole of Northern Europe. The use of butter in southern France is only very recent.
The English seems to have been known for their habit of putting a lot of butter in their vegetables to help them go down, hence the phrase "Fine words butter no parsnips". The Phrase Finder has what I think to be a good and historical explanation of the expression:

Potatoes were imported into Britain from America by John Hawkins in the mid 16th century and became a staple in what established itself as the national dish - meat and two veg. Before that, various root vegetables were eaten instead, often mashed and, as anyone who has eaten mashed swedes, turnips or parsnips can testify, they cry out to be 'buttered-up' - another term for flattery. Indeed, the English were known for their habit of layering on butter to all manner of foods, much to the disgust of the French who used it as evidence of the English lack of expertise regarding cuisine and to the Japanese, who referred to Europeans in general and the English in particular as 'butter-stinkers'. This butter habit is evidenced in the various forms of the expression that are found in print in the 1600s - 'fine/fair/soft words butter no parsnips/cabbage/fish/connie[rabbit]'.

  • But the interesting thing is that French uses the identical expression 'Les mots doux ne beurrent aucun panais'. It must have begun either in English or French and it would be interesting to find out in which. – WS2 Dec 8 '13 at 10:52
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    @WS2: Please see my comment to OP's question. As far as I know (I'm French) it does not exist in French, at least not in France. When you google the French Mots doux ne beurrent aucun panais the only hit (apart from OP's SE question!) is a commercial Californian site, that probably adapted the English saying for their purpose. Whereas if you google "Fine words butter no parsnips" you get hundreds of hits even if the phrase has apparently gone out of use in England. The closest French equivalent to "Fine words butter no parsnips" would be Les mos doux ne servent à rien. – Laure Dec 8 '13 at 10:58
  • I'm really surprised at this as I recall reading an article in a French magazine which used it. And my mind immediately went back to that when I heard my dinner companions talking about 'Fine words butter no parsnips'. (See my OP) – WS2 Dec 8 '13 at 12:23
  • It seems that this was originally English. There are actually quite a few hits for "les belles paroles ne beurrent pas les épinards", many of which describe it as a "proverbe anglais" (although it's not a direct translation as the vegetable has changed). – Peter Shor Dec 8 '13 at 13:15
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    @PeterShor: Indeed, mettre du beurre dans les épinards is a very common French expression, usually translated by "put butter on your bread" in English. Having the word épinard (spinach) in a French saying is not surprising since spinach is quite a popular vegetable in France, must have been for a long time. Whereas panais (parsnips) would be very strange since parsnips have long fallen out of popular use in France, and given to cattle. They're just (21st century) becoming into fashion again and not everywhere in France. I expect lots of French people don't know what they are. – Laure Dec 8 '13 at 13:31
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I think the expression means something more like....."Fine words but(are) no parsnips." That implies parsnips are incomparable to fine words, nor do they actively butter the parsnips per se as incentive to action. In as much a way as Randy Travis once sang out against materiali$m, "a mile of limosines...don't add up to a hill o' beans."

You can offer me a diamond-plated pearl; You can send me all the riches in the world; You can tempt me with the palaces of kings; I'd give 'em back in a big ol' sack and keep the simple things

I've got the simple things; I've got the rain in spring, Got spicy chicken wings, and French-fried onion rings

You can line me up a mile of limousines; For me it don't add up to a hill o' beans; I got no hankerin' for grabbin' your brass ring; It's crystal clear - I'll stay right here and keep the simple things

I've got the summer breeze, got 16 cans of peas, A two-speed window fan when it's 93 degrees, So forgive me for not grabbin' your brass ring; It's crystal clear - I'll stay right here and keep the simple things It's crystal clear - I'll stay right here and keep the simple things

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    This looks like a lot of your suppositions. On this site we try and keep things referenced to outside authority. What exactly is your answer, and what authorities can you cite to support it? – Matt Gutting Oct 21 '14 at 19:22

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