I know that the phrase means "from one end to the other". Though I know many dinners that start with a soup, I know none that end with nuts.
Hence the question - where does this phrase originate?
'From soup to nuts' in reference books
Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for "from soup to nuts":
from soup to nuts Also from A to Z or start to finish or stem to stern. From beginning to end, throughout, [examples omitted]. The first expression, with its analogy to the first and lasy courses of a meal, appeared in slightly different forms (such as from potage to cheese) from the 1500s on; the precise wording here dates only from the mid-1900s. ...
Judith Siefring, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2004) says that the "soup to nuts" form of the expression originated in North America:
from soup to nuts from beginning to end; completely. North American informal
Soup is likely to to feature as the first course of a formal meal, while a selection of nuts may be offered as the final one.
The Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998) agrees with Siefring in concluding that the expression is "American, informal."
Early instances of the phrase in Google Books search results
The earliest Google Books match is from William Hall, The Turnover Club: Tales Told at Meetings of the Turnover Club, About Actors and Actresses (Chicago, 1890):
The menu was made the subject of grave and potracted discussion by the committee. The counsellor could suggest nothing but "soup" and "nuts." He said that he had often heard the expression "from soup to nuts" employed in referring to well-regulated banquets of all sorts, and he certainly believed they should have both—one at each of the menu. It did not make much difference as to what went in between, so long as they had "soup" for the prologue and "nuts" for the afterpiece.
The first unmistakably figurative use of the phrase is from an advertisement in Men's Wear semi-monthly (1909) [date not confirmed, combined snippets]:
FROM SOUP TO NUTS
You can reach the live ones, the men who are really interested in your class of goods, in the following mediums. It is the cream, in each case, from soup to nuts. The mill man and the cutting up trade read the DAILY TRADE RECORD (NO WASTE EFFORT) The retailer and the salesmen read Men's Wear AND Chicago Apparel Gazette (NO WASTE EFFORT) The CONSUMER who really CARES about good clothes reads Fairchild's Magazine (THE MAN'S BOOK)
Three additional instances appear in 1911, and the idiom by then seems to have been well established.
Early instances of the phrase in newspaper archives
A search of the Library of Congress newspaper database pushes the earliest occurrence of "from soup to nuts": to the 1880—and it may already be a metaphorical use of the phrase. Here are some early examples. From "John McDonald: The Hero of the Whisky Ring Promises a Startling Sensation: from The Chicago Times, reprinted in The Sedalia [Missouri] Weekly Bazoo (May 18, 1880):
"well, I must say I'm not going to spare myself, either in my relationship to the position I was placed in, my past misdeeds with other men, or my own feelings. I shall give the facts. I took my trouble as cheerfully as I played into thei hands, and when the change came, Judge Treat gave me the whole bill of fare, from soup to nuts. I went through it like a little man, without a squeal ; so you see as to myself honors are easy and you can't in your conscience condemn me, for I have suffered all the penalties."
From "The Close of Stewart's," in Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine, reprinted in The [Canton, Ohio] Stark County Democrat (May 18, 1882):
That would hasten the time when at the table of the world's supply every man would have a knife and fork and plate, instead of having a few men with elbows spread out so far that others can not get near, and who sit there and stuff, and stuff, taking down into their voracious paunches the whole banquet of life, from soup to almond-nuts, and leaving nothing for others but the shells. I think it is one of the most exhilerating facts that in this century we have found a man who had enough money to stop.
From "White House Feasts," in The Chicago Times, reprinted in The [Austin, Texas] Weekly Democratic Statesman (February 1, 1883):
Under [President Rutherford] Hayes, economy prevented much display, and the entertainments of that period are recalled only as dreary and wineless deserts, affording nothing but unpalatable crab apple cider to cool parched lips and allay burning thirst. The [James] Garfield administration was characterized by simplicity, and the president himself was somewhat lacking in the arts and graces for which his succcessor [Chester Arthur] is so highly distinguished. Mr. Arthur is one of the few statesmen who can travel the devious course from soup to nuts without committing the slightest solecism. To him the most elaborate French menu is as familiar as a fish-pole.
And from "A Boy's Essay on Julius Caesar," in The [Salem, Oregon] Evening Capital Journal (September 28, 1888):
Nineteen hundred and eighty-eight years ago Julius Caesar, the greatest of all the Roman Emperors in point of achievements and real ability, was born. Besides furnishing material for Mr. Shakespeare to write a play about, Caesar went in the conquering business and got away with everything in sight from soup to nuts. It got so all he had to do was to whistle and crook his finger and far of nations would come right in and lie right down.
The expression "from soup to nuts" was in use in the United States from at least 1880 forward. Very early instances either referred to actual fancy formal dinners or metaphorical ones. But by 1888 people were beginning to use the phrase independently of the context of real or imagined feasting.
The following extract from Grammophobia explains its origin:
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as “US colloq.” and defines it as “from beginning to end, completely; everything.”
All the published references in the OED are from the 20th century. The earliest is this one from Won in the Ninth, a 1910 book of sports stories by the pitching great Christy Mathewson: “He knew the game from ‘soup to nuts.’ ”
However, the word sleuth Barry Popik has discovered several much earlier appearances of the expression, including one that offers a clue to its origin.
Here’s how The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor (1852) describes the pace of an American dinner:
- “The rapidity with which dinner and dessert are eaten by our go-a-head friends is illustrated by the boast of a veteran in the art of speedy mastication, who ‘could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.’ ”
Why, you ask, “soup” and “nuts,” rather than, say, “apples” and “zucchini”? Because an old-fashioned dinner often began with soup and ended with nuts.
As avid readers of 19th-century novels, we’ve come across many a scene in which a meal ends as a bowl of walnuts and a nutcracker are passed around with the port.
And as Popik reports on his Big Apple website, the idea of using the first and last courses of a dinner to mean the whole shebang didn’t begin with Americans.
The Roman poet Horace used the phrase ab ovo usque ad mala (“from the egg to the apple”) to mean from start to finish. Or as we’d put it, from soup to nuts.