It seems to be used in American conversation. It's used as a compliment to someone's attractiveness.


b : an attractive or sexy person "She's a real dish."


Etymonline says it is an expression from the early 20th century but it doesn’t give other details:

that of "attractive woman" is 1920s

  • 1
    Similarly, someone might say "I'd like to eat him/her up", "He/she is a real treat", etc. Analogies to food are not uncommon.
    – Dispenser
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:03
  • She makes you drool.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:55

2 Answers 2


etymology of what a dish O'Conner & Kellerman

Both “dish” and “toothsome,” terms for good things to eat, have been applied to sexy people.

From ~ 700 AD (tooth) to the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century, the expression “to (or for) one’s tooth” meant to one’s taste or liking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

“Toothsome” is used to describe an attractive woman. What is the origin of this usage? Is there some connection to calling someone “a real dish”?

and the end of the article ...

Shakespeare may have been the first to use “dish” in this figurative way, in reference to sexy Cleopatra: “He will to his Egyptian dish againe.” (From Antony and Cleopatry, 1606.)

But this was probably just a passing metaphorical use. It wasn’t until the 1920s that “dish” came to be used this way in general English.

The earliest modern example in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from Variety, that fountainhead of American slang: “She ought to be a swell-looking’ dish in tights” (Nov. 25, 1921).

  • @Barmar + on da spellcheck
    – lbf
    Apr 11, 2018 at 23:40
  • Great research, thanks Barmar. Exactly the type of thing I was after.
    – Amy
    Apr 12, 2018 at 14:53
  • Amy; @Bamar edited my spelling ... I answered the question. thanks - we work as a team here at this 'forum'.
    – lbf
    Apr 12, 2018 at 15:14

A similar saying is "he's a tall drink of water." I think these sayings act as metaphors comparing an attractive person with something desirable to consume. It would be a simile if you said something like that woman is as attractive as a delicious dish of spaghetti.

  • If someone is delicious-looking, appetizing, and makes people of the opposite sex drool at the mouth, it's easy to see how "dish" encapsulates those all-important first impressions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:38
  • @Mari-LouA lol drooling!
    – lbf
    Apr 11, 2018 at 23:41
  • Many thanks to all of the respondents. I've not used this forum before- it's great! I think that yes, one can tell intuitively that the saying 'what a dish' means what we say in Australia- 'he's yummy'. However, I wanted to know how the word first came into usage and I particularly like the research done by user 'Barmar'.
    – Amy
    Apr 12, 2018 at 14:52

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