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To have too much on one's plate and to have a lot on one's plate are well established idioms for having too many things to do, i.e. for something burdensome. But what one normally has on one's plate, in the literal sense, is food, and normally having a lot of food available to oneself is a good thing, not a burden. So, how did something that would stand for something desirable if it were used literally, end up as an idiom standing for something undesirable?

It is, of course, true that having too much food in front of oneself may be an unwelcome temptation to somebody who is dieting (or trying to), but I suspect that the origins of the idiom are in the times when such concerns were uncommon.

Given that the idiom is widely used in British English, it is safe to assume that it is unrelated to to step up to the plate, which is based on the baseball-related meaning of plate.

This question is not seeking an elaborate account of the history of this idiom, except in so far as that history illuminates the connection between the literal meaning of the words involved (having an abundance of food) and their meaning as an idiom (having onerous tasks to deal with).

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But what one normally has on one's plate, in the literal sense, is food, and normally having a lot of food available to oneself is a good thing, not a burden.

This is not the view that the idiom expresses. It has nothing to do with "having a lot of food." It implies that the amount of food on this occasion is really excessive but nevertheless, it must be eaten. It is a metaphor. If you have ever had to eat more than you wanted to eat, or been given a plate piled high with food when you are not particularly hungry, you will understand.

The idiom is relatively recent. The OED has:

27c. colloquial to have a lot (also enough, plenty, etc.) on one's plate and variants; (also) to have a full plate, to have one's plate full (up) (with): to have a lot of things occupying one's time or energy; to have a lot to do.

In quot.1911 in an extended metaphor.

1911 E. Wharton Ethan Frome 15 Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping.

1928 Daily Express 4 July 9/2 Can you tell me how many times in all she has forbidden you the house? -- No, sir. Half a dozen times? — It might have been. I cannot say. I have a lot on my plate... -- Mr. Justice Horridge: A lot on your plate! What do you mean? Elton Pace: A lot of worry, my lord.

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  • In so far as this answer 'illuminates the connection between the literal meaning of the words involved . . . and their meaning as an idiom', which is what the question was about, it does so by inviting us to assume that the excessive amount of food on the plate, for some reason, must be eaten. Under such an assumption, the idiom would indeed make sense, but how common is it that one finds oneself in front of too much food that must be eaten. Why would it be that it must be eaten? How would such an unusual situation give rise to a widely understood idiom?
    – jsw29
    Jul 24 at 21:50
  • @jsw29 The answer is in the 1911 quote: his metaphorical plate, now before him, is filled and he must eat (=deal with) that which is there and unpleasant in quantity and quality.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 24 at 22:10
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    @jsw29: If you were American, I would offer only one word in explanation: Thanksgiving. Jul 25 at 3:58
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I imagine the servant carrying the plate - too much will be burdensome.

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    If you can find a source to back that up, this would be a good answer. Jul 24 at 16:43
  • The idiom is 'on one's plate'. The plate that a servant is carrying would not normally be characterised as the servant's plate.
    – jsw29
    Jul 24 at 21:52

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