November 27, 2005

Waiter, there's a metaphor in my soup!

Mark Liberman wonders about the origins of the expression in the soup, meaning "in great difficulty," noting that an animal (or human) would prefer to be out of the soup than in it. But there's one modest creature that I think could have provided the basis for the figure of speech: the fly, which was constantly finding its way into people's soup in the humor of the late 1880s (when the "soup = difficulty" metaphor first arose).

Though the OED gives a first citation of April 1889 for in the soup, Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society have discovered two examples from the previous year, both in sporting contexts (the first baseball and the second horse-racing):

The World, Apr. 26, 1888, p. 3
The photographers were slow in getting ready and the boys on the bleaching-boards encouraged them to speed by yelling: 'Play ball.' 'Quit talking through your hat!' 'That picture machine is in the soup — it can't work!' and all sorts of similar comments."
[quoted in "Old baseball columns as a repository of slang: reading through The World." In Studies in Slang, Part 2, edited by Gerald Leonard Cohen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1989, pp. 11-84.]

New York Times, Sep. 1, 1888, p. 8
McLaughlin won with King Crab in the easiest possible fashion, and Speedwell finished "in the soup."

All of the early cites for the expression are clustered around 1888-1889, when sportswriters and others began using it in a rather faddish manner. My best guess is that the metaphor arose from the popularity of jokes at the time in which a restaurant customer exclaims, "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!" (or something along those lines). The earliest example I've found of this old chestnut comes from 1872:

Appletons' Journal, Aug. 13, 1872, p. 140 (via Making of America)
Guest — "How comes this dead fly in my soup?"
Waiter — "In fact, sir, I have no positive idea how the poor thing came to its death. Perhaps it had not taken any food for a long time, dashed upon the soup, ate too much of it, and contracted an inflammation of the stomach that brought on death. The fly must have a very weak constitution, for when I served the soup it was dancing merrily on the surface. Perhaps — and the idea presents itself only at this moment — it endeavored to swallow too large a piece of vegetable; this, remaining fast in his throat, caused a choking in the windpipe. This is the only reason I could give for the death of this insect."

But it took another decade before magazines and newspapers began running variations on the "fly in the soup" joke. Here is a selection of jokes from the 1880s, culled from the Proquest and Newspaperarchive databases:

Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1882, p. 14
"Here's a fly in my soup, waiter."
"Yes sir; very sorry, sir; but you can throw away the fly and eat the soup, can't you?"
"Of course I can; you didn't expect me to throw away the soup and eat the fly, did you?"

Decatur (Ill.) Morning Review, Oct. 24, 1885, p. 2
"Look here, waiter, quick," called out a gentleman in an Austin restaurant.
"What is it, sir?"
"Here is a dead fly in my soup."
"So I see. It seems to be quite dead."
"Well, by thunder, I want you to understand that I consider it an outrage."
"I am sorry, sir, but if you are opposed to eating dead animals, you should patronize one of the vegetarian restaurants."

Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 28, 1886, p. 7
Jakey — "Fader, dere's a fly in dor soup."
Mr. Cohn — "Vell, eat all but der fly before you show it to der waiter; den you can get some more."

Life, Feb. 17, 1887, p. 100
Customer (in restaurant): "Waiter, isn't it strange that I should find several flies in my soup?"
Waiter (somewhat amazed): "It is strange at this season of the year." —Harper's Bazaar.

Life, Dec. 13, 1888, p. 336
Customer (to waiter): I say, waiter, confound you, there's a fly in this soup!
Waiter (amazed): Well, I do decla', ef it yain't surprisin'! Eberything seems to be gittin' in de soup nowadays.

The last joke from December 1888 hinges on the double meaning of in the soup, indicating that readers of Life were expected to pick up on both the clichéd joke and the then-new slang expression. The combination of literal and figurative soups in the joke leads me to believe that the expression in the soup was originally meant to be understood from the perspective of the lowly fly, discovering itself again and again in the dire circumstances provided by the jokesters of the era.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 27, 2005 03:38 PM