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Words, Sept. 25

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“Thousands of striking South Korean autoworkers rallied Wednesday in Seoul to protest U.S. beef imports … The strike came a day after sales of American beef resumed at one store, whose owner said it was ‘selling like hot cakes.' ”

Frankly, I doubt they say “selling like hot cakes” in Korea, although the quotation marks around the phrase imply as much. The merchant likely said something in Korean that means roughly the same thing, that is “enjoying very brisk sales.”

Though the hot-selling hot cakes get a lot of work in this country, the origin of the expression isn't easy to find. Some of the usually reliable sources don't even try. This is from a web site that quotes the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson:

“Hot cakes cooked in bear grease or pork lard were popular from earliest times in America. First made of cornmeal, the griddle cakes or pan cakes were of course best when served piping hot and were often sold at church benefits, fairs and other functions. So popular were they that by the beginning of the 19th century ‘to sell like hot cakes' was a familiar expression for anything that sold very quickly, effortlessly and in quantity.”

 

I used to work for a morning daily newspaper whose elderly editor laid down what was commonly called “The Breakfast Rule.” It forbade the use of words or phrases that might discomfort readers at the breakfast table. One such forbidden word was scab, a contemptuous epithet for people who take the jobs vacated by striking workers. Even though this is a figurative use of scab, the editor believed that the original meaning of the word, “the incrustation that forms over a sore or wound during healing,” made it unsuitable to accompany a reader's morning Cream of Wheat. Clearly, the breakfast rule is not followed by the present Little Rock morning daily, which put this item at the top of Page 6A, under the boldfaced headline, “QUOTE OF THE DAY”: “In this situation were we supposed to just wipe away bloody snot and hang our heads?” Nothing for me, thanks. 

 

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