Slicing the Upper Crust

I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog,  this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.

This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because Phrases.org has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;

‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’

The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).

It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides Phrases.org mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?

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4 Responses to “Slicing the Upper Crust”

  1. Jeff Nisbet Says:

    The crisp “upper crust,” as opposed to the more doughy lower crust, was the best part of a loaf (according to my mother). She would send me to the shop with the instruction to “Tell them to make sure it’s well-fired. Solzhenitsyn waxes lyrical about the high value placed on a crust of bread in his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denizovitch,” the tale of Ivan’s time of imprisonment in the Gulag. Much better than a spoon for sopping up the last vestiges of the poor prison fare.

    Jeff

  2. Nash Says:

    As anyone who has ever baked a loaf will know, the top of a loaf burns first, as heat rises.

  3. Facey Romford Says:

    Is it necessarily to do with bread? After all, many other things have a crust; a cowpat, for example.

    • bshistorian Says:

      I quite agree – as I say above, we can’t know what literal crust, if any, the coiner of this phrase was thinking of. But bread isn’t really any more or less likely than anything else.

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