ill words butter no parsnips

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Nunty, Sep 8, 2008.

  1. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I'm reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is set in Canada in the early 19th century.

    A housemaid is recounting her quarrel with the gardener. He had complained that the food she prepared for the two of them wasn't as good as the meal that the master of the house had shared with the housekeeper, who was also his clandestine mistress. The housemaid continues:

    "...and in any case I was Mr. Kinnear's servant not his [not the gardener's - N.T.]; and he said that if I was his I would not last long as I was such a foul-tempered witch, and the only cure for me was the end of a belt; and I said ill words butter no parsnips."

    What on earth does that mean?

  2. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I've always presumed it to mean (and yes, I've heard it outside of Ms. Atwood's prose) that butter makes parsnips less bitter.
  3. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Thanks Dimcl. I thought it might be an idiom.

    I still don't understand, though. Does that mean that complaining about a situation doesn't make it any better? In other words, she is commenting on his griping and not on the way he is talking about her?
  4. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    Oh, yes, absolutely. I think there's also the implied threat that her cooking just might not get any better.:) But, yes, that's what I've always taken it to mean - being bitter and griping about it doesn't help.
  5. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Thanks very much. Fits perfectly, too.
  6. Orange Blossom Senior Member

    U.S.A. English
    The phrase may have been created by altering another.

    We have an expression, "butter someone up" used in reference to flattering someone to get something we want.

    Ill words will butter no parsnips.

    Threats, or ill words, will not improve the situation, will not make things better. You will not get what you want through ill words. In fact, things may just get worse.

    Note: Parsnips when grown and raised properly are sweet, not bitter. Parsnip lovers often enjoy butter on their parsnips. Delicious.

    So, there is an underlying message: Change your tune and be nice. Butter me up.

    Orange Blossom
  7. Miss Matty Jenkyns Member

    English English
    Good morning Nun-T
    I am used to the expression "fine words butter no parsnips" (BE)- in other words, talking about something doesn't get the job done, or possibly, actions speak louder than words.
    Neither seem to fit your context too well.
    I looked up the espression and found that "fine" or "soft" words butter no parsnips far outnumber the number of quotes of "ill words" etc.
    Don't know if that helps?
  8. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Thank you, Orange Blossom and Miss Matty. :)

    In the context of the novel, I think that Dimcl's interpretation fits best, but I appreciate your input.
  9. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    English English
    Like MissMJ, the version I know is Fine words ...
    I've also heard, a few times, the phrase adapted slightly. When a group of people are sat around blethering about something rather than doing something, one of them eventually says: Well, this isn't getting any parsnips buttered.
    In your quote, Nunty, I read it as a combination of Sticks and stones shall break my bones and Being nasty will get you nowhere.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2008
  10. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I agree that Dimcl has hit on the general meaning of the phrase. I don't see that the expression with "fine words" poses any contradiction-- the "ill words" version is simply a play on that expression.

    It's only logical that if fine words aren't effective in motivating a cook to better perform, ill words will be even less so.

  11. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Thanks to everyone. I now feel free to continue reading. :)

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