Samantha, a Latin teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, is curious about why some people say bread and butter after two people walking together pass by on either side of an object in their path or try to avoid being split. (An example occurs in a 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” starring William Shatner.) This practice derives from an old belief that evil spirits or the Devil himself could take various forms and come between people physically, causing the two to quarrel later or have bad luck. Phrases such as bread and butter, milk and cheese, or bread and butter, come to supper, supposedly can be invoked to preserve that togetherness. As early as the 4th century C.E., St. Augustine of Hippo alludes to this superstition in his De Doctrina Christiana (Bookshop|Amazon). Among Black speakers of American English, a similar idea is reflected in the admonition don’t split the pole. This is part of a complete episode.
Transcript of “Bread and Butter, Come to Supper”
Hello, you have A Way with Words.
Hi, this is Samantha from Cincinnati.
Hi, Samantha, welcome to the show.
So my grandmother, she used to say a phrase that a lot of my peers have never heard of before. And whenever we were walking down the sidewalk together, holding hands, we’d come to some obstacle. We’d have to let go of each other’s hands and she’d say, “Bread and butter.” And then we link back up again. And I didn’t realize until I went on a school trip later, you know, with my friends walking on the sidewalk, kind of the same deal, and they all said, what are you saying? Why are you saying that? And it just always made me wonder where that came from. I’ve never heard anyone else say it. Um, so I was just wondering, uh, what’s the, what’s the root of that phrase.
So you’re holding hands with your grandmother and so something comes between you like a mailbox or fire hydrant or a light pole?
Well, Samantha, you can tell your kids that you’re carrying on a very, very old tradition.
This goes back centuries.
It’s the idea that the two people who are going around that object should be inseparable.
They should stay inseparable.
You know, as inseparable as butter and bread.
If you butter a piece of toast, you can’t unbutter it, right?
Ugh, that makes sense.
It goes back to a very old superstition that evil spirits or even the devil could take various forms and come between people physically, you know, whether the devil takes the form of an animal or a pebble or a small child running between them.
And if you don’t do something to counteract that mishap, then the two of you may quarrel later or have bad luck.
And so there are a whole lot of phrases that you can use.
Bread and butter, some people, instead of saying bread and butter, they say needles and pins, or one person says needles and the other person says pins, and then they hook pinkies and make a silent wish.
Milk and cheese or a longer one, bread and butter come to supper.
And also, particularly among black speakers of American English, there’s a long tradition of warning against splitting the pole.
You’ll be told, don’t split the pole, which is that same idea that you don’t wanna separate the two people who are walking together.
And if you want to show your friends who’ve never heard this expression a great example of this, there’s a great episode of the Twilight Zone back in 1960, where a very young and very handsome William Shatner, he and his wife are walking along and they’re separated by a lamppost and he says, “Bread and butter.”
So the bread and butter saying is at least a hundred years old, but the superstition, Martha, am I remembering that this is, we’re talking back to the classical era as far as we know, right?
Right, all the way back at least to St. Augustine in the 4th century AD. So, yeah, he has a passage about that, doesn’t he, Grant?
Yeah, yeah, he’s talking about exactly like you said, stones or dogs coming between friends walking arm in arm and how it’s bad luck, and sometimes how the dogs would go after the boys in order to get justice.
Oh my goodness, I’m a Latin teacher. We will have to look up that section.
Oh, you are?
In Augustine. The Doctorina Christina, I think the fourth chapter, if you want to find that inside Augustine.
Oh, thank you so much. Oh, wow.
Well, thank you for teaching Latin.
Good for you.
I’m glad to hear that’s still being taught in the schools.
What grade do you teach? Anywhere sixth grade through 12th grade.
Doing the good work.
Thank you for doing that, Samantha.
You have a great day.
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