This week’s phrase, fine words butter no parsnips, is defined in my Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms as “actions are more important than words; speeches are no substitute for hard work.”

Its origin is uncertain, although the first example given in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1639: “Faire words butter noe parsnips”. I suppose the sense is that if you want tastier buttery parsnips rather than common plain ones, you’ll need to do something more practical than just talk about it.

This stanza from Epigrammes of 1651 by a Thames waterman known as the Water Poet, John Taylor, is quoted from Nigel Rees’ 2001 book Oops, Pardon, Mrs Arden!: An Embarrassment of Domestic Catchphrases (which I haven’t got, but it looks brilliant!)

Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.

Although in my case, I’d have no parsnips let alone butter if it wasn’t for my fine words.

Next week: You’re not as green as you are cabbage looking.

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