Eating Our Own Words

I’ve always found certain figures of speech involving language and texts interesting. We have “food for thought,” a phrase that goes beyond it’s mere equivalence to “thought provoking,” raising the reading experience to a taste sensation. We refer to “a consuming read,” suggesting that the book itself is eating us, the reader, or that we are at least caught in its jaws and can’t be extricated. And there is the “omnivorous reader,” someone with a voracious intellectual appetite that knows no limitations.

Of course eating as figurative speech is not limited to texts, no doubt due to the universality, necessity and pleasure of eating as a human activity. Among others, people “bite off more than they can chew” and bad experiences “leave a sour taste in your mouth.” And who hasn’t been told by someone that they intend to make you “eat your words?” An odd phrase, but what better way to visualize taking back something you’ve said, the very sounds that come out of your mouth, if not by eating and swallowing your own words?  As a book lover, I’ve wondered why reading is never used figuratively with food. “Oh man, this Hollandaise sauce is so Nabokovian–it would make even sewage taste good!” Or, “Mmm mm, this Étouffée is as complex and tasty as a Henry James sentence.”

There are at least five circumstances, however, in which “food for thought” may go beyond mere metaphor or simile.

First is a condition I’ve recently read about called “synesthesia” where people experience odd combinations of their senses. Some synesthetes see colors when hearing music, others sense shapes with tastes, yet others words with colors. Apparently some synesthetes can taste words, a form known as “lexical-gustatory synesthesia”–they claim to taste a word when they think about it or hear it. In this case it appears that the word’s meaning, not its sound or spelling, is what triggers this taste sensation. (See the November 23, 2010 issue of the journal Nature for a report of this unusual phenomenon.)

A second example is much less exotic. You’ve probably considered at least the possibility, if not experienced the actuality, of eating a word or two from a bowl of Campbell’s alphabet soup. I’m embarrassed to say my favorite game when I was at BYU was something we called “Alphabet Soup Obscenities.” Well, it was for about 30 minutes one night after we invented it. Or, that is, after we tried to invent it. The object of the game was to spell out vulgarities in your spoon from your bowl of soup using its letter-shaped pasta without using anything other than the spoon and your tongue. You couldn’t say the words. Your score was based on Scrabble letter points–or at least that was our plan. At first someone said you ought to have to eat the word you spell, but then we figured you’d quickly run out of game pieces. We also soon realized, as odd as this sounds, that none of our cans contained the letters “f,” “s,” “c,” “k” or “b” in them. This left us with only 2 potentially qualifying words, curse words really, neither of which were sufficiently shocking and both of which were found in the Bible, of all places, words of theological import potentially leading the participant to further spiritual reflection, not exactly the object of our ill-considered game.

One of us, a journalism major and frequent reader of The 7th East Press (a short-lived, off-campus-published, student newspaper in the 80s), suggested the LDS Church may have cut a secret deal with Campbell’s to eliminate these very letters from all cans of soup entering the State of Utah to nip in the bud any potentially scurrilous activity similar to the very one we were attempting to initiate that evening. She suggested testing this hypothesis through comparative studies of the contents of various competing soup brand cans sold in Utah and possibly even getting an investigative piece published somewhere, perhaps in Sunstone Review (the equally short-lived, more journalistic arm of The Sunstone Foundation published in newsprint during the same period). However, we soon lost interest in our project when an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” came on TV and we shut up and ate our soup.

A third example is an enigmatic ritual that accompanies a trial by ordeal from Numbers 5:16-30, sometimes called the “law of the jealous husband.” If a husband suspected his wife was an adulterer, but had no witnesses, he could still have her tried by an ordeal that involved a curse and oath ritual performed by a priest on the accused, something akin to the ordeals of the Salem witch trials. The priest wrote the following curse, presumably on a potsherd, then washed the inked written words off into a concoction called the “water of bitterness” which the accused drank:

From Numbers 5:21b-22 (JSB): “‘may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; 22 may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.”

If the curse was fulfilled as a result of the drink, ergo, the woman was guilty; if not, she was innocent.

My fourth example consists of a certain prophetic literary device from the Bible. Ezekiel, and John perhaps echoing Ezekiel, both suggest that prophets receive the word of God into their mouths like food, only to later speak those words back out of their mouth as an act of prophesying.

From Revelation 10:10-11 (KJV): “10 Then I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter. 11 And he said to me, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.’”

From Ezekiel 3:1-4 (KJV): “1 Moreover He said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ 2 So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll. 3 And He said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly, and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you.’ So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness. 4 Then He said to me: ‘Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them.’”

I’m surprised some evangelistapreneurs haven’t already produced a Honey Comb cereal knock-off based upon these scriptures. “It’s new, it’s Honey Scroll Cereal! A passage of scripture written on each scroll-shaped bite! Two books from the Bible guaranteed in each box! Studying the Bible can be a part of a nutritious breakfast!”

My fifth and final example would be cake decoration inscriptions. I’ve even recently seen a technology that allows you to “print” a picture in icing on a cake. No doubt the following and worse have already been heard at a Chucky Cheese: “No! I want the piece with Susie’s face!” The possibilities with this “cake app” are endless, of course. If I only knew how, I’d download this blog post and have it printed on a cake and eat it myself.



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7 Responses to Eating Our Own Words

  1. Th. says:


    This is offtopic (I’ll be ontopic when I read it, Ed), but could you please please get a better spam blocker? I’m having a hard time following conversations.

  2. Th. says:


    My mother used to write notes to us, wrap them in tinfoil and bake them into our cakes. You were better off not actually eating them, though.

    And dogs, who have been eating homework since Socrates’s time, may have a leg up on us here.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Th, I trust you are referring to your school days, not a period of incarceration (although school probably qualifies here).

    Also, "may have a leg up on us here" is an interesting phrase, especially in the context of a canine, making me wonder if I should look up its derivation.

  4. Th. says:


    It was generally yellow cake.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Boy, its nice to have just-for-fun posts to read once in a while. Thanks Ed. And impressive research, btw. :)

  6. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    At the book launch for Tristi Pinkston’s book, AGENT IN OLD LACE, they served cake with the cover image from the book in icing on the top–as you describe, Ed. Tasted fine to me, but I love chocolate cake with white(ish) icing.

    The interesting thing to me about these expressions you’ve mentioned with the "taste" or "eating" metaphors is that there’s a book by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin (TRY TO FEEL IT MY WAY) about how different people process best through different senses (she discusses people who process visually, aurally, and kinesthetically) and how they way the process tends to show in the kinds of metaphors they use.

    After having read the book, I met someone who used taste and smell as her metaphors, and now you’ve presented some eating metaphors that could also be indicative of a way of processing.

    So, thanks for the insights, even if you didn’t intend them to be taken seriously.

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Kathleen–interesting. I always have some "serious relief" in my writing.

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