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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bring home the bacon

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Bring home the bacon

Meaning

To earn money, particularly for one's family; to be successful, especially financially successful.

Origin

Bring home the baconThe origin of the phrase 'bring home the bacon' is sometimes suggested to be the story of the Dunmow Flitch. This tradition, which still continues every four years in Great Dunmow, Essex, is based on the story of a local couple who, in 1104, impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion to the point that he awarded them a flitch [a side] of bacon. The continuing ritual of couples showing their devotion and winning the prize, to considerable acclamation by the local populace, is certainly old and well authenticated. Geoffrey Chaucer mentions it in The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue, circa 1395:

But never for us the flitch of bacon though,
That some may win in Essex at Dunmow.

The derivation of the phrase is also muddled by association with other 'bacon' expressions - 'save one's bacon', 'cold shoulder', chew the fat' and so on. In reality, the link between them is limited to the fact that 'bacon' has been a slang term for one's body, and by extension one's livelihood or income, since the 17th century. Of course, the source of that 'body' meaning is that bacon comes from the body of a pig or, more accurately, a pig's back and sides.

An additional invented explanation that links 'bringing home the bacon' with the culinary habits of mediaeval English peasantry is given in the nonsense email 'Life in the 1500s'. That, and all the other supposed derivations above, ignores the fact that 'bring home the bacon' is a 20th century phrase that was coined in the USA.

One field of endeavour in which one's body, that is, bacon, is the key to one's fortune is boxing, and it is in that sport that the expression first became widely used.

Bring home the baconJoe Gans and 'Battling' Oliver Nelson fought for the widely reported world lightweight championship on 3rd September 1906. In coverage of the fight, the New York newspaper The Post-Standard, 4th September 1906, reported that:

Before the fight Gans received a telegram from his mother: "Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon."

Gans (on the right in the picture) won the fight, and The New York Times printed a story saying that he had replied by telegraph that he "had not only the bacon, but the gravy", and that he later sent his mother a cheque for $6,000.

A month later, in October 1906, The Oakland Tribune reported another boxing correspondent, Ray Peck, predicting the result of the impending Al Kaufmann/Sam Berger fight in California like this:

Kaufmann will bring home the bacon. [He did]

There are no newspaper records, or any other printed records that I can find, of 'bring home the bacon' dating from before September 1906, but there are many, most of them boxing-related, from soon afterwards. That's not exactly proof that the expression was coined by the good Mrs Gans, but we can say at least that she was the one who brought it into the public arena.