According to the linguists who write the Phrasefinder website, the expression ‘bringing home the bacon’ might have its origins in the village of Little Dunmow, England. In 1104, a Lord of the Manor and his wife decided that they would dress up—or dress down—like some of the local poors, and they spent the day begging for the local Prior to bless their marriage. (Apparently you had to make your own fun in 12th-century England.)
The Prior was impressed by the couple’s devotion to each other and gave them a flitch of bacon, which is basically half a pig, sliced lengthwise. The Lord then revealed his true identity to the Prior, either by shouting “PRANKED” in the man’s face or by promising to leave his land to the church—but only if they agreed to give a tremendous amount of pork to other couples who could display their love for each other. The Dunmow Flitch Trials have continued to this day: The complicated-sounding event is held every four years in Great Dunmow, about 40 miles north of London.
Although the English have been awarding vertically sliced pigs to each other for more than 800 years, the words “bringing home the bacon” didn’t appear in print, in that order, until New York’s Post-Standard newspaper printed a telegram that boxer Joe Gans’ mother sent him just before the 1906 World Lightweight Championship. “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you,” she wrote. “Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon." (Gans won, and wrote his mom back to tell her that he had “not only the bacon, but the gravy.”)
But regardless of when or how the phrase came to be, a 21st-century researcher suggests that its days could be numbered—and it’s all because of vegans. In an essay published on The Conversation, Swansea University post-doc researcher Shareena Hamzah wrote that the rise of veganism—whether for ethical or environmental reasons—may very well affect the way animals are used in figurative language and figures of speech.
“The increased awareness of vegan issues will filter through our consciousness to produce new modes of expression—after all, there’s more than one way to peel a potato,” she wrote. “If veganism forces us to confront the realities of food’s origins, then this increased awareness will undoubtedly be reflected in our language and our literature.”
Unsurprisingly, PETA has already addressed this, printing its own guide to “animal-friendly idioms” for educators. “Unfortunately, many of us grew up hearing common phrases that perpetuate violence toward animals, such as “kill two birds with one stone,” “beat a dead horse,” and “bring home the bacon,” it writes. “While these phrases may seem harmless, they carry meaning and can send mixed signals to students about the relationship between humans and animals and can normalize abuse.”
It suggests, for example, trading “Beat a dead horse” with “Feed a fed horse,” and swapping “Bringing home the bacon” with “bringing home the bagels.” (In her essay, Hamzah acknowledges that these changes could be slow to appear, if they even catch on at all—but PETA will still try to make fetch happen.)
The next Dunmow Flitch Trial will be held in July 2020 and, regardless of whether there’s been a linguistic shift, there’s probably no way the winners are going home with a bag of bread.