Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Episode 194: Butter Up



This week Shauna and Dan explore the flattering phrase, to butter someone up. The origins are a bit murky, but we'll explore some popular theories. Bonus: Spanish Idioms, Friendsgiving, and Great Captains. #BunnyTrails


Click to read the show notes


 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 194: Butter Up
Record Date: June 4, 2023
Air Date: June 7, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever had someone say something nice to you that made you feel all warm and fuzzy all over the place? But then, you become suspicious. This person isn’t usually heaping praise upon me. And then you wonder… why are they buttering me up? Well that is the topic of today’s episode.


This phrase was suggested as a possible episode by our long-time Patron Pat Rowe, so thank you Pat for the idea! You can also suggest a topic on our website,, or email us at Or the old fashioned way, write to us at Bunny Trails Podcast, PO Box 1359, Derby, KS 67037.

According to Merriam Websters, to butter someone up means to

to charm or beguile with lavish flattery or praise
End Quote

This is usually done with a purpose, like just before you ask them for a favor. Which really takes the enjoyment out of being flattered.

The first time I could find it in print was in the late 1700s. This was in the work A New Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages in Four Volumes. Compiled by Thomas Connelly, 1798. Our phrase is on Page 413 and is used to define a spanish idiom.

Lavar La Cara a Alguno
Adularle o lisonjearle. To flatter a person; to butter him up.
End Quote

Here’s another example in the early 1800s, from The Fudge Family in Paris, 6th edition, 1818, edited by Thomas Brown the Younger. Page 40

For, knowing how, on Mousley’s plain,
The Champion fibb’d the poet’s nob,
This buttering-up, against the grain,
We thought was curs’d genteel in Bob
End Quote

And this is super helpful because there are footnotes on this paragraph, one noting that the Champion is referring to Crib defeating Gregson in 1808, and the other noting “buttering-up” means praising or flattering.

Savannah Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, 24 May 1881 in a letter about Federal agents and a land disagreement between Florida and the United States.

In an interview with Gen. Bolly Lewis, ye jovial host of ye Duval Home (now Lewis is nothing if not excessively polite, and Solon, knowing his weak points, buttered him up and them devoured him at a gulp), he elicited the fact that Col. Protois and Mr. Jones, while in the city, usually put up at his house
End Quote

It goes on to showcase how much Gen. Lewis gave up on the two men with their movements in the home, locations of rooms, times coming and going, and so forth. It appears that flattery got a ton of information in this case.

New York Tribune, 6 January 1907 in an article called The Viceroy Versa by Seumas MacManus.

Ned whistled. He had heard a power about this Montgomery, who was a pompous kind of a man also, who put up for big things on small justifications. It was oftentimes a game of the lawyers at the Omagh assizes to go en masse to his house of an evening, butter him up, an’ have the father and mother of a fine supper at the lad’s expense.
End Quote

Newark Leader out of Newark, Ohio, 5 November 1942. It’s a news story with the headline Mediocre Minds In Congress Says Bromfield. I’ll read the opening paragraph, then I’ll skip to the quotes from Bromfield.

When this is read the election will be over, but the earnest words of Louis Bromfield, addressing a congressional rally in the high school auditorium Monday night, will not be forgotten by the fair sized crowd who greeted him in spite of inclement weather and various other scheduled activities…

The speaker emphasized, “there is nothing wrong with our congress - the trouble lies in the fact that there are too many mediocre minds as members of that body. If we, the voters, do not put capable men in those important positions, we have no one to blame but ourselves, and should not go around damming everyone from the president on down.”

Mr. Bromfield said that he could express his views because he had no axe to grind, no one tried to “butter him up” to secure a job, and that he made a good living by writing and did not have to kotow (sic) to anyone for a job himself.
End Quote

Evening Star, Washington DC, 17 August 1958 in a piece called, Dody Owes All to Jack by Ward Morehouse. This snippet is about the celebrated feud between Dody Goodman and Jack Paar. Ms. Goodman was a regular for 8 months on the Jack Paar Show on NBC. This is Ms. Goodman speaking:

There was always a mystery surrounding it. As I went along it seems that he found more things that were displeasing to him. He said I had changed, and I thought he had. I thought on the show I was a challenge for him. So many people get on there and butter him up, but I tried to give him something to bounce off of.
End Quote

The one thing I haven’t talked about yet with this phrase is… why? Why does buttering someone up mean to give them praise?

Well, the internet has a theory. I found hundreds of articles claiming this is the origin story. Most of them linked to another story that said it. I never found anyone linking to actual research or even linking to a historian making the case for this. Here is an excerpt to one I found linked to several times, but offers no evidence itself. It is the earliest example I could find of this possible origin story. It comes from the Christian Science Monitor in a piece by Ben Frederick on 4 May 2013 called 15 hidden meanings of popular food phrases:

…the origin traces its roots all the way back to ancient Indian customs. When trying to seek favor from Higher Powers, natives would throw little balls of butter, called ghee, at statues of the Gods.
End Quote

Mr. Frederick doesn’t seem to offer any reasons why an ancient Indian custom might spawn an english phrase in the late 1700s with seemingly no connections from one timeframe to the next. But the Brits maintained a presence in India from at least 1765 before they officially took over rule in 1857. So possibly it came through there. Though that doesn’t explain why the first time I saw it was in a Spanish to English dictionary. But perhaps that was just happenstance.

Still, I think the more likely origin is that butter was used by peasants and nobles alike to make bread and other food softer and taste better before eating it. This seems a pretty direct line of thought to offer praise to someone before asking them for a favor.

Let’s move onto some more modern takes on this phrase, but first a quick word of thanks to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

Here is an article in Entertainment Weekly from 2 September 2011 written by Grady Smith. It’s titled, Jennifer Garner and Ty Currell get ‘Butter’d up in new comedy

Butter, a quirky comedy starring Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, and Hugh Jackman that premieres next week at the Toronto International Film Festival, was always destined to garner attention — it’s a high-profile movie about competitive butter carving!

But now that audiences are finally getting to see Butter, it seems likely to spark a lot more conversation. According to director Jim Field Smith, Butter is an offbeat tale that follows a determined Jennifer Garner’s budding career as a competitive butter carver, and it also contains a few lighthearted winks to the 2008 presidential race and the recent hijinks that took place during the Iowa straw poll…

Smith was quick to express that the film is not any sort of angry, pointed satire, and that even without any focus on the political subtext (which is not the story at the core of the film), Butter functions as a goofy comedy. Color us intrigued!
End Quote

Buttered Up Organics is a organic beauty product store based in the Caribbean. It was founded in 2015 by Dr. Caroline Singh. Here is the About Us section on their website:

Dr Singh an accomplished dentist with a successful private practice has always had a passion for beauty and fashion . Recognizing a void in the local beauty product market coupled with her growing concern over the amount of unsafe and harsh chemicals used in the over the counter beauty products Dr Singh decided to channel her resources into the formulation of a line of skincare products powered by plant and fruit extracts that were gentle yet effective in treating Caribbean women. Initially only body products were done but as the brand grew facial products were gradually added to the menu. The brand has received overwhelming support from the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
End Quote

Buttered Up is the second song off the 2019 album Sensational by Yung Gravy. In lieu of reading the lyrics because they are simply not appropriate for our show, I’ll read you the synopsis of the song from

Buttered Up is the first collaboration between Yung Gravy and Memphis-born rapper Juicy J. The song is dedicated to Mrs. Buttersworth, the mascot of a syrup and pancake mix brand of the same name. Both artists talk about their intentions with Mrs. Buttersworth, and call for her attention.
End Quote

Buttered Up is a book written by Mayra Statham and released in 2021. It’s the first of four books in the Friendsgiving Chronicles. Here the synopsis:

Police officer Lawson ‘Law’ Lawrence is an iceberg. He’s not the forever kind of guy. All he needs is his work and his lifelong friends, who are more family than anything after all these years.

But when his buddy double dog dares him to hit on Gratitude Peaks' new Science teacher on Halloween night, Law gets hit with a titanic-sized curveball that cracks his exterior. One look is all it takes for him to start melting, losing his heart faster than you can say ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’

Law isn’t a man to shy away from something he wants. Marigold Jimenez has him melting fast and furious, and he’s ready for a forever with her. Nothing is going to hold him back from doing everything he can to claim Mari as his own.
All he needs is one chance. And Law is ready to lay it on thick. Anything to butter Mari up into giving him a chance at forever.

The temps are dropping, and the season is changing. Join us for the Friendsgiving Chronicles as this group of life-long friends fall in love. Guaranteed to be jam packed with autumn vibes, HEAs, smoking-hot, dirty-talkin’ men and the sassy women they lose their hearts to. What a great time to be grateful, thankful & blessed!
End Quote

I feel like that tells you everything you needed to know about that particular book.

Can we talk about Friendsgiving for a minute? I love friendsgiving. Merriam Webster’s added to their dictionary in January 2020. Here’s a snippet from their website.

Friendsgiving is a blend of friend and Thanksgiving, and it refers to a large meal eaten with friends either on or near Thanksgiving. People are serious about their Friendsgiving celebrations: there are how-tos, sample menus, rules, and even commandments for Friendsgiving. But when Friendsgiving first came into use, it was used to describe something much more informal than the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Friendsgiving seems to be a relatively recent word. The earliest print uses of it that we've found so far date back to 2007, where it shows up in Usenet posts and on Twitter to refer to this informal meal… Given the fact that the word isn't explained in these posts and tweets, it's likely that Friendsgiving was floating around in spoken English for a bit before it showed up in written English—and this is pretty standard for new vocabulary.
End Quote

I think the first time we did a friendsgiving was maybe 2018 or 2019. Our mutual friends Clint and Rachael wanted to have friends over to celebrate Thanksgiving. We got together the Saturday before and had an amazing dinner with all the trimmings. Everyone brought something, being careful of each other's allergies, and we enjoyed the evening with fun and fellowship and wine. We’ve done it several times since then and I greatly recommend it, even if you do a traditional thanksgiving, getting together with your friends (who are basically the family you get to choose) can be a wonderful experience.

Wrap Up
Back to butter up, I don’t love that the word is oftentimes associated with praise and flattery as a way to get something out of someone. So I’m going to ask all you word nerds to start buttering up your friends just for the sake of making them feel better. Because they are cool people. And they deserve the praise. And so do you.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, Which Captain would you prefer work for?

Captain Picard won handily, though Captain America made a solid showing in second place.

Captain Nemo and Captain Jack Sparrow didn’t get any votes, but I’m not sure I can blame our Patrons from staying away from those two.

Mary said:

I thought it was interesting that I knew my answer before seeing the list. I too, would want to work for Picard. Other captains, nearly all of them Starfleet have their appeal, but Picard is just enough of each to be the whole shebang... Sparrow would be exciting though, gotta say, “Pirate!”
End Quote

I went with Picard. I was always struck by Picard’s decision at the end of the 3rd season episode, "The Survivors". SPOILERS: An alien being of immense power fell in love with a mortal. When she was killed in an attack, the being killed the attackers out of rage. But not just the ones who attacked the planet. All of them. True genocide. Billions. Picard considers this but quickly realizes there are no laws for this magnitude of crime. He allows the alien to remain in self-exile and places warning buoys to keep other ships away from the planet. Picard's decision was helpful for young me to recognize that some situations are bigger than me. And it's okay to admit that. Also that "justice" can look different to different people. I think I'd follow a leader who recognizes that difference.

I'm with the rest of you. Picard is 100% worth following. He truly has it all... he's incorruptible and he loves his people. Also, his existence in fiction actually helps build equality in the real world. That's pretty freaking awesome. Bonus, he has a vineyard.

Heather had similar ideas:

Gotta go with Picard: stylish, suave, and French!
End Quote


Emily weighed in on the topic, too:

Team Cap, always.
End Quote

I understand that, Emily. In the Marvel Universe, Captain America would be one of the very few people I’d be willing to follow.

Jan also offered another option:

Captain Kangaroo comes in a close second to Picard.
End Quote

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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