10 Expressions That Came From the Ancient World

Butter Someone Up
A ball of ghee might have been the source for the expression "to butter someone up." © iStockphoto.com/marekuliasz

A common food-related expression with links to the ancient past is "butter someone up." It's used to mean excessively flattering someone, usually so that they'll do something for you. For example, you say to your friend: "Cathy, that dress is beautiful and fits you so well! And your hair looks lovely, too!" Cathy might well reply, "Why are you buttering me up?" Because you need a favor, naturally.

Many claim this phrase has its origins in ancient India, when people used to lob little balls of ghee butter at the statues of various gods when they were asking them for favors. In Tibet, there's an even older custom of crafting butter sculptures when the new year rolls around; the sculptures were viewed as a means of bringing happiness and peace in the coming year [source: Frederick].

However, some argue that the phrase has nothing to do with the Indian tradition. Instead, they say, it originated because of the imagery — spreading smooth butter on a piece of bread is like spreading nice words on someone. Let's go with the butter-ball theory. It's a lot more fun.