“Tuck into”

Some friends and I were exchanging e-mails about two possible menus for a planned get-together. One of them wrote: “We, too, will happily tuck into either option.” (He was speaking for his wife, not using the royal “we.”)

That naturally made me think about the expression “tuck into”–meaning heartily eat–specifically that I’ve encountered it quite a bit recently. For example, a February 13 New York Times article about the American figure skater Adam Rippon notes that on the day of the interview, “he went to a restaurant and tucked into a lunch of leafy greens tossed in Caesar dressing and topped with pieces of seared ahi tuna.” A February 16 article from the (California) Mercury News about eating more healthily advises, “Tuck into a banana instead of a bag of pretzels.”

I suspected this was a Britishism, the rough American equivalent being “dig into.” My investigations confirmed my suspicions. A Google News search for “tuck into” yielded 18 hits, and the only American source was the Mercury News article. Most of the rest were British, with a few from Australia and one each from Israel and Malaysia.

I asked Anglo-American linguist Lynne Murphy her thoughts and she said she thought it sounded “Britishish.” Being a scientist, she tested the hypothesis with non-anecdotal evidence and searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (CoGWBE)–which contains 1.9 billion words, all from 2012–for the expression “tucked into a.” There are 46 hits from American sources, but none of them relate to food, instead to other things that can be tucked, such as shirts into pants or content into legislation; from PBS.org, “Even just a few lines tucked into a lengthy bill.” On the other hand, 17 of the 43 British hits referred to food, such as this caption to a Daily Mail photo showing then-Prime Minister David Cameron watching a basketball game with Barack Obama: “As befits a spectator at a U.S. sports event, the PM … tucked into a hot dog, with Mr Obama, washed down with a Coke.”

According to the OED, the verb “tuck” began to be used in reference to food in the late 1700s, to imply “put away” or “put out of sight.” It quotes an 1834 source: “Now that I’ve cured you, you’ll be tucking all that into your own little breadbasket.” Note that the food is tucked into a person. Eventually, “tucking in” became an intransitive verb and is still about; Green’s Dictionary of Slang quotes The Guardian, 2000: “The 500 faithful meet, greet, chat and tuck-in.” The first to use transitive “tucking into,” not surprisingly, was Charles Dickens, one of the great literary appreciators of food. In Nicholas Nickleby (1839), a character says, “If you’ll just let little Wackford tuck into something fat.” According to Green’s, “tuck” was first used as a noun to mean food in 1835. In Australia and New Zealand, this was lengthened to “tucker” as early as 1858 and is still used. In Trevor Noah’s wonderful memoir Born a Crime, he talks about the “tuck shop”–snack bar–at the school he attended in South Africa.

All the above citations are from British or Commonwealth sources. And so are the rest in the OED and Green’s. As recently as 2012, the CoGWBE suggests, the expression was still overwhelmingly British. But–at least as far as “tuck into” goes–things have changed.

15 responses to ““Tuck into”

  1. The tuck shop was a typical feature of British private schools where you could buy sweets, crisps and other snacks. Kids would also have a ‘tuck box’, a locked chest where they could keep their private things.

  2. We even had a tuck shop at my state school in the north of England in the sixties.

    • brianbutterworth

      And also at my public (US “private”) school in the North in the 1980s.

      • Catherine Rose

        And during our youth orchestra and band courses, we have temporary tuck shops so the kids don’t stray outside to the shops. It raises extra cash, too.

      • Although my point was that though the tuck shop is associated with public schools, my school wasn’t one. OK, it was a grammar school, not a secondary modern, so not the bottom rung, but still state-run by the local education authority and definitely not a public school.

        Incidentally, another term for food I remember from the north-east was “bait”, and I don’t think that one has spread at all. When I had a summer job as a garden labourer in the early seventies, the head gardener was always saying it was time to stop for bait, and workmen would carry their bait boxes to work to have a lunch prepared by their wives.

    • My northern grammar school also had a tuck shop. It was a Catholic direct grant school but I’m pretty sure the LEA grammar school had one as well..

  3. And having just read this post, I started to do the Azed crossword in The Observer newspaper, where 11 across was:

    I tucked into gastro cooking – I love riotous living (7)

    OK, British crossword in a British newspaper, so not unusual, but it was the spooky synchronicity that got me.

    (It’s a prize crossword, so I’m not going to let people cheat by revealing the answer, but it was the second clue I solved, so fairly easy for the Azed, which specialises in obscure words.)

  4. My nephew still brings tuck money to youth club.

  5. British newspapers often have reports of famous people tucking into slap-up meals although not many people would use the expression in normal conversation.

  6. My south of England state grammar school also had a tuck shop in the sixties.

  7. Diverging slightly, sorry, but, “Tuck in.” as an invitation / exhortation to enjoy the meal before you is probably as near as English gets to phrases like, “Bon appetit.” or “Kαλή όρεξι.” and can still be heard now and again.

    Tuck shops were commonplace, may still be, in state schools. Everyone of the 5 schools (Scotland and England. Primary, Sec. Mod. & Comprehensive) I went to had one.

  8. I’m late tucking in but yes, we had a tuck shop in my grammar school where we could buy toffee and sweets. My instant reaction when I read about someone tucking in to a salad was to laugh because it struck me as incongruous. Tucking in to me implies some heavy-duty eating and rather more substantial trenching (or digging in) than lettuce leaves with tuna added. You might just get away with it if it said a plate piled high with hefty tuna steaks with added salad leaves and ingredients.

  9. The American quotations sound a bit off to my ear, too, as though someone had been told “tuck in means eat”, without grasping the subtle connotations. You can’t tuck into a banana, or a typical salad.

    It’s reminiscent of the Americans who learned “snog means kiss” and ended up talking about how they snog their children when they take them to school. Noooo!

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