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.