Fine Words - Butter No Parsnips - The Explanation

The full expression is fine words butter no parsnips (or sometimes soft words ... or fair words ...), meaning that words alone are not enough, especially flattering phrases or fine but empty promises. It’s an old English proverb, which is at least 400 years old: the first example given in the big Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1639: “Faire words butter noe parsnips”.


The link between butter and flattery is easy to understand. We have had the verb to butter up, to flatter someone lavishly, in the language at least since the early eighteenth century. It and the proverb share the image of fine words being liberally applied to smooth their subject and oil the process of persuasion. Parsnips were featured in the proverb early on because they were common in the English diet and were usually buttered before being put on the table.

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