Saturday, April 16, 2011

Oh Dear

Several summers during my college years I worked in the parts department of a heavy construction equipment firm. When I first started the job, I worked with one of the full-time employees named Mike. Mike would often go about the business of the parts department and periodically spout out, “Oh dear bread and beer, if it wasn’t for Momma I wouldn’t be here.” While Mike was Irish, I never equated this little ditty to an old Irish saying or anything, but I can’t recall ever asking Mike where the saying came from either. It has stuck in my head all the years since. So I Googled it one day and learned that my version was only one of many. In fact, Google didn’t raise my version, just these variants listed below.

"Oh dear, bread and beer, if I was home I shouldn't be here!"
"Oh dear, bread and beer, if I hadn't have married I wouldn't be here."
"Oh dear, bread and beer, if I were rich I wouldn’t be here.”
"Oh dear, bread and beer, if I were dead I wouldn't be here!"

Anyone know anything about the origin of this little expression?


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Blogger just ate my comment. Sigh. I shoulda copied first.

The Shorter Oxford does not record the phrase "bread and beer," nor do the phrase origin sites, though some mention it. The recorded instances are American, not British, however. Bing repeatedly informs me that the ancient Egyptians used the phrase "bread and beer" to mean all food, because it pretty much was, and even had frequent hieroglyphics putting the two next to each other.

Let me assure you that the phrase did not come into America via Egypt, ancient or modern.

As the rhyming nature of dear, beer, here is not accidental, and "beer" is the unusual one that the other two were likely made to fit, I reasoned that since the phrase did not have observable British roots, it might come from another language, and one that kept the sound of "beer" was necessary. Though there are similar pronunciations throughout Europe, only the Germanic languages are exact. American ethnic history being what it is, I tried German itself first, rather than Dutch or the Scandinavian languages. "Brot und bier" is indeed a frequent combination in German, sometimes as a phrase meaning "all sustenance, all of life," but also in an old saying "With yeast both bread and beer are made." (That might have several meanings.)

I will guess, then, that the phrase "bread and beer" survived intact into America in a German ethnic area, with the rhymes added here. That would suggest a 19th - early 20thC origin, somewhere in the rust belt or the upper midwest.

The variations have mildly similar meanings. Once the phrase "I wouldn't be here" is in place, some idea of the chanciness of life, or the irrevocability of decisions might come in automatically.

Anonymous said...

I don't know the origin, but my dear mother used to say this all the time. She was extremely literate and well read right up to her 99th year (Oct. 10, 2010). I can't tell you how many times her expressions run through my brain,now that I have no longer have her with me.

Anonymous said...

My mother, first generation Irish American, frequently said 'Dear Dear Dear Bread and Beer'. When I asked her, she said it's something she picked up from her mother. I always assumed it had an Irish origin. Mmmm bread and beer. Drunks.

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Elaine Stagnitto said...

I grew up with a pure Polish Grandma, and a pure Italian grandfather. I'm guessing I heard it from them. That saying has been stuck in my head for years, but since I forgot the last half, I've been saying, "Oh dear, bread and beer, if I weren't there, than I'd be here." Makes no sense, I know.
Anyhow, I wonder if it has Polish or Italian roots.

Kyrie Eleison said...

My German grandma tonight just said this phrase. She's used it in many varients, so I goggled it to see if there was one that was official. She's 97 and tired tonight and this is her go-to phrase instead of a sigh. Another one she's used through the years, "Oh dear, bread and beer. If I hadn't married, you wouldn't be here."