The phrase to butter someone up is an odd one, isn’t it? When you actually think about it, it can’t help but conjure images of being greased up and ready for baking, made all slippery and smooth. Weird, but it’s a phrase that is so prolific in our language that we rarely do think about it. It’s just… it’s just a saying.
Of course, it’s not really about rubbing actual butter on someone (although there’s always one oddball, isn’t there?). The Oxford dictionary defines the phrase as to “flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with someone,” usually with the aim of personal gain – you butter someone up so they’ll do something for you in return. But where does this odd phrase come from?
Some argue that it’s really simple – it refers to the idea of smoothly spreading butter on bread, making it tastier. Alternatively, it could refer the idea of literally greasing someone up, thus making them easier to handle, making them pliable. Perhaps, but that’s not my favourite theory. My favourite theory involves actual balls of butter.
This theory finds its origins in ancient India, where Hindu worshippers would throw small balls of ghee (clarified butter) at statues of the gods when asking them for divine favours. They are literally buttering up the gods in the hope of being rewarded. Why? Perhaps because ghee is a precious substance created by the sacred cow. Perhaps it’s to keep the gods cool. Whatever the reason, it sounds like lots of fun.
A similar theory claims the phrase originates from the Tibetan New Year celebrations, where sculptures are made from coloured butter and offered as gifts to the heavens as a means of ensuring happiness and favour in the upcoming year.
Wherever the phrase comes from, if anyone wants to butter me up, I’m always open to some blatant flattering (but no actual butter balls, please) 😉