My wife has been baking bread lately (and very good it is too), and this morning as I was gazing fondly at the latest loaf the phrase “staff of life” popped into my head and I wondered about it. The metaphor seemed clear—a staple food is something you lean on—but still somewhat odd, and I wondered if there were a backstory. I went, of course, to the OED, where I found the phrase as definition 4c (first cite: 1638 PENKETHMAN Artach. Ajb, “Bread is worth all, being the Staffe of life,” where Artach. = Artachthos; or a new booke declaring the assise or weight of bread); definition 4b, which gave rise to it, is:

In the Biblical phr. to break the staff of bread (literally from Heb. maṭṭēh ‘leχem, Vulg. baculum panis), to diminish or cut off the supply of food.
1382, 1388 WYCLIF Lev. xxvi. 26. 1560 BIBLE (Geneva) Lev. xxvi. 26. Ps. cv. 16. Ezek. iv. 16. [And so 1611]. c1586 C’TESS PEMBROKE Ps. CV. iv, Scarse had he spoken, When famine came, the staff of bread was broken. 1596 BARLOW Three Serm. i. 121 God in his lawe threatneth that he will breake the staffe of bread, that is, bread shall not nourish them that eate it.

So it’s a metaphor specific to the Hebrew Bible that managed to get solidly rooted in the English language; a quick look through my dictionaries suggests English is unique in that respect—staff of life is defined by phrases that translate to ‘most important foodstuff,’ ‘support of life,’ and the like. (The Hebrew word mateh, incidentally, now [also] means ‘military staff’: mateh ha-klali ‘General Staff.’)

I close with a quote from a letter by the 14-year-old Emily Dickinson (Thursday, September 26. 1845, to her friend Abiah Root):

I am going to learn to make bread tomorrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up mixing Flour, Milk, Saleratus &c with a deal of grace. I advise you if you dont know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.

Saleratus (sal aeratus ‘aerated salt’) was a nineteenth-century form of baking powder; the stress is on the penult (sal-uh-RATE-us).

I note that the Italian translation appended to the letter at the linked site renders the final sentence, with “the staff of life,” as follows: “Se non sai come fare l’alimento primario ti raccomando di imparare in fretta.”


  1. I don’t remember hearing the phrase before today, but within 15 minutes of reading this post I saw it again here:
    How queer.

  2. J. Del Col says

    “Saleratus” is baking soda,(sodium bicarbonate) not baking powder.
    They are quite different things chemically, though they produce a similar effect.

  3. Baking powder is baking soda plus a weak acid, like tartaric, so it does its thing with just water and is overall pH neutral.

  4. J. Del Col says

    More about baking soad and baking powder. A form of ‘single-acting’ baking powder was used in the early 19th C. It combined sodium bicarbonate with cream of tartar(potassium bitartrate)
    It was called ‘single-acting’ because it worked immediately when liquids were added to it to make dough or batter–the acidic cream of tartar casued the bicarb to release carbon dioxide.
    I suppose Ms Dickinson may have had access to them.
    Our contemporary ‘double acting’ baking powders combine chemicals which act immediately when mixed with liquids and lchemicals which react as the dough is heated, giving a boost to the leavening process. Double-acting powders didn’t come on the market until 1856–well after Ms Dickinson’s 14th year.

  5. So, that’s from Latin baculum?
    The same “baculum” that’s used to refer to the bone in most mammals’ genitals?

  6. J. Del Col says

    Bread recipes which include an acid source such as buttermilk will cause plain baking soda to work without the addition of tartaric acid.
    I notice Ms Dickinson does not mention yeast, so she may have been making a quick bread. OTOH, we don’t know what that ‘etc.” might have included.

  7. My guess is that the yeast is included in the etc.

  8. Latin “baculum” means “walking stick, staff”… some say it is cognate with “peg” – which has also been used to refer to genitals.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only one whose mind immediately skipped to that other staff. (Just came across the word ‘linga'(‘lingam’) in that respect yesterday in a thread about Jesus-fish.
    Bread with baking powder/soda?!! Quelle horreur!

  10. Oh, I understand the semantic usage of baculum to refer to both…but now I have the random association of bread as the “whale penis of life,” if you’ll pardon the mental image that brings up.
    And Wikipedia informs me that raccoon bacula are also used as “lucky charms,” while we’re on the subject of cereal grains.

  11. J. Del Col says

    Has Sili never heard of Irish soda bread?

  12. I always understood it as a simple physical metaphor, originating from a context where the unmarked unit of “bread” was something like a baguette. How embarrassing.

  13. And then there is the old joke:
    If bread is the staff of life, what is the life of the staff.
    Answer: A long loaf.

  14. marie-lucie says

    The unmarked unit of bread cannot be a baguette but a round loaf. As a child I had a very good teacher who believed in hands-on experiments. We studied how to make bread with yeast, and she brought little baguettes she had made herself. I decided to replicate this at home: even though I had shaped a small baguette, what came out of the oven was something like a very thick pancake, as round as could be. I did not realize that baguettes (and any other long loaves) are baked within molds of the proper shape (not individual molds but sort of trays with parallel partitions). La baguette (literally a “wand”) and its even thinner sister la ficelle (literally a “string”) are relatively recent urban inventions. Unlike country loaves (large round loaves or very thick long ones) they become dry or stale in no time at all, so many single people buy just half a baguette at a time, every day or even morning and evening. But French bakeries also sell quite a variety of loaves of different shape, thickness and composition.
    Unfortunately I cannot recall a French expression equivalent to “the staff of life” – I am sure it has nothing to do with baguette, as the word for “staff” as a support for walking would be un bâton. An orchestra conductor does not use un bâton which would be much too large and heavy, but une baguette, and eating Chinese-style requires the use of des baguettes.

  15. Terry Collmann says

    The positively circular set of links here is that, as the OED reveals, baguette comes from baculum anyway, so presumably the Latin for “baguette” would be “baculum panis”, which leads us back to “staff of bread” – no need to feel embarrassed about your mental imagery after all, Matt.
    Those other uses of “baguette” in French give me some odd mental images – Harry Potter and his pals waving bread at each other, and eating Chinese food with increasingly soggy French sticks …

  16. Little Johnny is walking down the road carrying a loaf in one hand and with his other hand stuck in his pocket. He meets the priest.
    P: Ah Johnny I see you have the staff of life in one hand. What have you got in the other?
    J: A loaf of bread.

  17. marie-lucie says

    The word baguette is certainly connected to the root bac of Latin baculum, but its original meaning has nothing to do with bread any more than ficelle ‘string’ does, or flûte, another name for a long loaf of bread. Amont other current uses of the word are baguette magique ‘magic wand>, baguette de coudrier ‘dowsing rod’ (lit. hazelwood stick), baguette d’encens ‘incense stick’ and baguette de tambour ‘drumstick’ (for a drum – not a piece of chicken). There is also the expression mener … à la baguette ‘lit. to lead/run [others] with the (officer’s) stick’ (said of a very strict father, boss or other authority figure).
    As for the ‘staff of life’, surely it must be a metaphor meaning ‘mainstay of life’, at a time when some sort of bread was the main food (hence ‘to earn one’s bread’ and ‘the breadwinner’). The quotations above about ‘the staff of bread’ never refer to a specific type or shape of bread but about its life-supporting qualities: if the right grain is lacking because of a poor harvest, the proper flour cannot be made, and substitutes for grain do not have the same nourishing qualities, so famine occurs.

  18. quotations above about ‘the staff of bread’
    Right. And in addition to מטה־לחם there is the משען ומשענה כל משען־לחם וכל משען־מים of Isaiah 3:1 and I think mišʻen is an even less specific kind of support, the mišʻenah being a staff if taken concretely.

  19. Back to saleratus:
    I grew up on Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales, a bunch of well-told Appalachian folktales collected in North Carolina by Richard Chase, a writer with a great ear for dialect who was employed by the WPA during the Great Depression. One of the Grandfather Tales featured a “Sody Sallyraytus.” I can’t recall much else about it, but that phrase sure did stick.
    My maternal grandmother, from western Virginia, used to like “salt-rising” bread, which I understand gained popularity among temperance advocates during the late 1800s since it avoided (brewer’s) yeast, the Devil’s own enzyme.

  20. Del Col,
    I hadn’t actually. I do know of scones, though.
    I just seem to recall that the only ingredients accepted by the French are water, salt, yeast and flour. No more, no less.
    Personally, I only stick to that for flûtes. My daily bread is made with milk, fat and a touch of sugar as well.
    Funny how baking comes together on two of my favourite blogs like this.

  21. “The Hebrew word mateh, incidentally, now means ‘military staff'”
    It still retains the original meaning. “Staff” as in “military staff” is, I think, a calque from English.

  22. Really? I was going by my Webster’s New World Hebrew Dictionary, which only gives the military sense; I’m glad of the correction.

  23. J. Del Col says

    Salt-rising bread is essentially a wild-yeast sourdough bread with cornmeal. It’s very tricky to make.
    I’d never heard the teetotaler angle on it.
    It would be the kind of bread settlers could make if they had lost their yeast starter or couldn’t get any yeast locally.

  24. J. Del Col says

    A mea culpa.
    Salt-rising bread relies on the action of a bacterium -Clostridium perfringens- instead of yeast for its rise.
    The salt suppresses yeasts.
    I don’t know why one of my bread books says it uses wild yeasts.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Just for the record: no such metaphor in German.

Speak Your Mind