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Butter won’t melt in my mouth...

So I am a university English Lit student of about three years, and I have to admit, I don’t exactly know the meaning of this phrase. I came across it while reading “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and was reminded how much this phrase has always annoyed me, because I have a general idea of what it means, but couldn’t specifically define it. I am also curious as to where this phrase originated from. Any ideas?

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The phrase is first recorded in 1530 in John Palsgrave's Lesclarcissement, one of the earliest French grammars written for English speakers, and therefore a good record of the English and French language of that period: "He maketh as thoughe butter wolde nat melte in his mouthe." By 1546 the saying was common enough to be recorded in John Heywood's book of proverbs: "She looketh as butter wouldn't melt in her mouth."

The saying refers to someone who is demure and proper, and therefore "cold" enough to keep butter from melting. But it's used in a contemptuous way to imply that the person is overly demure and proper, and has an insincere desire to please. So the sense nearest the mark is '(one who is) superficially nice but is treacherous deep down'. The underlying insincerity is shown in this excerpt from Jonathan Swift's Polite Conversation (1738): "She looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth but I warrant, cheese won't choak her." The derogatory connotation is also evident in this excerpt from William Makepeace Thackeray's Pendennis (1850): "She smiles and languishes, you'd think that butter would not melt in her mouth."

And this quote from Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind should finally settle the matter among your friends: "'I said some terrible things to him that night when he deserted us on the road, but I can make him forget them', she thought contemptuously, still sure of her power to charm. 'Butter won't melt in my mouth when I'm around him. I'll make him think I always loved him and was just upset and frightened that night'".

Eduardo3 March 6, 2006 @ 1:57PM

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And why does this expression refer to women only?

Torsten March 11, 2006 @ 4:19AM

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Torsten, drop the feminist-preaching and read Eduardos post again.

slemmet1 March 11, 2006 @ 3:27PM

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slemmet, thanks for the kind note and for answering my question.

Torsten March 17, 2006 @ 10:52AM

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In everyday speech it is generally used of a child or young person who has an innocent appearance but who is really a trouble maker.

mike7 June 13, 2006 @ 6:46AM

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