steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Before Breakfast

In Japanese, 朝飯前 literally means "before breakfast," or (even more literally) "before the morning meal" - but is used to refer to something that's really easy, a bit like "a piece of cake." The idea is that something so easy that it can be accomplished without the sustenance provided by a full Japanese (rice, miso soup, natto, grilled mackerel, etc., with a health-giving pickled plum on the side) must be child's play indeed.

I suppose it must be a coincidence that the same expression exists in English - although I think it's a little old fashioned now. Think of the Red Queen's "six impossible things before breakfast." Or did Carroll coin it, in fact? It's easy to hear the Red Queen echoed in later usages, such as the "six VCs before breakfast" won on the first day of Gallipoli.

But was "before breakfast" used earlier than the Red Queen? Google Ngram is, as so often, our friend in these situations. In the decades prior to Through the Looking Glass people doing things before breakfast are generally doing them for the sake of their health:

These facts show the importance of breakfasting soon after rising and dressing, at least in many cases. I am fully aware that there are numerous exceptions to this. Some persons not only suffer no injury from but actually appear to be benefited by active exercise taken before breakfast, its effect being with them to create or augment the appetite. But in others the effects are those which I have already stated. I am satisfied from repeated observation that in children disposed to spasmodic and other brain diseases the practice of making them attend school for two hours before breakfast is injurious, and I fully agree therefore with Dr Combe that in boarding schools for the young and growing, who require plenty of sustenance, and are often obliged to rise early, an early breakfast is almost an indispensible condition of health. Epileptics, especially those disposed to morning attacks, should invariably breakfast soon after rising. (Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, Vol. 6, 1842)

A walk to Priessnitz Quelle by the Silver and Fichten Quelles, and back the same way, is more than three miles, and this is the regular walk before breakfast in winter. In summer the guests usually extend their excursions much farther. As they return many stop to drink again and some return by the douches having become sufficiently warm to take that bath before breakfast. ... In his Graefenberg dishabille the patient, whether he be count, baron, captain, general or priest, forgets all his dignity in the feeling of irrepressible joy and energy produced by the plunge bath and the bracing morning air. A few stalk along the path in stiff and formal dignity as if offended at the liberties taken by the careering sporting winds and the merrily waltzing snow that surround them. It is deeply interesting watch this infinite variety in the guests they ascend the mountain on a cold morning before breakfast stopping now and then to pant and breathe, and look back upon the glorious amphitheatre around them. (Water Cure Journal, 1849)

I think the Red Queen probably did kickstart the meme, at least in the English language. The only person doing an impossible thing before breakfast turns out to be Mozart, who uses that opportunity to write the overture to Don Giovanni:

Showers of crotchets and quavers now gushed from the rapid pen. At times, however, and in the midst of writing, nature would assert her sway and cause the composer to relapse into a nod or two. To these, it is generally pretended, the leading passage in the overture turned, repeated, and modulated into a hundred varied shapes, owed its origin. The somnolent fits, however, soon gave way to the cheerful converse of CONSTANTIA and the excellent punch which formed its accompaniment. The overture was completed before breakfast and the copyists scarcely had time to write out the score. (Proceedings against William Hone before his Trials, 1817)

As for me, all I did was write this rambling Livejournal post.
Tags: books, language, nippon notes

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