meaning and origin of the phrase ‘caviar to the general’

The phrase caviar to the general is used to denote a good thing unappreciated by the ignorant (here, the general refers to the multitude). It is from The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (between 1599 and 1602), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616):

(Quarto 2, 1604)
– Hamlet:                     Come giue vs a tast of your quality,
come a passionate speech.
– Player: What speech my good Lord?
– Hamlet: I heard thee speake me a speech once, but it was neuer acted,
or if it was, not aboue once, for the play I remember pleasd not
the million, t’was cauiary to the generall, but it was as I receaued
it & others, whose iudgements in such matters cried in the top
of mine, an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set downe
with as much modestie as cunning.

(In the first quarto (1603), the expression is cauiary to the million.)

Caviar, or caviare, is the roe of sturgeon or other large fish, pressed and salted. It was a novel delicacy at the end of the 16th century and Hamlet implies that it is unpalatable to those who have not acquired a taste for it.

The word itself was recent at the time. It is first attested in Of the Russe common wealth. Or, Maner of gouernement of the Russe emperour, (commonly called the Emperour of Moskouia) with the manners, and fashions of the people of that countrey (1591), by the English author and diplomat Giles Fletcher (circa 1548-1611):

Of Ickary or Cauery, a great quantitie is made vpon the riuer of Volgha out of the fish called Bellougina, the Sturgeon, the Seueriga & the Sterledey. Wherof the most part is shipped by French and Netherlandish marchants for Italy and Spaine, some by English marchants.

However, in his textbook, Lesclarcissment de la langue francoyse (1530), the teacher and scholar of languages Jean Palsgrave (died 1554) was probably already referring to caviar when he translated English calver of saulmon as French escume de saulmon (literally foam of salmon).

The word caviar is from Italian caviaro (now caviale), itself from Turkish ḫāwyār. The Turkish word was in turn derived from Persian خاویار (xâvyâr), itself from خایه (xâye), meaning egg.




In the late 19th century, the French word caviar came to refer figuratively to the Russian censors’ practice of blotting out passages in newspapers and books with black ink, hence the French expression passer au caviar and the verb caviarder, which both mean to blue-pencilto censor.

A member of la gauche caviar (the caviar left) is the French equivalent of a champagne socialist, a person who espouses socialist ideals while enjoying a wealthy and luxurious lifestyle.

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