Q From Malcolm Anderson: Lazing about the other day, I said, this will butter no parsnips But I have no idea of its derivation. Please help.
A It’s interesting that you should use the phrase to refer to idleness, since its usual associations are with honeyed words. The full expression is fine words butter no parsnips (or sometimes soft words ... or fair words ...), meaning that words alone are useless, especially flattering phrases or fine promises, and you should judge people by what they do rather than by what they say.
Apart from that, there’s not a lot more that one can say apart from “origin unknown”. It’s a proverb, which is at least 400 years old: the first example given in the big Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1639: “Faire words butter noe parsnips”.
The link between butter and flattery is easy to understand. We have had the verb to butter up, to flatter someone lavishly, in the language at least since the early eighteenth century. It and the proverb share the image of fine words being liberally applied to smooth their subject and oil the process of persuasion. Parsnips were featured in the proverb early on because they were common in the English diet and were usually buttered before being put on the table. (Nothing particularly special about that, however: foreign visitors often commented in disgust at the English habit of using butter to cook almost everything.)
Nigel Rees, in Oops, Pardon Mrs Arden!, quotes a stanza from Epigrammes of 1651 by a Thames waterman known as the Water Poet, John Taylor:
Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chamelions on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
But words did never Fish or Parsnips butter.
This shows that other foodstuffs were involved in the saying at that time — indeed there’s an example in the OED from 1645: “Fair words butter no fish” — and that it’s the act of buttering that’s the key part of the saying. The association solely with parsnips results from the expression having become fossilised in that one form at some point.