The other day I mentioned that food at a feast can become merely a garnish, or sauce, to its more important social side. This morning, I have mostly been considering sauciness.
The word sauce (and salsa) comes from Latin, sal, meaning salt. Sauce, salt, pepper and spice can all mean piquancy in things other than food (eg “a peppery old man;” “spice things up;” “a salty sense of humour” etc). But saucy has a complicated past. It dates back to 1530 and the idea of sauce-malapert. A Life of Sir Thomas More contains this quote: “He fell to scoffing and saucy jesting . . . using nothing throughout the said answer, but the fourth figure of rhetorick called sauce-malapert.” Saucy and scoffing (which itself has the double meaning of jeering or eating) are also in there; but both seem to indicate impudence, rather than merely being cheeky; while a malapert person was simply insolent. (Two centuries later, Jane Austen wrote frostily of “a pert young lawyer.”)
Around 1600, Shakespeare got as much out of the word sauce as he possibly could (we expect nothing less). One of the murderous conspirators in Julius Caesar has a rude, abrasive manner, which the ringleader Cassius describes as “a sauce to his good wit, which gives men stomach to digest his words with better appetite.” Shakespeare uses saucy in the same play, incidentally, which some of the nobler characters use to admonish their inferiors. It’s a little difficult to tell, in this day and age, whether the saucy cobbler’s terrible jokes are actually supposed to be funny; but when Brutus shouts, ‘Get thee hence! Thou saucy fellow, hence!’ he is clearly not amused but seriously annoyed.
For most of its history, saucy has held a note of disapproval at people not knowing their place in life. But gradually it has become associated less with obnoxious men and class distinctions, and more with flirty women. Not so long ago, the admonishment, ‘Pure sauce!’ or ‘Saucy!’ was still regularly applied to cheeky maids or girls, and famously appeared on picture postcards. But by the time of the Carry On films, saucy could mean any attractive woman, rather than a serving wench — and indeed, women could exclaim ‘Saucy!’ with their own undertone of disapproval (or, alternatively, welcome) at pursuing men.
Saucy crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, but suffered a sea change on the way to become “sassy.” Sassy lost its sexy connotations and is often applied to cheeky children (‘Don’t you give me none of your sass!'”; it has also become a verb (‘He’s really sassing her!’)
This post has turned into a bit of an essay. Feel free to comment and contradict! – Pass the sauce.