“Bring home the bacon” means to earn money, to make a living, particularly for one’s family, to be financially successful.
“Bacon” has been a slang term for a person’s body, and by extension, for a person’s livelihood or income, since the 1600s. And “bacon,” of course, comes from the body of a pig. The phrase was coined in the USA in the early 1900s.
One popular theory holds that the phrase originated in the small town of Great Dunmow in England, in the 1100s. According to local legend, the church in this town would award a side of bacon to any man who could honestly say that he had not argued with his wife for a year and a day. Such a man would “bring home the bacon” and be considered a role model.
Another theory says the phrase got started in the 1500s at country fairs. One of the most popular contests at country fairs was to catch a greased pig, not easy to do. The prize for catching the pig was that you got to keep it. Thus you got to “bring home the bacon.”
One’s body (or bacon) is the key to making a fortune in the sport of boxing. It’s in that sport that the expression first became widely used. In 1906, Joe Gans, the first native-born black American to win a world title, and ‘Battling’ Oliver Nelson fought for the world lightweight championship in Goldfield, Nevada. This match has been rated as the greatest lightweight championship bout ever contested, famous enough that its centenary was recently marked in the area.
The New York newspaper, The Post-Standard, reported that before the fight, Gans received a telegram from his mother: “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.” Gans won the fight, and The New York Times reported that he had replied by telegraph that he “had not only the bacon, but the gravy,” and that he later sent his mother a check for $6,000.
There are no printed records of “bring home the bacon” dating from before September 1906, but there are many soon afterward, most of them boxing-related. Thus the theories about arguing with one’s wife and greased pigs are very likely wrong.
Where did Mrs. Gans hear the saying? We don’t know, so we don’t know the original source. But it quickly rose in popularity after the 1906 bout. By 1911 it was being used for politics. When P. G. Wodehouse used it in 1924, it had become firmly established in the US.
I brought home the bacon this morning. But that was easy because all I had to do was buy it at the grocery store.