This phrase says that nothing is achieved by empty words or flattery.
It means, of course, that you should judge people by what they do, not by what they say. The proverb is English and dates from the 1600s.
One early version in print is in John Clarke’s Latin/English textbook Paroemiologia, 1639:
“Faire words butter noe parsnips, verba non alunt familiam. [words, no family support]” It also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1639. The English used a lot of butter and there are other versions of the proverb, such as “fine (fair or soft) words butter no fish.”
Why parsnips? Because at that time potatoes were something new in the English diet. Other root vegetables, such as parsnips and turnips were eaten instead, cooked, mashed, and liberally laced with butter. It was not until the mid 1500s that John Hawkins imported potatoes into Britain and they began becoming the national dish.
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.
“Butter” is apt in the phrase because it’s also used in a phrase of its own: to butter up. That means to flatter someone to a ridiculous extent.
If I were to use that phrase today, I’d have to say,”fine words butter no potatoes.” When I was growing up on the farm, potatoes were on the menu every day. They were easy to grow in the North, and easy to store. I still love them. But only in their natural state, boiled, fried, baked, etc. I’ll probably be drummed off Earth for saying it, but I hate potato chips.