June 26, 2014

IE Questions: Now We’re “Cooking With Gas”

Print More

I don’t usually care much about the etymology of phrases or words;  my apologies to the word-obsessed out there.  But I happened to be listening to the public radio show A Way With Words on a long drive the other day (through a region where my only other option was country rock), and I heard a fascinating explanation of the origins of the phrase, “cooking with gas.”

Because we are Inside Energy, and because natural gas is very much our topic area, I have to share:

“Now we’re cooking with gas” originated in the late 1930’s or early 40s as a slogan thought up by the natural gas industry to convince people to use gas, rather than electricity, on their new-fangled stoves.  This was the era where there was a widespread transition from wood-fueled stoves, and electric and natural gas stoves were in competition with each other. The gas industry wanted to imprint the idea in people’s minds that cooking with gas was the most effective way to get the hot food on the table.

The modern understanding of the phrase is, “functioning very effectively” or “achieving something substantial,” or, after a time of trial and error, “we’re finally rolling.”

But how did an advertising slogan enter the public lexicon and become a phrase meaning much more than just “cooking with gas?”

A clever industry-sponsored advertising campaign.

According to both to the A Way With Words co-host Martha Barnette,  and at least partially confirmed by this website focused on English language and usage, the phrase was likely coined by a man named Deke Houlgate who worked for the American Gas Association in the 1930s.  He planted the phrase with writers for Bob Hope, who subsequently used it radio comedy routines.  The phrase also pops up in Jack Benny routines in the early 40s, a 1942 movie, a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1943:

Daffy Duck: [in the oven] Say, now you’re cooking with gas.

Who knew that effective product placement predated television and the modern day widespread use in film?