Understanding the Idiom: "what's cooking" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

The origins of this idiom are unclear, but it has been in use for many years. It is believed that the phrase may have originated from the idea of something being prepared or cooked up, much like a meal. Over time, it has evolved into a more general question about what is happening or planned.

Understanding the meaning and usage of this idiom can be helpful for non-native speakers who want to improve their conversational English skills. By knowing how to use this phrase appropriately, you can engage in casual conversations with native speakers and better understand their intentions.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “what’s cooking”

The phrase “what’s cooking” is a common idiom used in everyday conversation. It is often used to inquire about what someone is doing or planning, particularly in regards to something exciting or interesting. The origins of this phrase are unclear, but it has been used for many years and has become a part of modern English language.

Some speculate that the phrase may have originated from the kitchen, where people would ask each other what was being prepared for dinner. Others suggest that it may have come from the world of business, where people would use the term to ask about new projects or plans that were in development.

Regardless of its origin, “what’s cooking” has become a widely recognized and frequently used expression in English language. It can be heard in casual conversations among friends as well as professional settings such as meetings and interviews.

In addition to its common usage today, “what’s cooking” also holds historical significance. During World War II, it was commonly used by soldiers to inquire about upcoming missions or operations. This demonstrates how language evolves over time and takes on new meanings based on context and cultural changes.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “what’s cooking”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their variations and how they can be applied in different situations. The idiom “what’s cooking” is no exception. This phrase has a variety of uses that go beyond its literal meaning of asking about food being prepared.

One common usage of this idiom is to ask about upcoming plans or events. For example, if someone says “I have some exciting news,” you might respond with “Ooh, what’s cooking?” as a way to express your curiosity and interest in hearing more.

Another variation of this idiom is to use it as a way to inquire about someone’s current state or mood. If someone seems upset or distracted, you might ask them “What’s cooking?” as a way to check in on them and see if there’s anything bothering them.

In some cases, the idiom can also be used sarcastically or ironically. For example, if someone makes an outrageous claim or suggestion, you might respond with “Oh sure, what’s cooking? Aliens landing on Earth next week?”

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “what’s cooking”


– What are you up to?

– What’s going on?

– What’s happening?

– What have you been doing lately?

These phrases convey a similar meaning to “what’s cooking” and can be used interchangeably in most situations.


There are no direct antonyms for the idiom “what’s cooking,” but some phrases that convey an opposite meaning include:

– Nothing much

– Not a lot

– Same old same old

These phrases imply that nothing new or exciting is happening or being planned.

Cultural Insights:

The use of idioms varies across cultures, and it is essential to understand their context before using them. In American English, the phrase “what’s cooking” has culinary origins and refers to food preparation. However, it has evolved into a more general inquiry about activities or plans. In other cultures, such as British English or Australian English, different idioms may be used instead.

It is also worth noting that the tone of voice can affect how this idiom is perceived. Depending on the situation and tone of voice used when asking “what’s cooking,” it could come across as friendly curiosity or nosiness.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “what’s cooking”

1. Fill in the blank: Use the idiom “what’s cooking” in a sentence that describes a situation where someone is curious about what is happening. For example, “I saw my boss talking to HR, and now I’m wondering ____________.”

2. Role-play: Pair up with a friend and act out a conversation using the idiom “what’s cooking.” One person can play the role of someone who has insider information, while the other plays the role of someone who wants to know what is going on.

3. Write a story: Create a short story that incorporates the idiom “what’s cooking.” It could be about two friends trying to solve a mystery or coworkers gossiping about their boss behind closed doors.

4. Watch TV shows or movies: Pay attention to how characters use idioms like “what’s cooking” in popular media. Take note of context and tone, and try to understand why they are using this particular phrase.

5. Practice with flashcards: Create flashcards with different scenarios written on them, such as “at work,” “with friends,” or “in public.” On each card, write down an incomplete sentence that uses the idiom “what’s cooking.” Practice completing these sentences until you feel comfortable using this phrase in various contexts.

By practicing these exercises regularly, you’ll gain confidence in using the idiom “what’s cooking” correctly and naturally in everyday conversations!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “what’s cooking”

When using the idiom “what’s cooking”, it is important to be aware of common mistakes that can lead to confusion or miscommunication. By avoiding these mistakes, you can ensure that your use of the idiom is clear and effective.

One mistake to avoid is using the idiom in inappropriate contexts. While “what’s cooking” is a common phrase used to ask about plans or activities, it may not be appropriate in all situations. For example, asking “what’s cooking” when someone is grieving or dealing with a serious issue may come across as insensitive.

Another mistake to avoid is assuming that everyone understands the idiom. While it may be familiar to some English speakers, non-native speakers or those unfamiliar with American idioms may not understand its meaning. It is important to provide context or explanation when using the idiom with someone who may not be familiar with it.

Additionally, it is important to use proper grammar when using the idiom. The correct form of the question should be “What’s cooking?” rather than “What are cooking?” or other variations.

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