Wednesday, May 06, 2009

“Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”

. . . “Why, it looks like the backstroke, Sir.”

Waitspeak touched an audience nerve last week. It seems that waiters and waitresses annoy their clientele more than they suspect. For instance, Bev from Leland wrote about servers approaching her table and asking, “How is everything tasting?” Bev thought that combination sounded odd.

It seems to me that it’s a blend of “How is everything?” and “How does everything taste?” I don’t know when the strange blend occurred. I did read a comment on the web that said, “When a server asks me, ‘how is everything tasting,’ I say I’m not sure because I haven’t tasted the napkin or the tablecloth yet.”

“You still working on that?” bothers other people. A standard response seems to be, “I’m eating, not working.”

Then there’s, “If you need anything, my name is Charles.” I always want to ask, “And if I don’t need anything, what’s your name?”

Some listeners expanded the range to include retail stores. One of the least favorites is, “I can help who’s next.” What grates here is that a relative pronoun (who) is being used as the object of the verb help. For transparency, the wording should be, “I can help the person who’s next.” Relative pronouns need antecedents.

This could be solved by turning who into an interrogative pronoun: “Who’s next?” Evidently, some people think that this is too blunt or impolite. They could switch to “Next, please” to soften the blow and to use words more greenly.

To be fair, there may simply be a compression of wording at play, though it still sounds strange. Language Log points out that fused relatives were common in Shakespeare’s time, though they are rare in ours. One example appears in Othello when Iago says,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

SIDEBAR: Language Log on “I can help who’s next.”

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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