Saturday, July 07, 2012

Mess Hall

Jack saw an episode of The Mentalist that took place on a prep school campus. Prominently displayed in one scene was a sign pointing to the Mess Hall. Why, Jack wonders, is the dining area called a mess?

It came into Anglo-Norman from Old French, which, in turn, was indebted to a Latin word. The basic meaning was a portion of food. In Latin, it was a portion of food sent (missus) from the food preparation area to the dining area. In time, the emphasis moved from a portion of food to the place where it was consumed to the untidy state of a table after a meal to a disheveled person, whether physically or emotionally messed up.

In fact, it went through such a range of meanings that I think it’s instructive to list them as presented in the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • A serving of food; a course; a meal; a prepared dish of a specified kind of food.
  • The quantity of milk given by a cow at one milking.
  • A quantity (of meat, fruit, etc.) sufficient to make a dish.
  • A take or haul of fish, esp. one sufficient to provide a meal.
  • A (usually large) quantity or number of something.
  • A portion or serving of liquid or pulpy food such as milk, broth, porridge, boiled vegetables, etc.
  • A kind of liquid or mixed food for an animal.
  • An unappetizing, unpalatable, or disgusting dish or concoction; an ill-assorted mixture of any kind.
  • A situation or state of affairs that is confused or presents numerous difficulties; a troubled or embarrassed state or condition; a predicament.
  • A dirty or untidy state of things or of a place; a collection of disordered things, producing such a state.
  • A person who is dirty or untidy in appearance; (fig.) a person whose life or affairs are disorganized, esp. due to the influence of drink or drugs used habitually; an ineffectual or incompetent person.
  • Excrement, esp. that of an animal deposited in an inappropriate place.
  • Nonsense, rubbish; insolence, abuse.
  • An entertaining, witty, or puzzling person.
  • Any of the small groups, normally of four people sitting together and served from the same dishes, into which the company at a banquet was usually divided. Hence: any company of persons, esp. members of an institution or professional body, who regularly take their meals together.
  • Each of the groups into which a military unit or ship's company is divided, the members of each group taking their meals together. Later also: the place where meals are taken by such groups; a place where personnel, esp. of similar rank, regularly eat or take recreation together.
  • Military: Mealtime, or a meal, which takes place at a mess.
  • A communal meal.
  • A company or group of four persons or things.

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