Sutuff to think about (or not)

I’m surprised that psychologists or psycholinguists (are there such people, those who bludgeon you to death with words?) haven’t studied – at least as I’ve read – “waiter/ress-speak” (and for crap sake don’t call them “servers”; a server is a piece of electronic shunting equipment). Such job-related argo reflects the changes in values and temperament of society far more accurately than the sonorous piffling of TV “experts,” solidified inside their plaster personae.

Examples for consideration:

• When did “let me get that out of your way” become a universal comment made while hauling your plate from the table, though that plate is causing you, the eater, no physical or psychic discomfort?

• Aren’t you tempted, when your waitress asks, “Is everything OK?” to answer, “The meal and service are excellent, but the world at large is a gigantic crap heap”?

• Why did restaurateurs decide that we should know our “server’s” name? I guess it’s to make the “experience” more personal, but I find it an intrusion assumption. Years back, the anonymous waitress greeted you with a simple, “What would you like to drink?” or better yet, “Hi, hon, what can I getcha?” then left you alone to eat, except to check if you wanted anything else. Now, as they present or remove your dish, they describe their every move, as though you couldn’t conceivably understand why they were removing your salad dish.

This kind of social language change has been accelerated of late through social media, but it has always happened through simple societal drift. My question is, what triggers such changes? Do changes in the verbal behavior of provider groups – waiters, cashiers, train conductors – reflect top-down imposition by overlords, or sideways assimilation from peers? Or some independent form of social evolution?

Street argot has always been peculiar to time and place, but I’m talking about those easy, repetitious give-and-take situations:

How rapidly do small, empty bits of phrase get passed along as if they have meaning?

Do they spring from a real need or what a society at the moment thinks people want to hear?

Austrian author Robert Musil, writing in the 1920s and ’30s, set his monumental four-volume novel The Man Without Qualities in 1913. One section, in English translation “The Like of It Now Happens,” suggests that all of modern life (at least by 1913) had become a reality show: We live less by personal development and expression than as a reflection of what we believe reality to be, dictated by the complex of noise surrounding us.

*  *  *

Continuing (tangentially) with the idea of evolving group terms, my classes at St. Thomas More high school in West Philly (a Catholic school later terminated, with the building sold to the Black Muslims, praise the Lord!) were divided according to the students’ class standings. So, freshmen were in classes D1 through D5; seniors A1 through A5. The 1s were the “brains,” the 5s dragged their knuckles and drank from cess pools.

I was in the 1s. The Italians in my class (the school’s ethnic majority) talked blithely about going on “nigger hunts” on Saturday nights. I don’t think they were all madly aggressive; I’d guess they didn’t do that much harm, only made life fairly miserable for those not like them – as we all do. But one thing always pops up in my memory: In all other contexts, they referred to Blacks as “mools.”

Initially, I had no idea where this expression came from. When I finally asked, turns out it’s from an Italian word for “eggplant,” moolinyan (which makes a certain… unfortunate sense). The other day, looking it up online, I found that moolinyan is not a country-wide word for eggplant, but a regional version from Sicily and Calabria (southern Italy). 

The definition did note that moolinyan was U.S. slang for Blacks, but “originating in the ’60s.” C’mon, I can tell you personally that it wasWest Philly-common in the ’50s. And my enlightened classmates never used the whole word; it was always “mools.”

I guess we’re all better off when we abuse our antagonists in a language they’re unlikely to understand (and also, not hunt them on Saturday night).

*  *  *

Changing the subject with a lurch, have you ever perchance run across this example of the ancient Hindu concept of time? Here ’tis.

A bird flies above a towering mountain once each year, dangling a scrap of silken cloth from its beak.

As it transverses the mountain, the cloth’s trailing edge loosena minute particles of soil and rock.

This annual excursion continues throughout the ages, until, eventually, the bird wears the mountain even with the surrounding plain.

That length of time represents one day in the life of Brahma. Such a concept of time far overwhelms the current cosmological estimate of the life of the universe – roughly 13+ billion years. 

By contrast, in the West we tout a jealous God who got up one celestial morning saying, “Think I’ll make me a universe,” and did so in six days, around 4004 BC.

Is it any wonder that we, belated westerners with our intense focus on immediate solutions, make a royal hash of solving problems?

*   *   *

Numbers – quantities – are in my family genes. I count things, obsessively. How many steps in the process of feeding the dog? How many days until I next post one of these annoyances to you? 

My big brother Rod kept a tape measure in his pocket at all times. He measured everything (including his future wife, on first meeting her: “I don’t think you’re even five feet tall”; she wasn’t). In the New Jersey pine barrens, he caught snakes, measured them, then loosed them back into their habitat. 

I grew up with almost no idea how things worked. I didn’t take machinery apart; I knew, instinctively, that I’d never be able to put it back together. Radio tubes fascinated me because radio programs fascinated me, not because of how the tubes did what they did (whatever that was).

But the love of science, in the guise of numbers, must have lurked there all along, waiting in the wings. In recent years, it has moved onstage. When the wind is blowing in the right direction, I think about trying to re-learn calculus. Almost every day I try to unravel how my brain works. And when I see mention of an octa- or nonagenarian who has garnered a college degree while on the edge of oblivion, I wonder (not seriously) – what about a Ph.D. before I die?

Then I wonder, how about a nice, fat, tentacalicious squid for dinner? 

  1. #1 by orphyunk on February 5, 2023 - 9:34 am

    I think current restaurant speak started with the explosion of corporate-owned mid-priced chains – Red Lobster, Appleby’s and the like – whose hospitality consultants, in the interest of keeping things uniform and unlikely to trigger lawsuits, imposed scripts on their waitstaffs. Because this kind of restaurant now dominates the industry, customers have grown to expect waitstaff to talk this way. Well, not you or me. I also find it weird.


    • #2 by lickhaven on February 5, 2023 - 10:32 am

      Could well be, though somehow that “Let me get this out of your way” feels like a grounds-up development, something no one would have thought to impose. The linguists who look into such things usually can’t figure out where certain terms originated. There was a big discussion about the origins of “cocktail” a couple years ago, not sure they ever nailed it down but it was pretty murky.

      • #3 by orphyunk on February 5, 2023 - 12:26 pm


        div dir=”ltr”>“Let me get th

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