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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: fast food

food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.


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secret sauce

(1990’s | journalese? | “secret ingredient,” “secret formula,” “magic (trick),” “trade secret”)

Back in the day, only food writers used “secret sauce,” usually in reference to this great chef or that. By the eighties the expression had acquired an association with fast food, probably prompted by the “Colonel’s secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s mantra anyone my age can still rattle off: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” True, that was “special sauce,” not “secret sauce” — which isn’t secret any more; there’s a recipe in Woman’s Day — but some linguistic cross-breeding was inevitable, and over time the expression has acquired the taint of the Golden Arches. Whether concocted by Escoffier or a corporate chemist, your secret sauce enhances the other ingredients and makes the dish unforgettable, so diners keep coming back. It’s what gives you an edge over the competition.

And that’s the figurative meaning, too. It may be a person, or a bit of wisdom won through observation, or just something you know that the others don’t. Whatever form it takes, it’s the catalyst or the solvent; that is, it makes the heterogeneous elements on the job, in the dugout, or in the studio work together toward superior results. A 2014 article in USA Today defined it thus: “that thing that you do that is unique, different, and special.” It is used strikingly often in the negative to remind us there are no shortcuts to success — it’s mostly hard work and trial and error. (In 1990, NBC Television executive Brandon Tartikoff observed, “Once you reach a certain level of success in this job, people start to believe you have a secret sauce. They want to know, why isn’t that sauce spread across the whole [programming] schedule?”)

We started using “secret sauce” figuratively right around 1990, as far as I can tell; there were a few tentative examples before that, but it started to show up in quantity then. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious channel from the literal to the figurative use. Its earliest avatars tended to turn up in entertainment reporting (including sports). Somewhere back there, someone got the idea of taking the old culinary expression, which had already dropped a brow-level or two through persistent association with fast food, and applying it to non-comestible situations. And it stuck, then spread into more and more contexts like a béarnaise slowly smothering your entrée.

A new adjective, “awesomesauce,” has recently come to my attention. It’s still a young person’s word, I think, that sounds strange to older people like myself, though I suppose the built-in rhyme makes it catchier. Also used as an interjection, the word implies a state of felicity beyond mere awesomeness, tending toward exhilaration or delirium. It first showed up in Urban Dictionary in 2005 (they spell it with a space), but those people are early adopters, and I doubt it was in general use that soon. It’s not in general use now, for that matter, but I’ve come across it and I’d guess most alert readers have as well. Can “criss-cross awesomesauce” be far behind?

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(1990’s | advertese? | “Ring it up!,” “Rake it in!,” “Score!”)

An onomatopoetic rendering of an old-time cash register — none of this infernal beeping we hear all the time nowadays, just a cheery little bell that rang whenever the cashier opened the drawer. (The sound was also attributed sometimes to slot machines, taxi meters, and pinball machines.) Like many onomatopoeias, it doesn’t feel quite like a real word somehow, but language comes from many places and need not trace its lineage back to the Mayflower, nor yet the Indo-Europeans. There is also a one-syllable form; how well I recall the introduction to Beard and Kenney’s Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings, one of many unfortunate childhood influences on my sense of humor, in which the authors freely admitted they were in it for the money and recorded hoped-for sales of the book with a gleeful “ching!” No prefix, which is a more accurate translation of the cash-register bell — although maybe the two-syllable version is descended from an old-time adding machine. My guess is that the opening syllable is an elaboration born of exuberance. “Cha-ching!” is a common variant. It is used most commonly, by far, as an interjection, but it may see spot duty as a noun or verb.

It’s not invariable, but typically “ka-ching” carries a strong suggestion of unseemly greed. One common way to use the expression is as the response of a litany, in which each item of a list of features, services, or transactions is met with “ka-ching!” In such cases there is usually an implication that the items enumerated have the primary purpose of mulcting, rather than helping, the customer. It is a tricky expression to translate into regular ol’ words, which is no doubt why it has been successful. There is no quicker, breezier way to say “someone’s making money off of this” in speech or gesture. (Does the old gesture of rubbing the tip of the thumb against the fingertips mean anything any more? That meant “give me money,” or more poetically, “cross my palm with silver” and implied bribery.) The expression may also have a disagreeably exultant tone when one is enjoying one’s own financial success. It’s not always accusing, but I think that’s predominant.

I found an example or two before 1991 in LexisNexis, but that seems to be the year “ka-ching” took wing through the good offices of young actor Seth Green in a commercial for a fast food chain called Rally’s. After every item the customer ordered, Green (as the cashier) ejaculated “cha-ching” or some variant (one of which was “ba-da-bing,” by the way, Sopranos’ fans). The commercial did not have national circulation, but it did become a hit with New Orleans Saints’ fans, who adopted “cha-ching” as a celebratory expression. Maybe that’s where Mike Myers picked it up, as it completed its journey to the center of the mainstream by way of of Wayne’s World (1992), which also popularized such immortals as “Not!” as an interjection, “hurl” (vomit), and “we’re not worthy.” “Ka-ching” existed before the movie; a 1992 New York Times article cites it as an example of a distinctive phrase from the film. But it doesn’t seem to have been as iconic (or moronic) as “babe” and its derivatives or the once-ubiquitous “party on.” (There are dissertations to be written about the effect of “Wayne’s World” on the language.) By the time the nascent Oxygen Network used it as the name of a show and a web site in the late nineties, the usage was probably still hip but hardly new.

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(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “much ado about nothing,” “tempest in a teapot,” “big fat zero,” “empty suit”)

Chalk up one more for the Reagan administration, by far the most prolific presidential source of new vocabulary since Kennedy or possibly FDR. Actually, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, made it famous in 1984, by which time she was his former EPA administrator, having resigned rather than turn over subpoenaed documents to Congressional committees. She used “nothing-burger” to describe the next post to which she had been nominated: head of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. (Antiquarians like myself will observe that it happened the same year as the “Where’s the beef” ad campaign.) I must add that Google Books yielded one instance before Burford: none other than Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Office (1964), who tossed it off in a discussion of dressing for success (i.e., attracting a man) at work. I quote: “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers.” An adjective, it’s true, but easily turned into a noun. Apparently gossip columnist Louella Parsons used the expression even earlier, though my sources are all second-hand.

The point of “nothing-burger” is that it denotes a statement, event, or (sometimes) person that promises more than it delivers, or doesn’t live up to its hype. Or maybe a small solution to a big problem. (Good exposition here.) By now the term has broadened so that it denotes any non-entity, regardless of advance publicity. It’s always an insult, a quick dismissal of a policy statement, an opponent’s sally, or even sworn testimony. Therefore, it may be used defensively, as a means of suggesting that the very telling blow one has just absorbed had absolutely no effect. To this day, it is used overwhelmingly by politicians and political commentators, though one stumbles across it now and then in movie reviews or sportswriting.

The use of “burger” as a suffix is not all that widespread, despite America’s obsession with the hamburger and its many variants. Lighter’s slang dictionary lists only two examples (of course, that was over twenty years ago), and the only one I could think of was “slutburger,” which was pressed into service to discuss salacious commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., although it was the name of an underground comic book drawn by Rip Off Press regular Mary Fleener before that. Even now, most “-burger” words are strictly food-related.

Though it’s used now by politicians of all persuasions, “nothing-burger” has always been more prominent among right-wingers, befitting its first popularizer. Burford was an early right-wing martyr, head of an agency whose mission she opposed, like so many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. She sold simple obstruction of justice — stonewalling the people’s representatives for the sake of a profoundly dubious assertion of executive privilege — as principled resistance to intrusive, pettifogging gummint bureaucracy. Of course, she had a willing audience, and the same third of the country that cheered her on has just put Trump in the White House. He has repaid them by placing her son on the supreme bench. We may well wonder how many of her notions about the law and the Constitution he has absorbed.

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