Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2003 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

"Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy'' | Dear Editor:

What is the origin of the term "blue plate special''?

A.P., South Portland, Maine

Dear A.P., If you grew up eating in diners, you're familiar with "blue plate special,'' a term usually used to refer to a main course or meal that is sold at a special price. We have evidence of the adjective "blue plate'' being used as far back as the early 1920s, but not with the meaning we associate with it today. "Blue plate'' was first used of restaurant plates - usually blue or blue-patterned - that were divided into sections for serving several foods on one plate, thus enabling diners to dispense with salad plates, bread plates, or dessert plates. Because these blue plates very likely cut down on dishwashing and serving sizes, they became ubiquitous. "Blue plate'' luncheons, dinners, and specials were being offered on menus shortly after the divided plates were introduced; our first citation for a "blue plate'' dinner is from 1928.

The divided plates are no longer used in most diners and restaurants, but the "cheap eats'' they encouraged still go by the adjective "blue plate.''

Dear Editor:

My husband asserts that to use the article "the'' with "hoi polloi'' is incorrect because "hoi polloi'' is literally translated in Greek as "the many.'' Is he right? It sounds funny to me to not use the article.

H.W., Topeka, Kan.

Dear H.W.:

Your husband has correctly translated "hoi polloi,'' but that doesn't mean the word shouldn't be used with the definite article "the.''

"Hoi polloi'' began to be used in English in the early 19th century, a time when having a good education meant mastering Greek and Latin. Yet when we look at early examples of the term in use, we find that the educated writers of the time, who knew the meaning of "hoi'' full well, did not hesitate to precede the term with "the.'' Both John Dryden and Lord Byron, for example, used "the'' with "hoi polloi,'' which they wrote using the Greek letters. As the transliterated form became more common in the 1800s, it was usually preceded by "the.''

Donate to JWR

The issue did not become a subject of controversy until 1926, when H. W. Fowler described "hoi polloi'' and other Greek terms like it as "uncomfortable.'' Fowler recommended avoiding "hoi polloi'' entirely, and other commentators followed suit. The term hung on, however, and in the last quarter of the 20th century we found commentators recommending only that people not use "the'' with "hoi polloi.''

But if using "the'' before "hoi polloi'' creates an undesirable redundancy, why did the like of John Dryden and Lord Byron find the usage unobjectionable? Perhaps it is because they understood that English and Greek are two different languages, and that whatever its literal meaning in Greek, "hoi'' does not mean "the'' in English.

There is, in fact, no independent word "hoi'' in English, but only the term "hoi polloi,'' meaning "commoners'' or "rabble.'' It is really no more redundant in English to say "the hoi polloi'' than it is to say "the rabble.''

In current English, "hoi polloi'' can be correctly used both with and without the article "the,'' but use with "the'' continues to be significantly more common. Use without "the'' appears now to be more common in British English than in American English.

Dear Editor:

Can you explain the origin of the phrase "Peck's bad boy''?

O.F., Madison, Wis.

Dear O.F.:

"Peck's Bad Boy'' was the name of a character created by a printer and newspaperman named George Wilbur Peck. Peck founded his own paper, called Peck's Sun, in 1874, focusing the publication less on news and more on humor. One feature of this paper was an ongoing series of fictitious tales involving Peck's Bad Boy, a mischievous child named Hennery who frequently played pranks on those around him, especially his alcoholic father. These stories were later compiled into two books, "Peck's Fun'' (1879) and "Peck's Bad Boy and His Pa'' (1883). The main character later appeared in a number of early motion pictures based on Peck's stories.

Peck carried over his popularity and financial success into the field of politics. He was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1890, and he later served as the governor of Wisconsin (1891-1895).

The old-fashioned phrase "Peck's bad boy'' is still sometimes used to refer to a person who is constantly annoying others by bad or mischievous behavior.

Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster column, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102. Comment by clicking here.


10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

©2003 Merriam-Webster Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services