Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2003 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
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.''
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.
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.''
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.
Can you explain the origin of the phrase "Peck's bad boy''?
O.F., Madison, Wis.
"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.
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