Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Serving Spaghetti and a Loving Companion

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2006

The fact that serve as a transitive verb has more than one meaning has been the basis of jokes, notably the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”. While I was writing my dissertation, I had occasion to wonder if, outside a joke, serve could ever be used with both meanings at once. In ordinary circumstances, I’d say no; the only readings I can get for

I served the cake and Glen

are the two bizarre ones, one in which the cake is animate, one in which Glen is food. If someone said this and I managed to get past these interpretations, my next guess would be that the speaker had intended to say “served the cake to Glen.” But, I wondered, could you have just the right context to make it work? What if I worked for a catering company that was doing a wedding reception, and my tasks included serving canapes during the beginning of the reception, and when the meal was served, attending to the wedding party’s table? Could I say the following?

I served canapes at the beginning of the reception, and the wedding party’s table when the meal was served.

My native-speaker intuitions on this have eroded. I think it would probably fly, with the rich context and the extra adverbial material in each coordinated chunk. Do you?

I was reminded of my wedding-reception scenario and the verb serve when my wife showed me a cat tail spaghetti fork she had bought as a gift for someone. It’s a wooden fork for serving spaghetti, but get this: the handle is shaped and colored like a cat’s tail!

“Isn’t it the coolest thing?” she asked.

“Uh… yeah!” I said. I read the label that was tied to the handle. It said:

CAT TAIL SPAGHETTI FORK
The best for serving spaghetti as well as a loving companion

Yikes! They didn’t really mean that, did they? I tried again, looking for a reading that made more sense than the cannibalistic or pet-ophagic reading.

Maybe the as well as wasn’t coordinating a loving companion with spaghetti; maybe it was coordinating it with the entire phrase The best for serving spaghetti. This fork is a good spaghetti-serving device, and it’s also a loving companion…? How could that be? I imagined ways in which this firm, smooth fork could be a loving companion to someone, but I don’t think you’d want to serve spaghetti with it afterwards.

Finally, on the third try, I got a sensible reading: You could use the fork to serve spaghetti (to people), and you could use it to serve a loving companion something to eat, possibly spaghetti. Wow — I’d finally found an apparently serious double-meaning use of serve in the wild. And now that I’ve found one, I have this to say. The wedding-reception context I imagined may or may not be sufficient to allow a double meaning for serve, but the context of reading a label for a spaghetti fork is definitely insufficient.

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7 Responses to “Serving Spaghetti and a Loving Companion”

  1. Bridget said

    Glen warned me in advance that he couldn’t eat gluten, so I made sure to have a special gluten-free treat on hand for him. When it was time for dessert, I served the cake and Glen.

    Yeah… no. I still can’t get it. Your canape example is quite a bit better, though.

  2. Glen said

    I’ll bet the label on the cat tail spaghetti fork was written by a non-native speaker. Where was this utensil made?

  3. david said

    Maybe the intended meaning was

    The best for [serving spaghetti] and [a loving companion].

    So it’s the best fork with which to serve noodles and it’s also the best fork if you want a loving, company giving fork (although you still shouldn’t expect the friendliness of a real cat – it’s just a fork after all).

    By the way, can you help me get my head around unyet? I’m unsure as to whether it means ‘and yet’, ‘as yet’, ‘not yet’ or something completely different.

  4. Blar said

    Experienced caterer to novice caterer: “Big receptions like this can be overwhelming, since there are so many foods to serve and so many tables full of people to serve. Just remember your training. You should serve the foods in the order on this menu, and the tables from the front of the reception hall to the rear.”

  5. Neal said

    Glen: The fork was made by a Pennsylvania company.
    David: I think you’ve identified an eggcorn for and yet. I’d suggest submitting it to the eggcorn database.
    Blar: I think your example works pretty well, too.

  6. Lektu said

    JFYI, “To Serve Man” is originally a Damon Knight’s short story, later adapted for Twilight Zone: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Serve_Man

  7. Gary said

    You’ve discovered the ancient rhetorical figure called syllepsis, a subcategory of the rhetorical figure called zeugma. Read up on it at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeugma

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