Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Stuffing, Dressing, and Sweet Mashed Potatoes

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2007

I made my lunch today out of Thanksgiving leftovers. It’s the first time in at least a decade that I’ve done that, because it’s the first time our family has had Thanksgiving dinner here instead of at my wife’s uncle’s house. I loaded the plate with the good, juicy dark meat that there was plenty of, not the dry white meat that everyone else so strangely prefers. Then some of the stuffing — oh, wait, I can just hear my dad saying that it’s not stuffing unless you’ve actually stuffed the turkey with it. It’s dressing. If you go calling the mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that my mom would cook in a baking dish stuffing, people will get it confused with that portion of the same mixture of breadcrumbs, eggs, turkey stock, and herbs that actually got cooked inside the bird. Maybe the distinction is worth making, since the inside-the-bird stuffing has soaked up some of the juices from the turkey and tastes somewhat different from the baking-dish-stuffing. But on the other hand, if I call it dressing, people could confuse it with what you put on your salad.

Another dish that my wife had picked up for the meal, she referred to as sweet mashed potatoes. That sounded like an interesting recipe. Not good, necessarily, but interesting. I like my mashed potatoes buttery and salty, not sweet. As it turned out, however, what was in the container was not mashed potatoes that had been sweetened, but mashed sweet potatoes. Mashed sweet, or sweet mashed? If an adjective and a noun have fused into a compound noun, then other adjectives can’t go putting them asunder: spoiled hot dogs is grammatical, but hot spoiled dogs isn’t — at least, not with the same meaning as you get with spoiled hot dogs. So in my grammar, it has to be mashed sweet potatoes, since sweet potato is a compound noun (as evidenced by the stress on sweet), and mashed potatoes is not (with its stress on potatoes). It looks like most other speakers agree, since I got 200K Google hits for mashed sweet potatoes and less than 1000 for sweet mashed potatoes. Even among those hits, though, I didn’t find any that referred to mashed white potatoes that had been sweetened; mostly they referred to what I would call mashed sweet potatoes, though a few were talking about a dish containing potatoes and sweet potatoes. Maybe for those few people for whom mashed sweet potatoes and sweet mashed potatoes mean the same thing, mashed potatoes is as much a compound as sweet potato is, leading to variation in naming something that qualifies as both. One website even used both phrasings to refer to the same item.

BTW, for a fascinating investigation of when and why Thanksgiving came to be (for many, but not all people) pronounced with stress on the giv-, see this post from Mark Liberman at Language Log.

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3 Responses to “Stuffing, Dressing, and Sweet Mashed Potatoes”

  1. Had some thoughts about this a couple of weeks ago, but..as always i tend to forget things like this.

  2. [...] It was both! It was … forensic fringe science! Fringe forensic science! Wow, this is like sweet mashed potatoes all over again. I got zero hits for both fringe forensic science and forensic fringe science, both [...]

  3. [...] …held forth on the proper usage of words such as ramp and stuffing. [...]

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