Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Apple Juice and Double Cheeseburgers

Posted by Neal on September 1, 2009

Time to order Adam’s Happy Meal. I leaned my head out the car window and spoke:

I’d like a chicken nugget Happy Meal, with fries and apple juice.

The voice of the order taker came back:

That’s a chicken nugget Happy Meal, fries and a double cheeseburger?

Wha–? Where did the double cheeseburger come from? I responded: “No, apple juice.”

The voice: “A double cheeseburger and apple juice?”

Gimme a double juiceburger!

Now Doug and Adam started cracking up in the back seat, because I was getting a taste of my own medicine. How many times had Adam and I had a conversation like this at lunchtime?

Me: Adam, how about a peanut-butter-and-bologna sandwich?
Adam: No, banana!
Me: Oh, a banana-and-bologna sandwich! OK, coming right up!
Adam: Da-a-ad! A peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich!

I tried again: “No. I want a chicken nugget Happy Meal, with fries and apple juice.” Success this time, before I started to feel too much like the guy in the “Fast Food” sketch I’d heard years ago on the Dr. Demento Show.

As I pulled around to the first window, Doug was asking me through his guffaws how they could possibly have mistaken apple juice for double cheeseburger. I was wondering that, too, but it was starting to make sense. The string and apple juice, starting with the d in and, actually had a lot in common with the double cheese part of double cheeseburger. Specifically…

  1. They each start with [d].
  2. The [æ] of apple and the [ʌ] of double are different, but once we’re past them…
  3. Each string has a bilabial stop: the voiceless [p] of apple, and the voiced [b] of double.
  4. Now each string has a syllabic L.
  5. Both juice and cheese start with a palatal affricate. Juice has the voiced [dʒ]; cheese has the voiceless [ʧ].
  6. Again, we have different vowels: The [u] of juice and the [i] of cheese. Even so, they’re both high vowels, and for some speakers they’re even both front vowels, differing only in roundness — lips rounded for the vowel in juice; unrounded for the vowel in cheese.
  7. Lastly, both juice and cheese end in an alveolar fricative, the only difference being the voiceless [s] of juice vs. the voiced [z] of cheese.

Once the order taker had heard double cheese, context allowed him to conclude that I meant “double cheeseburger”, maybe figuring that I’d mumbled or turned away from the speaker. But at least he repeated the order back to me and we got it all cleared up. Another burger place I go to doesn’t do that, and furthermore seems to think that a cheeseburger is the default when I order a burger. More than once they’ve brought me a double cheeseburger when I’ve ordered a double “burger” with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mustard. What’s going on? Have these servers been burned by people who order hamburgers and get upset when they (the burgers, that is) don’t have cheese on them? If so, these people must be stopped!

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9 Responses to “Apple Juice and Double Cheeseburgers”

  1. The Ridger said

    Back in the day, the question was always “Do you want cheese on that?” Now the default is cheese. If you don’t actually say “No cheese” they think “hamburger = cheeseburger”.

  2. My linguistics prof had a good fast food counter story for us. Her partner had been in McDonald’s and ordered a Coke and a danish. The person behind the counter said, “We don’t have coconut.” “What?” “Danishes. We don’t have coconut danishes.”

    I don’t have any good pronunciation-related stories like that, but recently came upon a Tim Horton’s coffee shop trainee who had to turn to his trainer for help when I ordered a cocoa. I guess he’d never heard hot chocolate called that?

  3. Gedaly said

    A lot of restaurants (not fast food) don’t even have plain old hamburgers on the menu anymore. Just their “classic cheeseburger” or something of that sort.

    I once went to a drive thru and ordered hamburger. When giving me the food the attendant said “It was made with cheese on it, I didn’t charge you for cheese, but do you want it? I can have him make it again.” Does everyone want cheese or do they just make it that way now? Cheese IS default, as The Ridger said. I usually order no cheese because I don’t believe in paying 50 cents for a single slice of cheese.

  4. dw said

    Interesting that you describe the initial consonants of “juice” and “cheese” as palatal, rather than post-alveolar affricates. I would associate a palatal realization of these consonants only with English-speakers whose first language is Indian/South Asian.

  5. Rachel said

    I find unexpectedly soundalike things interesting. One that caught my attention once was ‘dramatic’ and ‘Germanic’. If it’s spoken fast enough that the first syllable is fairly reduced, and your /d/ before /r/ is affricated, and you speak a dialect with flapping, they are actually very phonetically similar.

  6. Beth said

    Girlfriend with hearing trouble. Sleepy boyfriend, slurring a bit, who’d made clear that what he was about to say was silly.
    Seems he’d requested a bedtime story. I thought he’d asked for a pet dinosaur! It mostly works out. b to p, d to t (and the reverse), m to n, a schwa added (probably because he paused for the next word), the t of the st missed, and the last vowel missed entirely. Small changes individually but added up it came to something entirely different than he intended — arguably sillier, too. Much hilarity ensued.

  7. Neal said

    Great examples, Kikipotamus, Rachel, and Beth — thanks!

  8. Neal said

    My dad has read this post and turned it into knowledge you can use! He writes:

    I know you don’t like cheeseburgers, but it seems that cheese is the default, so you have to specify no cheese. That’s bad for you, but for me — well, you know I like cheeseburgers, and I have to pay 50 cents extra for it. But wait, if next time I just order a burger, maybe they’ll give me a cheeseburger anyway and not charge me but for a hamburger. I assure you they also do that with fries.

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