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.