Thursday, April 10, 2008

New Meanings 3

In New Meanings 2 Bryan pondered the all-conquering phrase 'Do the math'. Well, here's another one, to be heard in every shop, restaurant and, especially, café in the land, usually from the mouths of the relatively young - 'Can I get a...?' As in 'Can I get a coffee?' Where did this come from? I suspect it's American, and might be the result of too many hourse spent sitting around watching old episodes of Friends. For the life of me I can't see its usefulness, let alone its appeal - it merely sounds slightly ruder than the other possible ways of asking for something. I look forward to hearing the following exchange:
Young Person: 'Can I get a coffee?'
Barista: 'Why yes, young person, you most assuredly can get a coffee. And, as it happens, you can get one right here, as you are in an establishment that makes a bit of a speciality of selling coffee. The giveaway is in the name, café. I hope that answers your question.'


  1. Whereas 'can I have a coffee' makes it sound like a gracious favour, as if no money would be involved, 'can I get' has a rough, beery feel to it, as if we no longer need formalities or politeness, we men of the street. Bah.

  2. "Can I get a" is indeed an Americanism and is infuriatingly infectious. I confess to having picked it up ... though only when ordering things at a counter, strangely enough. I don't feel the need to say it to waiters.

  3. In my days as a filthy capatilist pig I used to belong to an American organisation and gave lectures at their European conferences. It took me some time to savvy da lingo, one of their favorite openers was "Malty, do you have any naawledge aarv".....Roughly translated I believe this means "Malty, what do you know about"...
    At a conference in Vienna the ladies, who always accompanied the men on the conference circuit, went of to "Saaalzboig to look at this Mozaaart guy"
    Where they go, we follow, sadly.

  4. I think you're right about the source, Nige, although most of the people I know who hang out at the coffee house I do say, "I'll have a coffee" in response to the query "What would you like?" Might be an age-related thing, such as the increasingly popular "What would you guys like to order?," now regularly uttered by servers in even the finest restaurants. This is invariably followed up a bit later with "Do you guys need anything else?" Almost all those doing the asking are under 30.

    BTW, the main page seems to have disappeared - I managed to access this via the archives. What did you do, Nige? ;-)

  5. I can speak from experience: yes, it is American in origin, and, yes, it is wildly infectious. But there's no need to go around correct each other’s colloquialisms or grammar. For the sake of civilization, we might all try acting civilized, even when confronted with blatant malapropisms or excruciatingly ridiculous patois. Who knows? The next person you find yourself compelled to approach and correct may be the next Conrad, Shakespeare, or--and in this case I really feel sorry for you--Swift. You might find yourself immortalized as a surly little grammarian in some great work of art. The point is, many of us are aware of this irritatingly useless phrase. We just can't help it!

  6. Hold on, now. If we assume anyone at Starbucks's ordering a coffee with adequate money is doing so on the basis of an entitlement rather than a discretionary favour, then "Can I have a coffee?" is simply a polite shorthand for "Can you get me a coffee?". (i.e., Are you able and authorized to serve me or do I ask someone else?") Is it not more accurate than "May I have a coffee?", which suggests a potential response such as "No, we don't serve your type here." Let's not forget that an American's right to a coffee is in his Bill of Rights.

    Besides, the former is a much more alliterative opening for "Can do."

  7. At Starbucks these days, you may have to ask such a question: Their stock is tumbling so fast they've had to give out FREE coffee on Wed. (I just got a card to enjoy their "Pike Roast" coffee, cups of which are free every Wed. through the end of May.)

    If Starbucks is having trouble selling and marketing its main product, we are indeed in trouble. "May" means you *can* have it, if they'll let you. *Can* means, perhaps it's not even possible. You'll have to get a bottle of water instead.....

  8. There is the British oddness that they feel they must act as if the person they are handing their money to is doing them an incredible favor by accepting their cash and serving them. In any case, "can I get" is simply an American expression.

    But I do wonder, if I have been standing on line and the person behind the counter asks, "May I help you," is he expecting that he might receive the answer, "No, I just want to stand here."

    I think you are reading WAY TOO MUCH into routine conversation.

  9. It appears that our dearly beloved blog has once more crossed the event horizon (the macro view) or fallen down the gap between two tectonic plates (the local view).
    Personally I have just been sitting here on the steps at the door to the law.
    That Norman Bates look alike has just sat down next to me and asked if I knew anything about taxidermy. I told him that the closest I ever came to that black art was my cousin Jimmy, who ran the local COOP funeral parlour in Jarrow.
    He said that he could remember Ellen Wilkinson leading the hunger marchers, but that was the extent of his knowledge of Jarrow.
    I brought up the subject of Cathrine Cookson, this made him run up the hill to the house and strike up a conversation with his mater, who appeared to be dead.
    I suggested that the corpse may not be his mother, but the mortal remains of Gordon Brown whom Bobbie (the spear chucker) Mugabe had just reduced to a pin point entity, proving that Bobbie was nothing more than a voodoo priest in a suit and Gordon was his undead plaything.
    At this point Tabo Mbeke fell off the fence and broke his neck, proving that you can dither in front of some of the people some of the time and in Gordons case, none of the people none of the time.
    If any of this makes sense youre a better man than me Elberry

  10. What drugs are you on, Malty? next you'll be writing "Kubla Khan," the Malty version.

  11. Bit disturbing that i've become part of Malty's hallucination. Or maybe that's all i ever was.

  12. Susan, that was just my regular Saturday evening wobble. Brought on by hours spent in the afternoon applying antique pine woodstain.

    I swore on my ma's deathbed that I would carry out her last two wishes.
    We live not far from the last resting place of Lord Haig (yes, that Lord Haig)
    I promised to either spit or curse over his grave (long story, involves my grandfather and Passchendale) the second wish was to mention the fact that her school friend was Katherine Cookson, as often as possible, thus helping to sell more books (yes, I know, I know, I know, but, she was my mum)

    Elberry, I have you marked down as a latter day Joanne Rowling, huddled in your garret, fingerless gloves on hands, writing this killer novel, but as yet unrecognised, keep at it, one day (as Walt said) your dreams will come true.

    You will however have to continue sharing my hallucinations with Kidman.

    PS when you hit the big time (lectures / signings at the Edinburgh bookfest,) whatever you do don't marry someone who is the double of your leading character

  13. Malty, even if you've been reading my blog that is an uncannily accurate account of my daily habits.

    Since my protagonist is a lesser form of myself i hope there's not much chance of marrying his double; not even in California.