Sunday, June 18, 2006

Welsh dresser, hutch, counter and side


We bought this piece of furniture (from a charity shop) for our kitchen last week, and I am learning to call it a Welsh dresser. It is a low cabinet with an open case of shelves on top. It has a little surface in front of the shelves where one could, say, slice bread. I was stymied in trying to find an American equivalent for this--which may go to show that I am suffering attrition of my native dialect. I've been calling it a cabinet when describing it to Americans, but the more specific name for it is hutch (as I found after searching US furniture retailers' sites). This is a word I know, but perhaps I never got to know it well enough, as I'd never lived in a house with one before now. That's my excuse for forgetting it, at least. Better Half protests "Rabbits live in hutches!" Strictly speaking, according to the furniture sellers, it's the top part that's the hutch, but since I didn't know until recently that the top and bottom halves were separable, I've always assumed that the whole thing is a hutch. (Without the top hutch part, it would be a sideboard--as long as it's in the dining room or kitchen.)

BH often reduces Welsh dresser to dresser, as in We bought a dresser for the end of the kitchen. This, to me, is weird (technical linguistic term), since I think of a dresser as belonging in a bedroom or dressing room. I suppose one could dress a chicken on a Welsh dresser...

While we're in the kitchen...the built-in work surface is called the counter or countertop in AmE, but tends not to be called this in BrE. Location-wise, it's generally referred to as the side, as in The plates are on the side or Cut the carrots on the side (which, of course, is ambiguous). You wouldn't, however, say I bought a new side for the kitchen or The side is formica. Referring to the thing, instead of the location, it can be called a worktop or work surface.

The things with doors above and below the counter/worktop are what I would call kitchen cabinets. Better Half calls them kitchen cupboards, which also works in American English. In BrE, it seems, a cabinet is free-standing.

24 comments:

Daisy said...

Just to add to the confusion, I'd probably offhand call that a Hoosier kitchen rather than a hutch, though I think a Hoosier kitchen technically speaking has cabinets up top rather than open shelves.

lynneguist said...

Thanks Daisy. All of the pictures I can find for Hoosier kitchen on the web show something different from what I'd call a hutch (or a Welsh dresser!). They are, essentially, the precursors to built-in kitchens. I looked at some beauties when I was antiquing in the US in March, and was fantasizing about shipping one back here, as some of them are really cool. I especially like the ones that have built-in grocery lists, where you insert pegs next to the names of the things you need to buy. I haven't figured out how you get the cabinet to the supermarket in order to read the list, though.

I didn't know at the time that these were called Hoosier kitchens, so thanks for teaching me a new term. When I described them to Better Half, he said he'd never seen anything like it. So, I don't know that there's a term for these in BrE, or indeed, whether you could find one in the UK.

Incidentally, the ingenuity of the Hoosier kitchens came back to me when reading about the Frankfurt kitchen--one of the first fitted kitchens in the world, which is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. To read more click here.

michaelwho said...

We have a dresser but with glass doors and this is referred to, oddly, as a Buffet Hutch, which was new to me.

lynneguist said...

If it's got glass doors, then I'd call it a china cabinet, though a china cabinet doesn't necessarily have a dresser at the bottom.

There's a famous series of psycholinguistic experiments (by Eleanor Rosch), where people are asked to name kinds of furniture (among other things). Bed, table and chair are among just about everyone's top five--which is supposed to demonstrate that we organi{s/z}e categories around central exemplars. Hutch, buffet, china cabinet, Welsh dresser, and sideboard come nowhere near the top of the list--but perhaps that's because we're all calling them different things!

Rebecca said...

Your comment about a 'dresser' being in a bedroom caught my eye - as a young teenager I remember reading Sweet Valley High/Babysitter's Club books, and the like, and being confused when girls put something 'on their dresser' or did their make up 'at the dresser'... My thought being 'Why on earth do they have a kitchen cabinet in their bedroom?'

lynneguist said...

The BrE equivalent of AmE dresser is chest of drawers. I've not had one in my bedroom since moving to the UK, as I put clothes in a wardrobe instead. One almost never sees wardrobes in the US. When Americans complain to me about the lack of (walk-in) closet space in their homes, I try to put it into perspective: I have zero closets. They're very rare in these parts. I can't think of anyone I know who has a (walk-in) closet for clothes.

The things called closet in AmE are very often called cupboard in BrE. For example: US broom closet, UK broom cupboard.

Shelly said...

Lynn, you are correct. I wouldn't call that a Hoosier Kitchen, either. The term is often used as a generic name, like Kleenex, but it is actually a specific product made by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company of Indiana.

A true Hoosier Kitchen would have been more than just shelves and drawers. It would have included tip-out bins for grains, potatoes, etc., a built-in flour sifter, and maybe a pull-out cutting board, as well as a built-in work surface.

Carl Burnett said...

My (American) parents have a piece of furniture in their dining room very similar to the one you bought, and they have always called it a secretary, even though they don't use it to write on. Maybe they're just weird.

lynneguist said...

All of the (non-human) secretaries that I found in searching Google Image are for writing on, although this one has some resemblance to a hutch:
http://www.museum.state.il.us/exhibits/athome/1850/objects/secretary.htm

The rest are fold-out or roll-top desks.

Hutch is used for shelving units on the tops of desks, too, as my troll through furniture sites taught me. Most of the ones I saw I would've called computer desks.

Eimear said...

This piece of furniture would invariably just be called a dresser in Ireland, and would have been part of the traditional kitchen furniture and almost always used to store/display dishes - "A dresser filled with shining delph". We also have presses here instead of cupboards, don't know if any British dialects have the same.

Sarah Witherby said...

my brain says: cabinet is 'closed storage' eg. glazed shelves or drawered unit.

for me the appearance of 'dresser' in the bedroom is more linked to 'dressing table' (mirror-topped with drawers left and right) than 'chest of drawers'

This is all too reminiscent of my semantics paper in linguistics ... kitchen utensils ... hell on earth!!

Zhoen said...

Actually, if I remember properly, the tiny, tract house I grew up in, in Detroit, didn't have any built in closets. There was space under the eaves in one room that had a door.

I had what my mother called a dresser, it had drawers on one side, and a larger area at the side with a door, where children's size clothes could hang from a rod. Without that more open side, I think we'd have called it a chest of drawers. Of course now, there are all kinds of terms used by furniture sellers that have little to do with what most people would call something.

Our tall, narrow chests of drawers are called lingerie chests, but I've also heard it called a tall boy.
Photo here - http://onewordisenough.blogspot.com/2009/09/furniture.html

Rick S said...

Hmm. When I was growing up (in upstate NY), I was confused about the terms "dresser" vs. "chest of drawers". I was told that a dresser was lower, longer, and usually had a mirror attached above it, while a chest of drawers was taller and narrower. That may have been just my familiolect, though.

Harry Campbell said...

For what it's worth, I don't agree that cabinets are free-standing in BrE. The images that spring to my mind are of built-in, possibly purpose-built containers for some specialist purpose, technical things like the cases for computer servers or audio equipment or bottles of chemicals in a laboratory. Unless possibly we're talking expensive antique furniture, but even then it's mainly in the term cabinet-maker.

Andy Smith said...

I'd call the whole thing in the picture a sideboard. Without the top part I wouldn't call it a sideboard but I'm not sure what I would call it - maybe a cupboard, but that wouldn't seem right if there were separate compartments or drawers.

I grew up in southern England and Zambia, but maybe my usage of 'sideboard' is idiosyncratic to my family - almost everything that comes up in a Google image search for 'sideboard' is a lower unit with a large flat surface on top.

I've never heard the term 'Welsh dresser'. For me a dresser suggests a smaller unit with a mirror above it, usually found in a bedroom.

biochemist said...

I was directed back to this post by the September 2009 discussion of closets and cupboards - Lynne, it seems to me that the top half of this dresser, where one might usualy find a nice display of plates and other vessels, is literally a cup-board! The lower half, with its work surface, is actually a rustic side-board, I agree. I have heard of small animals (chickens, rabbits, baby lambs) being kept in the lower half, with a slatted door to allow air in. That would really make it a hutch!

Pooky said...

Following the link from your more recent post, I note the lack of comments in these early days meant nobody pointed to a more specific British English term for the work surfaces in a kitchen:

Breakfast bars

I'm not entirely sure why this should be, although the mind can construct all sorts of lovely reasons, but that's what I've always know those built-in surfaces as.

E.g. "I left your lunch on the breakfast bar."

"Where are the plates?" "On the breakfast bar."

"My last house had a lovely red Formica breakfast bar."

Harry Campbell said...

That sounds like a personal idiosyncrasy. A breakfast bar is a sort of counter or freestanding (permanent) unit at which you can eat an informal meal. A few (relatively large, luxurious) kitchens have then but I don't think they're all that common (in the UK). It doesn't just mean any worktop or counter surface anywhere in the kitchen.

Stephen Jones said...

Well, I'm Welsh so I do call it a welsh dresser, though the other word I would use is sideboard.

Pooky said...

@Harry

Well, it does mean that if people use it to mean that, and I've found it used pretty commonly in S.Eng in fairly small kitchens. It might not fit your experience, but I've heard it used by enough people that it isn't personal idiosyncrasy.

Specifically referring to built-in counters, which every modern kitchen I've seen has (even in a 2-up, 2-down Victorian terrace rented cheaply in Manchester).

Sometimes shortened to 'bar'. Up north, I've heard 'side' more.

djmicheals said...

My Midwestern raised mother and grandmothers called it a Buffet and used it as such. Dishes were placed in the hutch part, with silver, cups, and napkins on the left. Food was then placed on it where people could help themselves.

Thriftgoddess! said...

To me, a hutch is the top part of a two-piece set; china cabinets have glass; and Hoosiers were used in the kitchen!

conuly said...

When I was young we called that thing "the buffet", but our family had an individual term for very nearly every piece of furniture in the house. No two sets of drawer-containing furniture shared a name, and many of them I've never heard anybody else use. So I don't know where that term came from and if it's at all widespread.

David Crosbie said...

The OED defines a Welsh dresser as

a type of dresser consisting of a cabinet of cupboards and drawers surmounted by rows of shelves, on which plates, dishes, and kitchen utensils are ranged.

and a sideboard as (among other things)

A piece of dining-room furniture for holding side-dishes, wine, plate, etc., and often having cupboards and drawers.

This tallies with my experience of the words. A sideboard isn't found in a kitchen and doesn't necessarily have drawers and cupboards. A Welsh dresser is typically found in a kitchen (or looks as if it's been transported from a kitchen), and the shelves are used to give high visibility — either for display or for ease of access. Welsh dressers I have known had grooves in the shelves so that you could stand plates upright.