Tuesday, July 29, 2008

brown-bagging and potlucks

Today's query comes from Kirsten in Australia:

Would you be able to explore/explain the expressions brown-bagging or brown-bag lunch?

I first heard it used by an American colleague visiting our Melbourne office. Searching references on the net I gather it is used to refer to a home-made lunch in a school or business situation (as opposed to buying from fast food or cafeteria). I have some questions about the term:
  • Could you please confirm the correct meaning/usage in the US?
  • Is the term used/understood in the UK?
  • Is it typical for Americans literally to carry home-made lunch in brown bags?
Kirsten has the AmE meaning generally right (more on this below), and it is AmE (or more generally North American English) and not BrE. On her last question, it's probably less common in these days of hyperconsumerism to use brown paper bags (I'm sure people are using Tupperware [often used generically in AmE] and designer insulated bags and such), but it's certainly traditional to use paper bags. Originally, this was a way of re-using small shopping bags, but by the time I was a child, one could buy packages of lunch-sized brown paper bags. (I always wanted my mother to buy them and give me a fresh paper bag each day, but my mother was generally more sensible than that.) When I was a child, up until about age 9-10, you wanted to have a lunch box--a new one each year, usually with a cartoon or toy character or pop star or something on it. For me it was (click on the links for added fun!):
  • First grade: White and yellow flowers on a olive-green background (this one was vinyl, and purchased before I knew what was 'cool' on the playground; can't find a photo on the web--must not be 'collectible' enough)
  • Second grade: Miss America
  • Third grade: The Partridge Family
You can tell how important these things were, given that I remember them 35 years later. But just as important was the shift to brown paper bags in the fourth grade. By that time, I recogni{s/z}ed that lunch boxes were 'little kid' stuff, and I needed to have brown paper bags in order to look more grown up, like I didn't have an investment in Barbies or ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (boy, do I wish now that I had that lunchbox. I'll just have to console myself with listening to the theme tune over and over).

Kerstin says that the term brown bag is not used in Australia, but hearing it conjures up something less savo(u)ry than homemade lunch:
To my Australian ears (and those of my Australian colleagues) "Brown-bagging" sounds a very unsavoury term - We don't use the specific phrase for any particular meaning, but it conjures up images of responsible dog owners cleaning up after their pets. Or less revoltingly, but still not particularly pleasantly, an allusion to discrete packaging used to disguise porn, alcoholic beverages, or bribes.

The use of brown bag (noun) or brown-bag (verb) in AmE can also refer to drinking alcohol from a bottle that's wrapped in a paper bag, a way around the general proscription on street drinking in the US (now making its way to the UK).

When I asked Better Half if he was familiar with the term, he said that it would be avoided in England because "brown is a problem"--that is, its association with egestion. But innocent American that I am, I knew the term brown-nose ('chiefly' AmE, according to the OED: a sycophant) for years before I reali{s/z}ed that it had anything to do with bottoms, so I'd never think such a thing of the humble brown paper bag. (Though filling paper bags with [more frequent in BrE] poo/[more frequent in AmE] poop and setting them alight on someone's front step is a classic Halloween prank--though it's never happened on my watch.)

The verb brown-bag is primarily used with a rather empty object, it, as in this newspaper headline Save a buck [AmE slang: 'dollar'], brown-bag it or in the common phrase "I'll be brown-bagging it". The 'it' in the first example does not refer to the buck. It could arguably refer to the lunch, but I think it's the kind of near-meaningless it that one finds in expressions like to wing it. The it there could refer to something, but when we put that something in place of the it, the meaning seems to lose something. I'll be brown-bagging my lunch sounds like it refers to the wrapping of a brown bag around the food for a lunch. But I'll be brown-bagging it sounds like it refers to coming to a lunch event with a meal in a brown bag.

And then there's the venerable academic (etc.) institution, the brown-bag lunch (as in I'm going to a brown-bag lunch, rather than in I brought a brown-bag lunch). This is an uncatered event that occurs over the lunch hour (12-1 in the US), usually a somewhat informal talk by an expert on a subject. In the case of this series of such lunches at the University of Pittsburgh, they are also referred to as Brown Bags.

While I see lots of 'lunchtime concerts' advertised in the UK, it seems rarer (than in the US) to have 'lunchtime talks'. Here, the lunch hour is more jealously guarded to keep work out. (For instance, in the US, I was used to the staff in university offices staggering their lunch hours so that the office would stay open all day. In the UK, the university--except for the catering facilities--basically shuts down between 1 and 2, although we've recently started teaching in the lunch hour--a change brought on by lack of classroom space, more than willingness to give up lunch. Unfortunately for working/studying parents, the university crèche still closes from 1 to 1:55.) But where they do occur, they're more likely to be called lunchtime talks, with instructions as to whether bringing a lunch is necessary/acceptable, rather than fitting all that information into the neat little title Brown Bag. I think there must be a connection here between the rarity of organi{s/z}ed bring-your-own-lunch events and the relative (to the US) infrequency of (AmE) potlucks (or potluck suppers , or [AmE dialectal] covered-dish suppers). I had to've gone to at least one of these a month when I was in graduate school (what with the departmental potlucks, the potlucks organi{s/z}ed by political groups I belonged to, and just friendly potlucks). Have I been to a single one in the UK, even under another title? Just picnics--and then they can be quite comedic. For Grover's half-birthday picnic we asked people to bring a dish to share and noted that I'd be bringing the cakes. Better Half kept suggesting other dishes we could bring--salads, side dishes, main courses, but I kept saying "No, we're bringing the cake". He'd say "what if everyone else brings cake?" And I'd say "they know we're bringing the cake, so they'll bring (chiefly BrE) savo(u)ry stuff." "You over-estimate their attention to the invitation," he warned. Not only did EVERYONE bring cake (or biscuits or cookies or muffins), they all brought at least three different things, not just 'a dish'--and in several cases this was three different kinds of sweet baked good, rather than anything lunch-like. I think I made two mistakes here:
  1. misplaced faith in the apparently transparent (but really culturally loaded) 'bring a dish to share' potluck notion (though I didn't use the usual AmE turn of phrase bring a dish to pass--i.e. 'pass around')
  2. making the invitation for 2:00, rather than within the national lunch hour of 1-2--so that people were less sure about whether we would be eating lunch together or not.
  3. not listening to BH, who is always right, or so he tells me. (You'll notice that I only thought I made two mistakes--you understand that this third is dictation, right?)


53 comments:

Jennywenny said...

Well thats all very confusing. I think I always called it a 'packed lunch'.

As far as the picnic goes that is a bit of a confusing time for people, brits usually have lunch at about 12-2 and then tea at 4pm, so I think they all assumed you were having a 'tea party' so they brought things that would go nicely with tea.

Zhoen said...

The Brown Bagging of an event not providing lunch is on the wane. I had a plaid lunchbox handed down from my brothers, and I loved it because it never got old. Occasionally had to bring a brown lunch bag, can't remember why, maybe the lunchbox latch broke at some point.

I heard about potluck in Detroit growing up, but my family was having none of that. We fed guests, were fed when we were guests. In Salt Lake City, potluck (yes, that is the only word used) is the norm, and I hate it. "Bring a dish!" Perhaps because they are easier to transport, desserts predominate, with casseroles in secondary abundance. Not to mention unidentifiable punch. Work potlucks have people sign up for a meat, vegetable, chips, beverage, dessert, so that doesn't happen, but it always does anyway.

ktvoelker said...

I don't think I've heard anyone say "brown bag" to refer to the once-common lunch vessel: it is always "brown paper bag." To refer to the lunch itself, I can only recall hearing "bag lunch" (probably, it would have been written down as "bagged lunch"), with the color being implicit, but not at all uncertain.

For reference, I'm from Wisconsin, USA, and I love potlucks.

Anonymous said...

Of course, what makes a brown bag a brown bag is the fact that it's made from Kraft paper. Notably, Kraft has nothing whatever to do with Kraft Foods, but is simply paper made by the Kraft process. Lunch bags (like their close cousins, grocery bags) are brown simply because the pulp was not bleached.

Speaking of bags, and you've probably already covered this one, the BrE phrase "carrier bag" has always confused me. What other use for a bag could there be? I eventually figured out that people were referring to those nasty plastic grocery bags that fall over as soon as you put them down.

Gassalasca said...

English is not my mother tongue but still, the first thought that went through my mind upon reading the title was firmly in the realms of scatology.
It was only a secnod later that I remembered brown paper bags, mostly related in my mind with street drinking.
And as for potlucks... I'm a bit ashamed to admit this is the fisrst time I heard of them.

Paul said...

I've given dozens of 'brown bag' sessions, including some in Sydney but not Melbourne, during my career as an IT consultant.

The British version of these consisted of my company bringing in the food, as it tended to increase attendance, but the idea of an informal talk by a subject-matter expert (and not a sales person) remained.

The Welsh Jacobite said...

"Bring and Share" meals (lunch, supper or other) are very common in British church circles (have never encountered them in any other context). These seem to equate to your potlucks.

They always result in wasted food. Logically, people each ought to bring enough food for one and then everyone will be fed (with no waste), but because people feel it would be mean to turn up with such a small contribution they invariably bring far more than even a greedy person could eat, hence the excess.

Morgan said...

I can't count how many times I've had to explain potlucks to British people! Yet when I moved from Kentucky to Indiana, I had to have "pitch-ins" explained to me--we all just *think* we're speaking the same language.

I have also been witness to a picnic where every single British person brought cake, possibly three kinds, whereas I had convinced my boyfriend (BrE) that we should bring a savory casserole, since that's how things work (in my mind). How many times did he say 'told you so'? I'm still mystified.

Graham said...

I have to say that to my (BrE) ears, "brown-bagging" sounds like it should be *very* rude...

I'd use "packed lunch", though since moving to Sheffield I have discovered the term here is "packup", as in, "I'm taking packup today."

I'd view taking cakes to a picnic as quite normal. To me it's the same as taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party.

If I received a picnic invite asking me to bring a dish to share, I think I'd understand it to encompass savoury dishes as well as sweet, but I'd probably view the dishes brought as being supplementary to the main meal, which would be provided by the host. So I might bring some pork pies or a quiche - or more likely, I'd take the 'safe' option of cakes.

barnoid said...

I remember in my youth in southern England my Mum taking dishes along to "American Suppers". While I would take my packed lunch to school in a yellow Thundercats lunchbox.

Hodge said...

Another term that this post brought to my (South Eastern AmE) mind is "Lunch-and-Learn", which is an event where a professional of some kind provides lunch and a presentation in their area of expertise, with a conclusion that is essentially a sales pitch. I attended them frequently in college, where the sponsers were trying to recruit. Now my company gives them for potential clients.

Also, I agree about the general waste at the typical potluck where everyone brings a quantity that assumes every attendee with have a full portion of their dish. And nobody wants to brings chips because they will seem "cheap", so there are never enough of those.

And my first lunch box was Transformers (1985). I used proper brown bags as well as insulated vinyl bags when I was a bit older.

Ginger Yellow said...

Apart from the unsavoury connotations of "brown", I suspect the reason Brits don't use the term is that paper bags are quite rare. The only place I frequent that uses them is Fuzzy's Grub on Fleet Street. Wasabi used to, but they've switched to plastic. That might change if they ever get around to taxing plastic bags.

Ruth said...

I know you hate people veering around the topic, but I'm confused by this: "Unfortunately for working/studying parents, the university crèche still closes from 1 to 1:55." Does that mean you have to go get Grover and keep her with you for that hour?

jp said...

Note to Ginger Yellow - Di Lieto, next to Books etc, uses paper bags, occasionally brown in the past if memory serves, but currently white, sponsored by Fitness First or some such. (My, what a lot of time gets wasted in Fleet St these days!)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on managing to include a term which, while it is fairly common in speech, I will admit to NEVER having seen written and which caused me to stumble over reading the post and to have to restart reading the sentence at least three times!

I am referring to "had to've". I'm quite happy with many contractions in informal writing but I wouldn't ever write that. If I did have to write it I would have written it as "had to 'ave" but I am wondering now if that represents a BrE difference!

Do you (and do other AmE speakers) actually pronounce the contraction as though it were written "had toove" or, as I would, "had to av" or "had to ov", in each case with a distinct gap between the "to" and the contacted "have"?

Ginger Yellow said...

jp: fair enough. I hardly ever go there - their sandwiches just aren't as nice as some of the alternatives in the area. I have however just remembered that Hilliard, just down the road from Fuzzy's, also uses (white) paper bags.

lynneguist said...

Ruth, questioning something that's in the post doesn't count as 'veering'! (I'm just disappointed that no one wants to reminisce about ElectraWoman and DynaGirl.) I just get grumpy when people bring up different linguistic issues that could be their own post.

That said, yes. Parents have to collect/pick up their children during the lunch hour. Several of the cafes on campus have high chairs--one has a designated parent/child area, about the size of a postage stamp. So, you take your child, feed them lunch and try to get something in yourself, and take them back. It gives the creche workers their lunch break. (You can pay extra for a lunch session, but that's not supposed to be something you do every day.)

Anonymous, had to've looked strange to me too, but sounded right. I Googled it in (generally and in the UK), and found enough examples not to be too suspicious of it. But google had to of, and you get thousands more, since that's how people often misinterpret it.

Wendy said...

Required metadata - US English speaker, Washington DC, software development professional. Brown bag is totally a way of life around here! You have so little time that you are allowed to work (everyone has to be out by 7pm because that's when they shut off the air conditioning). So you don't want to take a day off or half a day off to go to outside training. But you get the SME to come for a 45 min brown bag, and presto, you can keep the skill set sharp plus you don't lose time you would rather put to use on the next release.

And had to've sounds like something I hear tons around here (like could've, would've, should've, you swallow the ha part so it all rolls into uhve at the end). I'd say it, but not spell it, like I'd say "never've" for never have, but I never've written it out!

DavidB said...

I live in California. My daughter takes her lunch to school in a brown paper bag, purchased for that purpose. When I was young, grocery stores packed your purchases in various sizes of brown paper bags, but most now use flimsy plastic bags.

At work, everyone would understand a "Brown Bag lunch" as a lunchtime event where each participant was expected to bring his or her own food, to be eaten during a presentation, or, less commonly, during a meeting. Attendance at a Brown Bag event is usually voluntary, while work meetings are usually required. Most people would resent being required to attend a meeting during their lunch break unless a meal was provided.

I am too old to have watched ElectraWoman and DynaGirl. I did, as I recall, have a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox many decades ago.

David said...

In Ireland it's brown envelopes, not brown bags that are associated with bribes. If you search for "brown envelope site:ie" on Google, then the first hits are all related to bribery.

It seems "brown bag" is less frequently used for anything. We do use a lot of cloth/cotton bags now, as there is a tax to discourage the use of plastic bags. This can be a bit of surprise for visitors.

Robin said...

Brown Bag lunch-n-learns are very popular in IT in the US, as witnessed by your commenters. In other contexts, I would say brown paper bag or brown lunch bag. I would always include the paper because brown bag might mean another type of bag that happens to be brown in color.

Anonymous said...

I understand brown-bagging it, or brown bag, however when I was in school (upper midwest US), we would frequently call it "cold lunch." As opposed to the "hot lunch" served in the cafeteria.

I also love potlucks (probably due to being a midwesterner!) and don't really mind the waste. I still need to encourage friends to come with anything- bag of salad, bag of chips, anything at all- they don't need to be a gourmet chef. (Although I admit to sometimes going a bit over the top with my dishes because I love to cook and rarely have a captive audience!)

Andy J said...

Suggestion for a new post
Lynne, knowing how much you dislike the current post going off-topic, maybe as a few {folks/people} have mentioned {bringing/taking} chips to a picnic, and I can't find chips/crisps/fries discussed under the food heading, this could form the basis of a post on how potatoes (you say potarto, I say potato) can be served.

Andy J said...

Whoops, just noticed a passing reference under the "eating faggots" topic, but not a full examination of the subject. Is "spuds" recognised by AmE speakers (apart from those of Irish descent, of course)?

lynneguist said...

Andy, could you use e-mail rather than comments for requesting new topics, please?

Thanks.

TChem said...

"sack lunch" is similar term that sounds right to me. When I was a kid and we went on field trips, the notes home to our parents often said that we needed to have a sack lunch. I think here it was that they explicitly wanted us to have completely disposable packaging, as it made it easier on the teachers than keeping track of 30 little boxes (ths was in the the northeast US).

Someone upthread mentioned being from Wisconsin and not having heard of a brown bag meeting, which surprised me; the term is familiar to me but the only time I'd been invited to something with that name was a "Brown Bag Series" when I was a student at the UW.

On the other hand, almost any noon meeting I've had has included the understanding that some people will be having their lunch there, even if it's not stated. It's a very common thing in the US, at least in academia.

BlueBottle said...

@Ginger Yellow: My impression is that the archetypal “Brown Bag” lunch isn't one bought from a shop, but made and home and wrapped in a repurposed paper bag. It's true that paper bags aren’t very common in the UK now, but even when they were, there doesn't seem to have been any general association of them with packed lunches, in the way there is in the US.

My own memories of lunches taken to school – in the days before clingfilm – are of sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper and generic Tupperware boxes.

Sorry, Lynne, I can't share any memories of ElectraWoman and DynaGirl, but I can tell you that, should you want to, you can probably buy packages of lunch-sized brown paper bags in the UK. I have in front of me a packet of 10 “Environmentally Friendly Lunch Bags”, bought a few weeks ago in Home Bargains. They're “Light weight, durable and a handy size,” apparently.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Chicagoan originally - definitely brown bagged my lunch, though I had a fantastic Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox in my early days.

I lived in Italy for a few years, and was invited to one picnic - to which every single person but me brought a sandwich for him/herself and a bottle of wine to share. Me? I brought no wine, but an enormous bowl of pasta to share with everyone. Apparently potlucks aren't common in Rome either.

Ginger Yellow said...

"My impression is that the archetypal “Brown Bag” lunch isn't one bought from a shop, but made and home and wrapped in a repurposed paper bag."

Sure, but there aren't many around to repurpose (especially the US style brown ones with no handles). Your point about the past is well taken - I'm too young to remember a time when carrier bags weren't the norm.

Krista said...

I actually just came back from a work potluck. I work for an American company in London with a lot of internatonal employees. All the Americans, South Africans, and Chinese turned out. We had just two English attendees! (170 employees.)

The funniest bit was the reaction to the seven-layer dip. One of our English colleagues saw it and got really excited..."Oh! Shepherd's Pie!!!" It was priceless.

Gotta run...we've organized a lunch and learn tomorrow!

Alan Walker said...

A term sometimes used in Australia is "cut lunch", as in "take a cut lunch". This would normally comprise mainly sandwiches, but I think it could be extended to any kind of packed lunch. The expression has been in use for a long time (since the 1920s or earlier) - predating the general use of sliced bread.

And "cutting your lunch" covers the whole process of preparing the lunch - not just cutting things.

biochemist said...

Airline pilots (and crew) go shopping on their rest days - I knew of one (in the 1980s) who used his North American stops to seek out packs of flat greaseproof paper bags for his children's packed lunches in the UK.

A 'paper bag' in the UK would refer to a flat and rather flimsy bag, while a paper carrier bag has a gusset and handles. It is usually pretty sturdy and can be over-engineered for the burden of jewellery or lingerie. I've never seen a sturdy bag without handles, like the US supermarket bag, in the UK.

The sandwich-maker at my local shop wraps the baguette, bap, ciabatta or whatever in greaseproof paper and puts it in a flat paper bag - if you also buy a polystyrene cup of tea and some fruit, she puts the single-wrapped sandwich and everything else into a neat carrier bag - white paper with white paper handles. Thus all rubbish is disposable in the bins at the park or in the office.

Elizabeth said...

I've always used bag lunch and sack lunch interchangeably, but would still say brown-bagging it. For the record my first lunchbox was bright yellow had She-Ra on it. There was later a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox in my life, but it was probably my little brother's.

More importantly though...

That said, yes. Parents have to collect/pick up their children during the lunch hour. Several of the cafes on campus have high chairs--one has a designated parent/child area, about the size of a postage stamp. So, you take your child, feed them lunch and try to get something in yourself, and take them back. It gives the creche workers their lunch break. (You can pay extra for a lunch session, but that's not supposed to be something you do every day.)

Is this a special situation because you work at a university or is most daycare provided inhouse? If not does the same lunch hour apply? I must admit it doesn't sound very practical at first glance. Please enlighten me.

Anonymous said...

My dictionary says about the word potluck: "used in reference to a situation in which one must take a chance that whatever is available will prove to be good or acceptable." A potluck is a gamble. Those of you who arrived at one where everyone brought cake are just lucky.

Tregina said...

Pot lucks have always been a way of life here in the Midwestern US. Growing up, we brought dishes to pass to everything from graduations to wedding receptions. And there was never any waste, because the left overs were sent home with families with many children. Looking at the other comments, it really must be a Midwestern thing!

hairyape68 said...

What about "Brown Material Road" located in Kern County, California. This name amused me and my next brother for years after we learned of it. We were physically full-sized adults, whatever the state of our brains.

Robbie said...

"Packed lunch" would be the usual BrE term. I've also seen "box/boxed lunch", especially in the context of a picnic meal made up by a caterer and packed in a small cardboard box.

Both children and adults can take a "lunchbox" to school or work respectively, although a child is equally likely to have a satchel-type bag nowadays. An adult lunchbox is usually a plain Tupperware box or a small coolbag. "Lunchbox" can also refer more abstractly to what you put in a packed lunch.

Children's lunch boxes and bags
Telegraph: Curse of Pandora's Lunchbox

Anonymous said...

I'm used to "bring and share" meals here in Derby, UK, e.g. church social events and after-concert parties with my choral society. We used to have them at work, where they were called "fuddles". I'd never heard the word before and used to think it meant specifically a potluck meal, but I believe it means any social gathering. Sometimes you are asked to write down in advance what you intend to bring, or people with names beginning A-M are asked to bring savoury items and the rest sweet.
Kate (Derby)

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that where I work (a university library) we definitely do have staggered lunch breaks so as to stay open all day, even backroom staff. I don't know about childcare arrangements, but would be very surprised if they closed at lunchtime.
Also that the current British obsession with health and safety has prevented us from having bring-and-share lunches at work. We have to use the in-house caterers for social events during working hours.
Kate (Derby)

Anonymous said...

In New York, at least, the notion of a potluck seems awfully rude. It's like inviting someone and then telling them you expect them to feed your other guests.

bklynharuspex said...

New York anonymous, I've got to object to that as far too general a statement. The range of home entertainment that I encounter in NYC includes explicit potlucks; informal dinner or lunch parties where you ask "what can I bring?" and get the answer "Nothing, really," "Anything you like," or maybe "How about dessert?;" evening parties to which, without asking, you bring a bottle of wine or sixpack of beer; and more formal parties for which it is somehow clear that any contribution would be superfluous -- though even then you might bring some fancy chocolates you happened to come across.

The potLATCH is another kind of meal entirely. I wonder, but am too lazy to investigate, what the relationship between the two words might be.

Vireya said...

It seems no-one has mentioned that in Australia the equivalent of the American potluck is found on invitations as "bring a plate". This can be confusing for new-comers. It is not a request that you bring along crockery because the host doesn't have enough for everyone; the plate should have food on it! Whether you bring sweet or savoury doesn't matter, there's usually a good mix in the end.

Turkeyphant said...

I've hosted and attended several potlucks (all in the UK) and not once have there been any issues in understanding excess cakewise or otherwise.

Robbie said...

bklynharuspex: A potlatch was a traditional feast given by chiefs of the Kwakiutl and other Native American tribes along the Pacific northwest.

During a potlatch, the chief would display his wealth and secure his status by giving away quantities of food and gifts, and later by destroying his own possessions as well. Eventually the potlatch tradition became a serious economic burden to the society, since each chief strove to outdo the others.

"Potlatch" is a Nootka word and has nothing to do with "potluck".

A "potluck" meal, of course, is one where you "take pot luck" -- eat whatever happens to be available.

Taking pot luck doesn't necessarily imply a number of people providing food. You can just as easily take pot luck by dropping in on a friend at mealtime.

John Cowan said...

I've always been a brown-bagger, never having owned a lunchbox. Now, however, I usually put my lunch in my backpack. Yeah, I'm 53, wanna make something of it? [belligerent AmE question, notionally an invitation to a fistfight, here used ironically: backpacks aren't usually worn by professional men of my age, unless they are geeks, as I am; they are more of a student thing]. Rather than using an actual brown bag, the lunch consists of a microwaveable container holding leftovers from the night before lasts's dinner.

My wife teaches reading and writing at the New York Public Library, which holds a potluck-cum-public reading for the students and tutors [unusual in AmE, generally implies one-to-one or (as in this case) one-to-few] once or twice a year. We always go and always bring cider [AmE: non-alcoholic but unfiltered apple juice], since nobody ever thinks to bring anything to drink except the Library-provided soda [AmE, northeastern variety: Pepsi, Coke, vel sim.] The food is always wonderful, mostly home-cooked Spanish [NYC: Spanish-speaking Caribbean culture] food, and it definitely doesn't go to waste, since it's taken for granted that not all of the fifty-odd attendees actually bring anything at all.

srobalino said...

I know this post isn't specifically about picnics, but thought I'd put this here since the post covers this in some respects.

I don't know if it's just me and my family (Californian) or what, but when we say we were having a picnic it meant that we were going to gather up some food and go somewhere outdoors and settle for the afternoon - e.g. by a river, at the beach, in a meadow. I always find it odd when people in the UK refer to taking along a picnic for their train journey or to some sporting event or whatever... essentially the phrase 'take a picnic' seems to just mean 'take lunch/food' with us instead of buying it enroute or at our destination. To me that's just taking along your own food, not taking/going for a picnic.

Is this just me and my family or is that same sense of just taking your own food common in the US when using the word picnic?

Hope this makes sense!

Anonymous said...

srobalino, I would agree with your North American usage of picnic. Growing up in Canada, we always used picnic to mean packing a lunch from home and bringing it to a park or other outdoor location to eat (usually upon a blanket on the ground!).

Mindy said...

Did the guest to Grover's picnic notice that they brought the wrong kind of "dish"?

If not no biggie (AmE for not a big problem) LOL

Mindy said...

most of the potlucks I have gone to provided the Mane dish, or the "meat" and everyone else brought a "side" dish, or a dessert, but we would not have brought a dessert if you specifically said that cake was being provided, or that you were bringing the cake.

Mindy said...

oh one more thing, picking my kids up for lunch would have been impossible, they were 30 miles away from where I worked. and I only had a 30 minute lunch break.

Lara said...

Srobalino, for me there is a difference between 'having a picnic' and 'taking a picnic'. If you have a picnic, you package up some food in a box or basket and you'd eat it in the park on a blanket or some such; and if you take a picnic, it means a small selection of food to have on your journey. (Southern English person here)

David Crosbie said...

In many contexts, picnic in British English may have lost its connotations of a pleasant leisure event. However That was no picnic still refers to something unpleasantly stressful.

When I was a boy we always used the term sandwiches for packed lunches, whatever they consisted of. I don't know whether this was just at my school. In my home town of Nottingham I sometimes heard the word snap — a miners' term which escaped into local usage.

To Brits of my generation, the word lunchbox is indelibly association with the sprinter Lynford Christie and the bulge in his long tight lycra shorts.

We still have some brown paper bags, but far too many shops have replaced them with bags that look as if they won't allow the food to breathe. The reason we never (well, not in my hearing) called them brown bags can't really be blamed on the word brown in isolation. We don't hesitate to say brown envelope.

I don't think I've ever heard British speakers pronouncing potluck with the American single word-stress. We say two words with full word-stress and usually in the warning You'll have to take pot luck, I'm afraid meaning 'I can't make any guarantees as what the food will be like'.

Chris Blackburn said...

If you want to get really regional in AmE, certain parts of the country refer to a Brown Bag as a Poke. For example: "I brought a poke lunch today."