cater to/for and beat up (on)

Nancy e-mailed to ask about AmE cater to versus BrE cater for. This is where the book that I got for my birthday comes in handy. In it, John Algeo writes:
In CIC [the Cambridge International Corpus], cater for is more than 100 times as frequent in British texts as in American; cater to is 3 times as frequent in American texts as in British. In the sense "provide food (at a party)" British prefers cater for or possibly cater at; American also uses the verb transitively: cater a party.
What can I add to that? Just that catering is used more broadly in BrE than in AmE. For instance, a Scrabble comrade describes herself as working in catering. In AmE, I'd expect that to mean that she is an events caterer--someone who shows up to feed people at parties and conferences. In BrE, it means that she works in the food branch of the hospitality industry. In her case, catering is the department of the university that's responsible for the caf├ęs/tea bars/restaurants on site.

Since Algeo so neatly took care of that case of verb complementation, I should move on to another challenge: a complementation difference that Algeo missed. John (coming to us through the Association of British Scrabble Players) writes to say:
One phrase not yet covered (as far as I can tell) is

beat up on = to attack physically or verbally (Websters 11th Collegiate). This strikes me (oops no pun intended) as exclusively North American, the equivalent British phrase being "beat up"

Where does the "on" come from? It appears to be a relatively recent addition. The 1937 version of Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition Unabridged lists only "beat up" - (sense b) Slang to thrash (a person) esp. soundly.
John, come and be one of my students--I love the ones who do a bit of research before coming in with a question. Ten (BrE) marks/(AmE) points for laying the groundwork! Let's start by comparing beat and beat up:
(1) Batman beat the Joker

(2) Batman beat up the Joker.

(1) is ambiguous. It either means that Batman struck the Joker or that Batman won against the Joker. (2) indicates that Batman physically beat the Joker until some conclusion was reached--i.e. the Joker soundly thrashed. This involves the completive particle up, which we've seen before. The OED notes that beat up is originally AmE, and the first example of it (in an O. Henry story) is from 1907. Next year we can celebrate its hundredth birthday in print, then.

Then there's beat on:
(3) Batman beat on the Joker

(4) Batman beat on the door.

(3) sounds odd in many dialects, but (4), with an inanimate object, sounds better. If we use beat on with an animate object as in (3), it can sound like the object is not so animate--perhaps the Joker is unconscious or otherwise being very passive about being beaten. (Note that the participial form is beaten in standard BrE and AmE, but can be beat in informal and non-standard contexts, as in the AmE phrase It can't be beat = 'it's the best'.) On also seems to give a more repetitive connotation--it's the same spot on the door/the Joker that is being struck repeatedly. Batman beat the door/Joker sounds a bit more like the door/Joker is being struck all over.

So, now we come to the one that John wondered about:
(5) Batman beat up on the Joker (AmE)
Here we get both some completiveness from up and some impugned inanimacy from on. (Or at least, this is my reading of the situation.) Here, Batman pretty soundly (AmE dialectal) whupped the Joker, but the Joker didn't offer much resistance. As John's dictionary quotation indicates, this is often used figuratively. So, if you don't agree with what I've said here, you can beat up on my ideas in the comments section. I'll be passive about it in the sense that I probably won't be on-line to defend myself when you comment. But if you say something cleverer than what I've said here, I'll only thank you for the beating. After all, blogging is a form of intellectual masochism.


  1. Regarding catering, my immediate reaction was that cater to and cater for conveyed slightly different meanings. to cater to is primarily to help someone with something, whereas to cater for seems to specify food. That is, to cater for a party is necessarily to provide food, but cater to a party('s needs) may be anything, music, say.
    I suspect it's related to that phenomenon where prepositions lack their original locational sense. Words such as depend are unstable as to the conventional proposition they take. Now, in English, something depends on, but in Italian, something depends from. Moreover, a quick look at the sources given in the OED show that depend occurred arbitrarily with any preposition.
    The lack of semantic content in prepositions in these contexts allows them flexibility. Heard of 'light verbs'? Maybe these should be called 'light prepositions'.

  2. The OED has cater to as being the more figurative meaning of cater, and attributes to it a negative connotation--comparing it to pander to, as in pander/cater to all tastes. Your connotation seems to be much more positive.

    However, a food (for) vs non-food (for) distimction doesn't seem to be maintained in BrE now. Searching .uk sites on Google, there are 243 UK hits for cater for all interests but only 6 for cater to all interests. Cater for all types gets 28,700, most of which appear to be non-food related, including the provision of bicycles, angling equipment, disco music, moves (i.e. from house to house), learners (driving and university), etc., while cater to all types has 83--and they don't seem to be negative in connotation. For example, Chile's Lake District is divine and dotted with smart, pretty-but-busy little towns that cater to all types of active tourism. (from the Travel section of the Guardian). A lot of the cater to ones seem to be travel-orient(at)ed, and we have to wonder whether some of them are written by travel(l)ing Americans or (in the case of ones about America) American tourist boards.

    I don't think one can say, though, that Italian 'depends from', since prepositions are notoriously untranslatable. In that case, you'd have to say that in the possessive, Italian says 'the pen from my mother' for 'my mother's pen', right? But that's not how we'd translate it, because there just aren't one-to-one equivalents for prepositions across languages. But you're right that prepositions are often 'semantically bleached'. This is related to the phenomenon of gramaticali{s/z}ation.

  3. In AmE, I'd expect "beat the **** out of" at least as often as "beat up [on]". I don't know how common this formulation is in BrE, though I've seen **** = "stuffing" at least occasionally. In AmE, **** seems mostly to be "hell" or colloquialisms of "feces/faeces".

    I find the prevalence of "hell" to be interesting. I suspect this comes from "spare the rod; spoil the child" discipline schemes, where it would have been intended literally rather than metaphorically, though I think the literal meaning is mostly lost now.

    Also, since you're talking about "beat[ing] up [on]", perhaps it would be useful to mention "beat down", used as a noun phrase, "Fred administered a serious beat down" or as a verb/adverb, "Fred beat Joe down."

  4. I've never heard of a beat down, but OED has it as "A physical beating, pummeling, or assault; a defeat. Cf. SMACKDOWN n.". Originally and chiefly U.S.

    I have heard of a smackdown, but only because it's the name of a wrestling program(me). (Not that I watch it, mind you!)

  5. GY, I wouldn't say beat on the Joker either--that's not just a BrE thing. But my reading of this is because we like beat on to be with inanimate objects.

  6. BrE also has the term "self-catered," as in a university housing option that doesn't come with a meal plan. This may be one of those untranslatables, since I don't think AmE has a simple word or phrase equivalent for that. "Self-catered" feels somewhat oxymoronic to me. I think the only context where I might use it would be for a formal event where you decided to provide the food and related services yourself instead of (the normal practice of) hiring a caterer. Therefore, your wedding could be self-catered, but probably not your neighborhood block party.

  7. Grace: There is this post on "Self-catered":

    Having just paid for my daughter's 4 years at college, I think you're right that there is no AmE version of self-catered. There is the phrase "room and board", but that seems pretty antique and, to me anyway, implies a boarding house situation with common meals in a house rather than eating in a dining hall.

  8. Little boys in the UK in the 1950s might 'bash in' their foes: threatening 'I'll bash you in'.
    Nowadays teenagers fear that they might be beaten up by other boys or gangs.
    Old cars that have encountered walls or other hard objects are generally described as 'beaten-up' or 'bashed-up'.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)