Boxing Day leftovers

According to some stories of the origins of Boxing Day (a public holiday in the UK and many Commonwealth countries), the servant-having classes would box up their Christmas leftovers and give them to the servants, who would have the day off. So, in the spirit of leftoverness, here are some random observations from this trip to the US that relate to previous blog entries. But let's not carry the metaphor too far; I don't think that blog writers are the masters to servant readers. It's almost the other way (a)round on this blog.

Leftover #1: The July entry on candy/sweets led to some discussion in the comments about which British (BrE) sweets/(AmE) candies are most similar to American Smarties (as opposed to the chocolate Smarties found in the UK, Canada and elsewhere). I found a roll of Smarties (pictured right) in my parents' pantry and forced a taste test on Better Half. His verdict: "It has the chalky texture of a Parma Violet, and the taste of a Love Heart (AmE generic name = Conversation Hearts). May I spit it out now?"

Leftover #2: High-waisted trousers/pants are not as hard to find in the US as in the UK (and one can get them in natural fib{re/er}s here too!). I was reminded of the question "How long does it take to lose one's instincts about one's native dialect?" when wandering around Macy's in the local mall. When I saw the sign directing shoppers to MEN'S PANTS, my first instinct was to titter. The resulting crisis of dialectal identity was cut short by the next line on the sign, which utterly puzzled me: MEN'S FURNISHINGS. According to the thesaurus in the Free Dictionary, this refers to 'the dry goods sold by a haberdasher'. This department store has only become a Macy's since I was last here, so I'm quite sure that the sign is new, but the phrase sounds old-fashioned. Checking on the web, I find that it's used at some 'better' US department stores, including Nordstrom, where the heading "Men's Furnishings" covers "Accessories, Dress Shirts, Sleepwear and Robes [= BrE dressing gowns], Underwear and Socks". It seems to mean 'the clothing that a suit-wearer needs, besides a suit'. (Although shoes have a separate heading, not under 'Men's Furnishings' or 'Accessories'.) Searching for this on .uk sites, I mostly find US sources, and while the American Heritage Dictionary includes "furnishings Wearing apparel and accessories," the OED does not have such specific senses, the closest being "Unimportant appendages; mere externals." So, I think that we can conclude that this is an Americanism--but do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary. The phrase women's furnishings is much rarer.

Leftover #3: My two-year-old nephew received for Christmas a toy kitchen with toy groceries. His mother read the label of a tube-shaped item and asked "What the heck are 'chocolate digestives'?", leading to our discovery that these American-bought toy groceries (made in China) "came from" a British supermarket: Sainsbury's. I went through the (more BrE) packet and while 21 of the labels were understandable in AmE, 11 of them were either for products not found in the US (mushy peas!) or had names that don't work in AmE, such as mince (= AmE ground beef), macaroni cheese (= AmE macaroni and cheese), orange lollies (=AmE popsicles), non-biological (= a type of laundry detergent, 'non-biological' is the only product description given on the front of the box--so you'd have to know that it's a detergent descriptor). Could this be considered to be British cultural imperialism, off-setting the American type?

Happy Boxing Day!


  1. At least as long as I've been around you've never spelt out for those of us Stateside why "pants" evokes a humorous response in Blighty.

    It's never been explained to me, seriously - the differences WRT "fanny" and "bum" led to one of my Funniest Moments Ever (at the hands of an Australian neighbor who'd been down that road recently), but nothing on the subject of pants. *sigh*

  2. Pants = underpants

  3. Ben, if you follow the trousers/pants link in the post, it'll take you to the September post that explains it.

  4. D'oh!!!

    Either my senses or the internets are at fault.

    I choose the internets.


  5. Many years ago The Economist carried a flurry of letters about Chocolate Digestives. The gist was that Americans in London talked of never returning home unless these comestibles bacame available in the USA. They must have been rather young and immature, don't you think?

  6. Personally, I love those chalky little Smarties, but can't stand Candy Hearts - perhaps they taste better in Britain.

    As for the toys, "Non-biological" strikes me as the funniest and most puzzling product. So there wasn't any kind of picture on the label to indicate that it was laundry detergent? How odd - I can only imagine what I would have thought were I a little kid getting it for Christmas. I probably would have ignored the label and pretended it was something else, like frozen pizza.

  7. Well, since he's 2, it doesn't bother him much what the packages say. Much like Humpty Dumpty, he uses labels to mean what he would like them to mean.

    Biological washing powders or laundry liquids (=AmE laundry detergent) contain enzymes, which break up stains, I guess. These are more irritating to the skin (they say) than non-biological ones. American consumers don't get such info about their laundry products so easily.

  8. Another theory has it that tradesmen would visit their customers to wish them a happy Christmas with an implicit request for a gift of money. The gift was called a Christmas-box and, in recent years, tradesmen have visited before Christmas instead of the day after. In Ireland, 26 December is St Stephen's day (from the Christian calendar) and a Polish friend refers to the same day as the second day. Boxing-day is also traditionally for fox-hunting.

  9. Notice that Paul uses a hyphen in Boxing-day, as does the OED, but I've gone for the spelling that I more frequently see, for example, on calendars.

  10. My use of hyphens to indicate compounds is, these days, idiosyncratic and archaic-looking. I insist it's logical and helps both understanding and reading out loud, though few agree let alone do it. I suspect most BrE speakers (and CanE and AusE speakers who I think also celebrate the feast) would write Boxing Day perhaps because (a) they (IMHO mistakenly) treat it (and new year's day) as a proper noun like Christmas or Tuesday and (b) they believe that initial caps somehow indicate a compound. It's jolly lonely being the only one who's always right about things.

  11. Well, I'm pretty late with this, but what the Americans call "Smarties" are sold in Canada, too. We call them "Rockets" here, but they're the same thing. The packaging is practically identical.

    Here's a picture.

    And I, too, love Rockets, but can't stand Conversation Hearts.

  12. On Lynne's "mince" above, it's a funny old word. If it's in "mince and gravy" in a can, then it's minced (ground) meat, conventionally beef. However, if it's in a "mince-pie" (as is consumed at this time of year), then it's finely chopped fruit in a gooey sauce. I do believe that old-style mince-pies had meat in them.


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