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shameless pleading

Lazy Susan

What goes around comes around, half gone.

Dear Word Detective: How did the Lazy Susan get its name? — Hannah.

And why isn’t it called a Lazy Lyle, huh? After all, aren’t 99% of the world’s couch potatoes male? And (channeling Seinfeld here) what’s up with the men on HGTV’s House Hunters show? The women are all “I don’t want a pool because I’m worried about the kids” and “Those stairs are awfully steep for our toddler,” both valid good-parenting points. But the guys are just worried that they won’t have a “man cave” for playing video games and a special place to brew their own beer. It makes me wanna gently grab the guy by his precious spiky hair and ask, “What are you, twelve?”

OK, rant over. A “Lazy Susan” is a round, rotating platform or turntable, usually between one and three feet in diameter, used to serve food at a table or to store items, such as spices or condiments, in a cabinet or on a kitchen counter. At a dining table, a Lazy Susan allows guests to easily serve themselves, rather than having to ask their fellow chowhounds to pass the potatoes, etc.

One interesting thing about the term “Lazy Susan” (which also often appears uncapitalized) is the fact that the gizmo itself is much older than its name. Rotating trays, often with two or three tiers, became popular in the early 18th century, when they were known as “dumb waiters.” That term comes from the device performing, in some minor sense, the role of a waiter, but, being silent (“dumb”), not annoying diners with waiterly chatter. The term “dumb waiter” was also used, beginning in the 19th century, for small food-service elevators used between dining rooms and kitchens on lower floors in large houses or hotels. (I once lived in a house that had a dumb waiter, but our parents wouldn’t let us use it to transport cats, for which it would have been perfect.) This new use of “dumb waiter” for these elevators probably contributed to the adoption of a different term, “Lazy Susan,” for the rotating trays.

The earliest use of “Lazy Susan” as a term for a rotating serving tray found so far is in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1906 (“A ‘Lazy Susan’ from the days of the Massachusetts colony,” vol. 43, page 249). The origin of the term is a mystery, but there are two somewhat plausible theories. The first is that “Susan” was, at some point, considered a common name of female servants. Thus an inanimate device that took the place of a serving maid might be called a “Lazy Susan” because it served, but entirely in a passive or “lazy” sense. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 20th century, when the term first appeared, household servants were far less common than they once had been, and thus were unlikely to inspire this sort of sardonic tribute. There’s also no evidence that “Susan” was considered a typical maid’s name.

A more intriguing possibility suggests that the “Susan” in “Lazy Susan” was inspired by the flower known as a “Black-eyed Susan” (Rudbeckia hirta, aka “Yellow Daisy”), whose circular blooms consist of yellow “rays” surrounding a dark brown center. The flower apparently took its name from the poem “Black-Eyed Susan” by English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685-1732), in which a sailor bids fond and extended adieu to his love Susan, who is called “black-eyed Susan” in the first stanza. The popularity of the Black-eyed Susan flower, and the resemblance of a circular serving tray to the circular bloom of the flower, may well have given us the “Lazy Susan.”

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