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Meantime / Meanwhile

In the meantime, in between time, we’re getting really sick of peanut butter.

Dear Word Detective: I have a few questions about the word “meantime”? What exactly is the “meantime”? Similarly, what is the difference between “meantime” and “meanwhile”? I noticed that some authors (specifically, Emerson) use “meantime” in situations where I would use “meanwhile.” — Josh.

Sheesh. Classy crowd we’ve got around here. Citations from Emerson, with other presumably serious authors hovering in the shadows? You know what I think of when someone asks about “meanwhile”? The interstitial caption in old westerns reading “Meanwhile, back at the ranch….” And if I turn my attention to “meantime,” my mental iTunes (more of an eight-track cassette player, actually) starts playing the refrain “In the meantime / in between time / ain’t we got fun?” from the old 1920s song “Ain’t We Got Fun?” Incidentally, I had never known (Thanks, Wikipedia!) that Ain’t We Got Fun?, written by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn, was cited by George Orwell as an expression of working-class discontent after World War I. Come to think of it, the lyrics do have a definite edge.

The semantic distinction between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is easy to define: there isn’t one. The two words are synonyms, both meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “The time intervening between one particular period or event and another” or “During the intervening time between one particular period or event and another; while or until a particular event occurs; at the same time; for the present.” Both can be used as either a noun (“In the meantime, let’s set the table so we’ll be ready when guests arrive”) or an adverb (“Mean time, his Affairs at home went upside down,” Jonathan Swift, 1704). “Meantime” has also been used, rarely, as an adjective to mean “temporary” (“The lost sheep’s meantime amusements,” Robert Browning, 1873).

The “mean” in “meantime” and “meanwhile” is the adjective “mean” meaning “occurring between two points in time,” based on the noun “mean,” middle point, from the Latin “medianus,” in the middle. (This is a separate word from the other adjective “mean” in the sense of “nasty,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “common, low-quality.” And the verb “to mean” in the sense of “to connote” or “to intend” comes from yet other roots meaning “to tell or say.”) The “while” in “meanwhile” is the noun form of the word, meaning “a period of time,” thus serving the same function as the “time” in “meantime.” We also use “while,” of course, as an adverb meaning “at the same time” (“While the cat’s away, the mice will file a restraining order”).

Meanwhile, back at your question, your sense that there is a difference in usage between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is not just your imagination at play. Some usage authorities maintain that “meantime” is best used as a noun (“In the meantime, wipe the beer off your desk and put out that fire”) and “meanwhile” ought to be used as an adverb (“Meanwhile, Billy-Bob was dating Bobbie’s sister’s daughter Billie, which gave everyone a headache”). That distinction is a fair description of how the words are most commonly used today. But, as the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (available free through Google Books) notes, “The evidence shows that ‘meantime’ and ‘meanwhile’ have been used interchangeably as nouns since the 14th century and as adverbs since the 16th century.” So while different authors may have different preferences, there’s no logical difference between the words and, more importantly, no history of writers consistently observing such a distinction.

December 2011 Issue

... and your little dog, too.


Oh, ye of little faith. I promised that there would be a proper December Issue before month’s end, and here we are.

I carried over the modified meme-version of our logo graphic this month. Oddly enough, I made that graphic before I saw the Wizard of Oz one, though I definitely had that caption in mind.

My absolute favorite of the breed, however, is the Magritte treatment below. My first thought on seeing that was “Gee, that would make a great shower curtain.”

Speaking of little dogs, our pal Pokey, the little yellow doggie that wandered in about twelve years ago, is showing her age. She appears to be almost entirely deaf, mostly blind, and somewhat demented to boot, though Pokey was never the brightest bulb on the porch even on a good day. The good news is that she remains indefatigably cheerful; when she detects that you are putting food in her bowl, she bounces into the air, all four feet off the floor, tail wagging as madly as it did the first day she was here.

Unfortunately, Pokey’s vision, or lack thereof, is a problem because she follows me all over the house. She always has, probably because she was dumped in the woods to starve and is understandably insecure even after all these years. The first few weeks she was here, in fact, she slept on a futon in my office and I had to sit with her and tell her bedtime stories every night so she’d settle down and sleep. Well, I probably didn’t really have to, but I did. Anyway, she can climb stairs just fine, and so she does while I work in my office on the second floor every day. But she’s very reluctant to descend the stairs, as she really must at least a few times a day.

So I have to help Pokey downstairs, a process that involves coaxing her to the head of the steps, then gently grasping her collar and supporting her just enough to encourage her, but not so much as to make her panic and start thrashing around. Meanwhile, I have my own problems going downstairs, so I have to grip the banister with my other hand and try not to lose my balance. I’m starting to think a winch and a basket might be a better idea. The scary part is when we approach the bottom of the stairs and Pokey decides, every so often, that she’s sick of the whole laborious process and might as well jump. From the fourth step up. With me attached. I ought to sell tickets.

Continue reading this post » » »

Blue Plate Special

Woo Hoo.

Dear Word Detective: Whence came the term “Blue Plate Special”?  I’m reasonably sure that it is unrelated to “Fashion Plate.” I checked your archives for “Blue Plate” with a singular lack of success. Since Delftware decorations are generally blue and the plates, etc., were more expensive and exclusive than the undecorated versions and therefore “special,” I wondered if this could be the origin of “Blue Plate Special.”– Charlie Fox.

Close, Grasshopper, very close. But you’re right on the mark about the lack of any connection to “fashion plate,” meaning a person who pays great, perhaps excessive, attention to wardrobe and appearance. “Fashion plate,” which first appeared in the mid-19th century, compared such people to the “plates,” high-quality printed illustrations, that appeared as advertising in magazines and store windows. This use of “plate” came from the etched or engraved printing plates that produced the illustrations, and such printed “plates” were frequently used to sell upscale clothing, etc., making “fashion plate” a synonym for the height of luxury and fashion.

“Blue Plate Special,” on the other hand, is a US phrase which connotes economy rather than extravagant luxury. It was commonly used from the 1920s through the late 20th century in mid-range restaurants and diners to mean a daily special consisting of a complete meal (usually meat, one or two vegetables, potato, etc.) sold at a reduced price. The attraction for the customer was a complete meal at a low price, and the restaurant could base the special on ingredients it either happened to have on hand (perhaps combined as meat loaf, goulash, etc.) or could obtain in quantity at a good price.

The origin of “Blue Plate Special” is uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to a 1961 Merriam-Webster definition of “blue plate” as both “A restaurant dinner plate divided into compartments for serving several kinds of food as a single order” and “A main course (as of meat and vegetable) served as a single menu item.” It’s certainly possible that some restaurants used that sort of plate to serve the all-in-one daily “Blue Plate Special.” But was the original “Blue Plate Special” actually served on a blue plate, and, if so, why?

The most plausible explanation I have found of the origin of “Blue Plate Special” (courtesy of, in large part, the American Dialect Society mailing list) traces it to the Fred Harvey Company in the late 19th and early 20th century. Beginning in the 1870s, Harvey developed a chain of restaurants at stops on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad route from Chicago to Los Angeles, a line best known for the famed Santa Fe Super Chief railway liners. Harvey’s restaurants (many of which became hotels) were known for their cleanliness and consistently high quality of food, both of which had been rarities to train travelers prior to Harvey’s arrival on the scene. One of Harvey’s smartest moves was to establish a corps of “Harvey Girls,” professional workers vetted, trained and housed by the chain in dormitories overseen by “house mothers” who enforced a curfew. The rigorous standards of the Harvey chain made transcontinental train travel palatable to travelers who would have blanched at the thought just a few years earlier, and the Harvey Girls became so popular that in 1946 Judy Garland starred in “The Harvey Girls,” an MGM musical based on the chain.  When dining cars were eventually added to Santa Fe trains, they were run by the Fred Harvey Company as well.

Before the advent of the Fred Harvey restaurants, travelers had to depend on what they could grab in brief stops at stations. Harvey Restaurants excelled at the quick, efficient service needed, and apparently offered a “Blue Plate Special” to travelers in a hurry. There is some evidence that the term, which had appeared at least by 1919, originally referred to the faux-Wedgwood plates with a blue design used by the Harvey chain. It’s possible, of course, that “Blue Plate Special” originated somewhere other than the Harvey restaurants, but the fame of the Harvey chain would explain how the term spread so widely so rapidly.