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Blue-plate special

Q From Alan Koss; related questions came from Ted Nesbitt, Susan Gabaree and Richard Duggan: I’ve been seeking the etymology of the term blue plate special. One friend said it goes back to the use of the blue ribbon to signify ‘the best’. Another suggested diners served their value meal of the day on blue-rimmed plates. Can you be more definitive?

A What’s with all these questions on this phrase coming at once? Is there a quiz on somewhere? If I give the right answer, do I get a share of the prize?

As it happens, answering it isn’t going to be easy. I’d never come across this curious expression before (though it is widely known in the USA) and you may not believe the number of reference books that say nothing about it. But by a coincidence that makes me feel I have a lexicographical fairy godmother, a brief discussion about the term appeared recently on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, which helped a lot with the background and dates.

As you imply, a blue plate special is (or was) a set meal served at a reduced price, usually in the cheaper sort of restaurant. The first example in the big Oxford English Dictionary is from a book by Sinclair Lewis dated 1945, but it is also the title of a story by Damon Runyon published in 1934. We have recently learned, because the digital complete text of the New York Times has become available, that it’s recorded in that newspaper as far back as 1926, and is probably older still.

A good description of the way the term was used is in an issue of the periodical The Restaurant Man for January 1929 under the title Quick Lunchplaces Have Own Vernacular. In an attached glossary, the writer wrote that: “A ‘blue plate’ is the label given a special daily combination of meat or fish, potatoes and vegetables, sold at a special price, and is ordered with the words, ‘blue plate’ ”. (My thanks to Barry Popik for finding this.)

So far so good, but finding out where the phrase comes from is rather more difficult. Though blue ribbon or blue riband, as a badge of honour that implies distinction and excellence, dates from early in the nineteenth century, it’s very doubtful whether it had any link to inexpensive restaurant meals, however good their value. The idea that it comes from a real blue plate on which the meal was served seems to be the right one. The Random House Webster’s Dictionary says of blue plate: “a plate, often decorated with a blue willow pattern, divided by ridges into sections for holding apart several kinds of food”. The Dictionary implies that the inexpensive meals were served on such plates.

Daniel Rogov, in the online Culinary Corner, recently provided an answer that may clear the whole thing up, though I’ve not been able to confirm what he says. He claims the first use of blue-plate special was on a menu of the Fred Harvey restaurants on 22 October 1892. These restaurants were built at stations to serve the travelling public on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and it seems the blue-plate set meal was designed to rapidly serve passengers whose trains stopped only for a few minutes. He went on to say, “As to why the term ‘blue plate’ — no mystery here. Fred Harvey bought nearly all his serving plates from a company in Illinois. Modelling their inexpensive but sturdy plates after those made famous by Josiah Wedgwood ... these were, of course, blue in color. Thus, quite literally, the ‘blue plate’ special”.

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Page created 19 Oct 2002