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Friday, March 25, 2016


This week I was involved in a facebook discussion about the use of "Enjoy!" as uttered by waiters. The discussion started off with someone identifying this as an anachronism when she heard it in the recent movie Carol, set in 1950s New York. She felt that it has only been in use in the last 15 or 25 years (and said it "raises her hackles" whenever she hears it). In the old days, waiters would use the verb transitively, with the object expressed: "Enjoy your meal!"

(There's another usage of "enjoy" that came in for criticism in the past, but we'll come to that in a minute.)

As with many things, "Enjoy!" is older than you think. I remember people complaining to me about it in the 80s, but it goes back farther than that amongst Jewish English speakers, because it seems to be of Yiddish origin. This is what the OED has to say:
[In later use, probably after dialectal Yiddish genist.]
In imperative, with ellipsis of object: take pleasure in the thing (freq. food or drink) being presented.
1876   H. James Roderick Hudson ix. 304   Don't mind the pain, and it will cease to trouble you. Enjoy, enjoy; it is your duty.
1959   H. Golden For 2¢ Plain ii. 92   When my mother served our meals..she would always say, ‘Enjoy, enjoy’... The word ‘enjoy’ was seldom used by itself. It was always repeated.
1964   Prevention July in L. M. Feinsilver Taste of Yiddish (1970) 306   Just read, enjoy, absorb!
1985   L. Sanders Fourth Deadly Sin v. 41   ‘Spend money’, he said. ‘Enjoy.’
1998   30 All Time Great Recipes (BBC Good Food) Autumn 1/1   We hope that in this selection, you will rediscover some old friends—and make some new ones as well. Enjoy!
Apart from that intriguing first quotation from Henry James, the early examples are from Jewish English speakers. It's quite possible that "Enjoy!" could have been used in a Jewish restaurant or by a Jewish waiter in the 50s, but since the scene in Carol involved neither, it clearly was an anachronism. I wish film and TV writers would pay as much attention to linguistic anachronisms as they do to other production values. (See my posts on Downton Abbey here and here and on Murdoch Mysteries here and here.)

This is from Billy Wilder's 1960 megahit movie The Apartment (both the writer, Wilder, and the character being Jewish):
MRS. DREYFUSS Here. The best thing for dizzy is a little noodle soup with chicken white meat -- and a glass tea. She sets the tray down on Fran's lap. FRAN Thank you. I'm really not hungry. MRS. DREYFUSS Go ahead! Eat! Enjoy! She hands her the soup spoon, turns to Bud.
One can only wonder if the immense popularity of this movie, which was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five (including Best Picture), started "Enjoy!" out on its journey into the vocabulary of every restaurant waiter, Jew or gentile. 

It's hard to search online corpora for examples "with ellipsis of object", but already by the late 70s, The Globe and Mail was publishing this:

The church cookbook is a good book, too

Burkhart, Shirley. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 01 Dec 1977: F.1.
...oven for 30 minutes, uncovered. Season and thicken. Enjoy.

and, as you can see from the BBC Good Food quotation in the OED, the usage was well established in British English by the end of the 90s.

In fact, there is British English evidence (referring not to food but to marijuana) from the early 90s:

Title Jay loves Lucy. Cooper, Fiona. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991, pp. 11-154. 3899 s-units.

Francis drifted in while Jay was changing.' Sweetheart!' he said, hugging her silk-clad body, butterflying her just-rouged cheek.' Best of luck! And happy birthday to you! Here's your prezzie. I feel like one of the three wise men, love, enjoy! 
All of the above examples are in the imperative, but the logical next step would be for the verb "enjoy" to start being used "with ellipsis of object" in other circumstances. And indeed, we are starting to see this:
Date 1999 (19990924)
Source CBS_Morning

ASSURAS: Don't force yourself. If you don't like rockfish... ENGBERG: I think that I can be forced into doing this. ASSURAS: It does look like a beautiful plate. McEWEN: Mm-mm-mm. You know, I love it. Dave knows exactly... ASSURAS: Uh-huh. ENGBERG: That is just terrific. Mr-HARTUNG: Very good. ENGBERG: That is just terrific. Mr-HARTUNG: Well, I'm glad you enjoyed .

Date 2011 (110828)
Publication information KIDSPOST; Pg. Y03
Title Bookin^
Source Washington Post

Almost 800 of you joined KidsPost's 2011 Summer Book Club. This year we featured books that were made into movies. We hope you thought about how books are different from movies, but mostly we hope you read and enjoyed. 

The interesting thing is that, if "enjoy" is to become a true intransitive as a result of this, it would be reverting to its very earliest usage in English, when it was borrowed from a now-obsolete French word and used to mean "To be in joy, or in a joyous state; to manifest joy, exult, rejoice."

You may be astounded and entertained to learn that this is not the first time that a usage of  "enjoy" has provoked criticism. In the 19th century some critics inveighed against "enjoy oneself" (if you can believe it).  They said that the "true" meaning of "enjoy" was "take pleasure in" and that therefore "enjoy oneself" could only mean "take pleasure [and we know exactly what kind of pleasure they had in mind] in oneself". SHOCKING!!! It goes without saying that this is a ridiculous objection to a usage that has existed since the 1600s.

All I can say is I hope you all enjoy yourselves when reading Wordlady posts.

How do YOU feel about "Enjoy!"? If you don't like it, what would you prefer waiters say to you? Let me know!

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  1. I like "Bon Appetit" and think of Meryl Streep doing Julia Child in Julie and Julia.

  2. The mild command 'enjoy' is used by friends even when sending tidbits by e-mail. Much overused (though well-meaning)and becoming an irritant.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.