“Lay the Table”

I was reading an article in The New Yorker in which the (American) author, Alice Gregory, refers to someone “learning the vocabulary for kitchen utensils while laying the table.” I assumed the last three words meant what I had always called “setting the table” — putting dishes, utensils (cutlery in BrE) and napkins (serviettes) on it. And I had a hunch it was a Britishism.

Sure enough, Lynne Murphy wrote about the phrase back in 2006 as a straight-up Britishism — that is, no reference to use by Americans. There was, however, this anonymous comment on Lynne’s post, presumably written by an American: “In Code to Zero British author Ken Follett has his American character in 1958 America ‘lay’ the table…..I had to look it up!”

I don’t have any record of any American other than Gregory using the phrase, so will label it as “Outlier” for the time being. If I learn of any more, I’ll upgrade to “On the Radar.”

17 thoughts on ““Lay the Table”

  1. Another one from my BrE-speaking upbringing that is unremarkable to me. I’ve said it without thought until 3 minutes ago, although my wife may have commented on it early in our relationship.

  2. At least she was using “to lay” correctly as a transitive verb with an object. Too often Americans, and increasingly the British, use it as an intransitive verb, such as “I was laying on the beach” which, of course, should be “I was lying on the beach”.

  3. Growing up in the UK, I recall hearing ‘set the table’ about as much as ‘lay the table’. We had a discussion about it once and us kids were told that either was acceptable.
    By the way, BrE does use ‘utensil’ but more for cooking implements (fish slice, ladle, masher). Cutlery is eating-tackle.

    1. I think Lynne Murphy says exactly that, that both forms are used in UK. Interesting about utensil. In US, knives and forks and such are either utensils or silverware, which leads of course to “plastic silverware.”

      1. Lynne Murphy seems to say that “set the table” is AmE and “lay the table” is BrE, but there are commenters to that post who point out that “set the table” is used in BrE as well

      2. Strictly speaking, cutlery refers to knives as they have a blade and are used to cut. In common parlance, however, both “cutlery” and “knives and forks” are used to describe all of the eating utensils.

      3. Is “utensils” really common? Could it be regional? I’ve lived my whole life (53 years) in the midwest, and I don’t often hear “utensils” in normal conversation, just “silverware.” And on those infrequent occasions when I do hear “utensils,” it generally has a modifier, e.g., “cooking utensils” or “eating utensils” — but while “cooking utensils” sounds relatively normal, and I have heard “eating utensils,” I can’t really think of a situation in which I would ever say “eating utensils” instead of “silverware”. I think if I were to say just “utensils,” it would result in puzzled looks.

  4. This is in the category of “over the road” for “across the street,” in that either version makes sense to either side of the linguistic divide but just sounds wrong. Again, even after almost 30 years of marriage, my wife insists on laying the table; sometimes I’m settin’ thar and have to move my stuff and get out of the way.

  5. Non sequitur, but have you ever considered covering “aesthetic”? It wasn’t mentioned in your older post on “ae” spellings, but it does seem to have made an incredible amount of headway in the US over the past five years or so.

      1. Well, that’s only to be expected, “esthetic” has very little aesthetic appeal. 😉

  6. The great Peppa Pig saga! 🐖🐷❤️https://mobile.twitter.com/DiscussingFilm/status/1417215343811039236

  7. My dad often says ‘tools’ or ‘irons’ instead of ‘cutlery’ and ‘fodder’ instead of food. I’ve never heard anyone say it apart from him though and I can’t find any evidence of anyone else saying it online, either here in the U.K or elsewhere, so I’m not sure how typical this is (perhaps part of a traditional Staffordshire dialect?).

    1. I sometimes say ‘eating irons’ – it could be Midlands, or it could come from the 1940s/50s military – Did your dad do National Service?

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