At a recent Thanksgiving dinner, someone asked if I would pass the dressing. Growing up where I did, I was more used to the term stuffing. To me, dressing is that gloppy mixture you pour over salad. But I’m sophisticated and worldly, and I knew almost immediately what she was talking about. Also, there was no salad, and she already had corn and mashed potatoes. What else could she have been looking for? As I handed her the bowl, I began to dwell on the term – dressing. Just a single word out of so many thousands.
Okay, not true. I didn’t think about the word at all, and went right back to bulldozing food into my mouth. But a couple of days later, something alerted me to the fact that it was the birthday of Ernie Coombs, who had died in 2001 at the age of seventy-three. Coombs is best remembered as the host of a long-running Canadian television series for young children: Mr. Dressup.
That’s when the word dress shot into the sky and exploded into a fountain of tiny sparks, each following a different arc to the ground. Okay, also not true. There was no explosion. I’d been periodically wondering about this word since tutoring a woman from Bolivia in 1994. She’d asked me for its definition, and as I tried to explain what it meant, I kept finding new variations. I managed to connect a few of them, but others had me talking with my hands, and shrugging my shoulders a lot. After ten minutes, she was still struggling to pronounce the word correctly, and I’d been given another reminder of how complex written and oral communication can be.
Over the past few years, I’ve met many newcomers to North America, and almost always I’m stunned by their ability to absorb and use the English language. I’ve been speaking it my entire life, and still, at least once a week I manage to trip over another of its mysterious rules, exceptions, idioms, or contradictions. Even the very name of the language confused me until well past my sixth birthday. I used to go to school and claim that I was English.
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The first form of the word learned by most non-native speakers is probably dress, as a noun. It’s an article of clothing worn primarily by females. When a woman gets dressed, she may put on a dress. She’s still getting dressed if she decides to wear pants, even dress pants, or if she chooses a kimono, a jumpsuit, or a Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform. Men get dressed, too, but rarely wear dresses, at least in public. Both put their clothes into a dresser, although most women prefer to hang their dresses in a closet. Men would like to hang their shirts in the closet, too, but there’s often no room left because of all the dresses, so he has to stuff his shirts into the dresser. However, the men who are called stuffed shirts probably keep theirs hanging in the closet – pressed, starched, and arranged by color and label.
Dressage is the care and training of horses for specific tasks. I’d guess that’s a French word, so it sounds more elegant than it probably is, despite its connection to horses, which don’t seem all that elegant to me. Then again, a clothes horse is a stylish individual who’s careful to always wear the appropriate attire, and owns the correct apparel for every occasion. A clothes horse can be male or female, but I’d never use the word horse for any reason to describe a woman’s appearance, because I don’t like getting punched in the face. I also don’t want to endure a dressing down, which means to be scolded harshly. Dressed to kill suggests a person who looks really sharp. Dressed to the nines. Dress code. Dress up for Halloween. Then, of course, there’s that gloppy stuff we pour over salad.
And it hasn’t even gotten weird yet.
If someone suffers an injury and there’s a lot of bleeding, the wound is treated with a dressing. On the battlefield, it’s called a field dressing. Strangely, when a deer or wild turkey is killed for food, the hunter performs a field dressing on the animal, but in that setting it involves removing all of the internal organs. I made the mistake of looking at photographs of this process yesterday and am just starting to feel better, so I won’t go into detail. Trust me when I say that the word dressing is not the one that naturally springs to mind, and makes no more sense than our tendency to resort to euphemisms when we take the dog or cat to be castrated and then tell everyone we got him fixed.
Dozens of industries use dress to describe a key phase of their operation. Leather, pottery, grain, textiles, metal, lumber, stone – all are dressed at some point during manufacture or preparation. When ships, farm pastures, and racetracks are groomed, those procedures employ the same term.
Parties are casual or dressy. Insignificant details designed to distract are characterized as mere window dressing. Theaters have dressing rooms, and dress rehearsals. Holiday meals often feature some kind of roasted meat with all the dressings.
Which brings us right back to Thanksgiving dinner and a lingering question. In almost every other context, the word refers to an external embellishment. Dress for success. A wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. All dressed up and nowhere to go. So why would something called dressing be stuffed inside a turkey? I have no idea. But don’t forget, I’m English — we think our cars have boots and bonnets.
Anyway, I need to go. It’s time to trim the Christmas tree.