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Can I Get a Better Way to Order Food?

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

A couple of years ago, the BBC published an essay on that staple of British journalism, the terribleness of Americanisms polluting the mother tongue. The Beeb invited readers to send in their own pet peeves and got such a response that it published a list of the 50 that were sent in most often. The top five, in reverse order, were:

  • Deplane.
  • 24/7.
  • Two-time or three-time, as in “two-time award winner” (though I don’t see how else that could be said).
  • Least worst option.
  • And the N0.1 most hated Americanism, as described by Steve, in Rossendale, Lancashire: “When people ask for something, I often hear: ‘Can I get a ... ‘ It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the 90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really.”

There’s no doubt that this formulation is often heard on this side of the Atlantic, in coffee bars, liquor bars, and informal eateries. I’m not sure what the objection is. Would Steve prefer the imperative “Give me a cup of coffee,” the gnomic “Coffee,” the declarative “I’d like a cup of coffee,” or the interrogatory (and very British) “I’m terribly sorry, but would it be terribly inconvenient to arrange for me to be served a cup of coffee?”? None seems ideal.

Moreover, like many of the despised Americans, can I get a is in reality of mixed national parentage. In an 1837 article in The New Monthly Magazine, published in London, one finds: “not even when I desire it, can I get a potato boiled to my liking.” An 1858 Hand-Book for Travelers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, also published in London, gives the Norwegian translation for “Can I get anything to eat?” (Kanjeg faanoget at spise?”)

The expression does seem to have taken on an American cast by 1902, when a Mr. Crafts testified to a Congressional committee: “I went up to the boy at the entrance of one of these lunch rooms and said, ‘Can I get glass of milk?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Can I get a cup of coffee?’ ‘No.’”

But my searches through the Google Books database, where I found the above quotations, suggest that the phrasing was relatively uncommon for much of the 20th century. It appears to have been propelled into prominence by Marvin Gaye’s 1963 hit “Can I Get a Witness.” The website Songfacts.com observes, “The title is a phrase commonly used in black churches and has a very spiritual connotation: When the preacher asks, ‘Can I Get A Witness,’ he’s asking the congregation for affirmation, often met with the response of ‘Amen!’”

It was not long afterward that I first encountered the culinary application of Can I get a. In 1974 or 75, my college creative-writing teacher David Milch (later a legendary television writer and producer) wrote and had the lead role in a short film titled, as I recall, Pilgrim. It took place in the Pilgrim Diner, an actual hash-house. In one scene Milch sat down in a booth and asked the waitress, “Can I get eggs over easy, with wheat toast?” It struck me as a cool way of ordering and eventually was recognized as such by multitudes, including Mickey Rourke, a 2003 New York Times profile of whom began: “‘Can I get a little bowl of water?” Mickey Rourke asks sweetly of the waitress at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, pointing down toward the small dog skittering around between the table legs.”

Possibly as a result of can I get a, the word get currently has a strong association with food. My daughters, in their twenties, will tend to talk of “getting” lunch, where I would normally say “having.” In the title of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” the word getting has a complicated meaning, essentially: ” …  on their way to an establishment where they will order and consume … ”

There have been additional musical invocations as well. A 1998 song by Jay-Z, “Can I Get a … ” includes the passage:

Can I get a WOOP WOOP
to these n***** from all of my b******
who don’t got love for n***** without dubs?

Better not tell Steve.

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