Boxing Clever

My husband makes fun of the English because they call most desserts “pudding.” And he is right. It is quite ridiculous that cake, pancakes, lava cakes, and cheesecake are all called pudding; but it’s also ridiculous that they’re all called cakes. Adding to the complexity is Yorkshire pudding, which is savory and eaten with the meal.

Fair point, husband. But what about America’s obsession with boxes?

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It is thought the word box entered English before the 12th Century, originally from the Greek word pyxos. Originally meaning a five-sided port in which you can store or move smaller items, it has come to mean a plethora of box-shaped things – a drawn square on a page; the place where the batter stands in baseball; a coffin. In slang, it also means vagina, which I presume is meant to refer to its carrying capacity rather than it’s shape because it’s clearly a triangle … or a diamond, depending on your angle of approach. But I digress.

In Australian and British Englishes, we generally only use box to describe abstract shapes (like the box on the page) or receptacles that are made of wood or cardboard. Plastic boxes are usually bins or crates, metal ones are carts or containers, and glass ones, as we all know, are cages of emotion.

In the U.S., we have a box for everything. A box of milk (not carton) to go with your box of cereal. If you don’t finish your restaurant meal, you get a box to go – even though most of those “boxes” are actually plastic containers – and the cat goes to the litter box (not tray). Or, you know, in your favorite sneakers. It’s used as a measurement – “pour in the whole box of pasta” – and instead of being hemmed in, one is boxed in. Your Amazon order is making its way to you in waaaay too much packaging inside a boxcar (not a rail carriage or freight car). Wine in a plastic bladder is box wine – which I admit makes more sense than the “cask wine” of home – and now, even water comes in boxes rather than bottles.

I suspect it became so ubiquitous here because it’s so useful, and American English is nothing if not utilitarian. The only equivalent I came up with is the noun can, which describes anything cylindrical and made of metal. Fascinating, when you consider how that parallels the Queen’s English treatment of box.

So we make do. The husband tries to be specific about the kind of box he means, and I make the Yorkshire pudding.