The House of X formula

The central exhibit in yesterday’s posting on ambiguity in N of N nominals was

House of Pizza

as the name of a store (which the Three Little Pigs of course misinterpreted).

In a comment, Chris Hansen wrote:

Bob and Ray’s House of Toast comes to mind…

Indeed. Bob and Ray’s invention was a take-off on House of X shop names, a kind of snowclonelet alternative to common nouns of the form

X + -eteria, -ateria, -teria, -eria

(pizzateria, toasteteria, etc.), with the libfix -((V)t)eria that has come up on Language Log and this blog several times. Antonio’s House of Pizza or Antonio’s Pizzateria, take your pick. And to N+N shop names of the form X Shop/Store/Place/Nook/Hut/City/Town/Center… (The Toast Shop, Toast City, etc.)

Chris has been on to Bob and Ray’s House of Toast before — in a comment on my brief posting of last November 30 on their “Komodo Dragon”, which was also an appreciation of Elliott and Goulding’s humor. To which I replied that

it’s hard to know when to stop quoting this stuff, though the House of Toast is close to the top of my list. (Here in Palo Alto there’s a House of Foam just two blocks away, and in Columbus I wasn’t far from a House of Dinettes and a House of Tiles.) There’s just so much in Bob and Ray, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and Monty Python (just to mention some comedy I’ve alluded to here or on Language Log), and … [these ellipsis dots in original]

Two observations: House of X shops are still sprinkled all over the place. The possibilities in the mid-Peninsula include not only the House of Foam, but also the House of Bagels, the House of Kabobs, the House of Lamps, the House of Printing, the House of Treasures, and the House of Wigs. And of course the (International) House of Pancakes, or IHOP. (Note that the X slot is filled by either a (SG) M noun, like foam, pizza, or toast, or by a PL (C) noun, like bagels, dinettes, or wigs — another instance of the syntactic relatedness of M and PL).

It’s surprisingly hard to date the first appearance of this routine (or any other, for that matter) in Bob and Ray’s performances, which spanned over forty years and included many repetitions, re-workings, and re-playings of their favorite routines, of which “House of Toast” was one. I have a vivid recollection of hearing it on the radio in the 50s — but then such memories are notoriously unreliable and might be a projection backwards (via the Antiquity Illusion) from my having heard the routine years later (it was certainly performed in the 70s) onto my hearing Bob and Ray on the radio in the 50s (which also certainly happened).

The question is whether the House of X formula was already out there in the real world when Bob and Ray used it — so that they were satirizing the figure with toast as an absurd thing to have a shop for (this would be in line with the enormous number of their satires taking off on existing names) — or whether they invented the idea of a shop devoted to selling toast and only toast, and chose to name it The House of Toast, rather than The Toast Nook or Toast City or whatever. Deciding this question depends on finding out whether there were Houses of X around in the 50s and 60s, an investigation I leave to historians of popular culture (of whom I am not one), though I can point out that IHOP was founded in 1958, which lends some support to the verbal-satire view over the conceptual-invention view.

Either way, it’s still tremendously funny, a Bob and Ray routine that makes me giggle even after half a century. (Of course, a lot of its effect is in the earnest deadpan of Bob and Ray’s delivery. It’s funny on the page, but not that funny.)

Now we have the spoof House of Toast company, a “virtual eating establishment” with the motto “got toast?” and the ad copy:

What originally started in 1994 as a small specialty business catering to the needs of toast aficionados throughout the Eastern United States has now turned into a nationally recognized and somewhat cultish eating establishment.

With the launch of HOToast.com we are now able to take you behind the scenes — giving you more information than ever before about the House of Toast empire!

5 Responses to “The House of X formula”

  1. mae Says:

    I had a friend (back in the day you are mentioning) who said he was going to start a restaurant called “Your House of Cabbage.” The appetizer would be 1/2 head of cabbage with a maraschino cherry in the center. Wonder if he got it from one of the routines you mentioned.

    signed… also not a student of popular culture, just old enough to remember it

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    My old friend The Beeb reports that Littleton CO boasts the House of Water Heaters.

    Hard to beat for clunkiness.

  3. John Lawler Says:

    I recall an “Our Miss Brooks” episode from the 50’s (it was on TV) where one of the characters was opening a snazzy hot dog restaurant to be called “Salon de Chien Chaud”, which Miss Brooks obligingly translated as “House of the Dog Hot”.

  4. Kevin Laxnar Says:

    And then, there’s Aunt Mary’s Toaster Bistro in Lincoln City OR. It’s also an example of a business developing multiple revenue streams, selling adult novelties on the side.

  5. Ziegler on toast « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] as distressing as a missing family member or missing pet. Similarly, Bob and Ray’s wonderful House of Toast ad treats toast as so special it deserves shops devoted to supplying it, in all of its many […]

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