cater to

From “A Changing Harlem Celebrates the Queen of Soul Food” by Kia Gregory, in the NYT on 7/21/12:

Joan Avila, a retired nurse who has lived in Harlem for 40 years and rents a room nearby, said she had been to Sylvia’s a few times in the past. “Tourists cater to it,” she said. “If you don’t know how to cook, you don’t know the difference.”

For me, the restaurant could cater to tourists, but not vice versa. Cater to here seems to mean something like ‘be attracted to’ — so we’re looking at a reversal in the roles associated with the subject and oblique object in argument structure. I’m not sure how widespread this new argument structure is, or how long it’s been around (this use of cater doesn’t seem to have been picked up in dictionaries).

1. Background on cater. From NOAD2 (where “no obj.” means “no direct object”; these uses have oblique objects, marked by prepositions):

verb [ with obj. ]

provide food and drink, typically at social events and in a professional capacity: he catered a lunch for 20 people | (as adj. catered) : planning another catered affair.

• [ no obj. ] (cater for) chiefly Brit. provide with food and drink, in this way: my mother helped to cater for the party.

• [ no obj. ] (cater to) provide with what is needed or required: the school caters to children with learning difficulties.

• [ no obj. ] (cater to) try to satisfy (a particular need or demand): he catered to her every whim.

(OED2’s etymology has the verb derived from the noun cater ‘a buyer of provisions or ‘cates’; in large households the officer who made the necessary purchases of provisions’. The main entry, which dates from 1889, has the verb construed with for, “occasionally” with to; to has largely taken over from for since then — taken over entirely in the U.S.)

I can see a route from these uses with to to the “reversed use”: the intermediate step would be simple reversal of roles in argument structure, so that the verb goes from ‘provide with what is needed or asked’ to ‘be provided with what is needed or asked by’; then if someone or something provides you with what you need or ask, you will favor it, or be attracted to it. (At the moment, this is all speculation).

2. Other examples. To satisfy myself that the Sylvia’s example was probably not just a speech error, I collected a few more touristic examples:

The restaurant has indoor and outdoor eateries. It offers Thai food at a very reasonable price… There is no pork served here as mainly Middle East and Muslim tourists cater to this hotel. (link)

The tourists from Europe and United States Europe or the United States are not going to go to buy from the little stores or restaurants; these tourists cater to the luxury market. (link)

Finally, it is worth noting that an important number of visitors [to law schools] cater to the skills courses offered in law schools that are of little interest to the regular Faculty (legal writing, advocacy skills, legal profession – including ethics, and negotiation) as well as to first year courses such as property, torts, and civil procedure. (link)

And some non-touristic ones:

I don’t cater to this idea that she “stole” Brad. (link)

She has a contract to be a talking head, one of a stable of angry, Obama- and Democrat-hating right wingers who, like some preachers, cater to the idea a just God is a concept reconcilable with Mammon and Darwinian economics. (link)

Should producers and retailers cater to the idea that the public demands more variety? (link)

3. Why reversal? I have one quote in which it’s suggested that catering-to can be mutual:

[background: Barcelona caters to tourists] But after reflecting on my stay in Barcelona, I’ve realized us tourists cater to Barcelona as well. After all, aren’t the tourists the ones taking bus tours of the city, arriving on cruise ships in the ports, bartering with vendors in the market, and buying into ridiculously over-priced pub crawls? (link)

Such symmetry in the semantics would allow either of the two participants in the relation to be coded as subject.

In any case, some serious text search is called for.

4. cotton to? The examples of reversed cater impinge to some degree on the semantic range of the phonologically similar verb cotton. Here’s an essay on cotton to by Wendalyn Nichols, the Mavens’ Word of the Day for 3/12/01 on the Random House site (back when Random House still had a reference division):

John Wiltenmuth wrote: Growing up in the Deep South I used to frequently hear the expression “I don’t much cotton to that….” I rarely hear it anymore, but was curious as to how it came about.

You may not hear cotton to very often because it has now become more stigmatized as a Southern U.S. regionalism. However, various meanings of the verb have long histories, and used to be more widespread.

Other than in its original, trade-specific meaning, cotton as a verb has always been used in informal, mostly spoken locutions. Five hundred years ago, to “cotton” wool was to use friction to make it rise to a regular nap. If cloth “cottoned well,” the result was satisfactory, especially if you were trying to get the nap of different pieces of fabric to work together. (The article Cotton in the Middle Ages discusses what cotton meant before the fabric as we know it was in common use.)

By extension, the expression to cotton well developed its first figurative meaning of ‘to agree; suit; fit or go well together’. This meaning is listed in the Century Dictionary, and both it and the OED note the 16th-17th-expression “this gear cottons,” meaning that a situation is favorable or likely to succeed.

From the idea of getting on well together came the senses of ‘fraternizing’ (cotton up to) and ‘agreement with or strong liking for’ (cotton to). You could cotton to a person, an idea, or even a drink; nowadays, you usually hear the expression in the negative, don’t cotton to, and it’s usually used in reference to a concept, activity, or type of behavior rather than to people or concrete things. The following excerpts from recent listserv discussions show that the expression is still alive and well:

“And by all means forgive me if I don’t cotton to the current PC wary way of thinking about the world these days, I have no patience for that rubbish.”

“Don’t be surprised if some of the locals don’t cotton to having stray cows wander across the road.”

“You don’t cotton to the idea your remote ancestors lived in a tree and went ‘Ook ook!'”

“Jak and his trailermates don’t cotton to that book-larnin’ in them thar fancy universities.”

The final quote is from someone who is deliberately trying to mimic Southern speech in a derisive way, but the sources of the other quotes–and there are many, many more–are by no means exclusively Southern.

You may also have cottoned on to the fact that there is another sense, used with on, that means ‘to figure out’; this is largely a 20th-century meaning. We have a citation in our files from Time magazine, 1957: “…Washington’s Democratic Senator Henry (‘Scoop’) Jackson, who had cottoned on to what the scientists were up to while visiting the Livermore plant.”

The ‘agree with, have a strong liking for’ sense of cotton to overlaps some with the ‘be attracted to’ sense of cater to; note the catering-to-ideas examples above. But in other examples, the semantic fit is less good; the cater examples have no visible attraction to negation (as cotton does); and there’s no visible Southern connection for the cater examples. So while cotton to might have facilitated the development of cater to, it seems unlikely that new uses of cater to are eggcornish confusions.

5. More cater developments. I reported to ADS-L on 5/29/09 that I had heard, on a “youth radio” program about political activism by high schoolers, something like:

It depends on who you are catering towards [in your demonstrations and political speech]. If you are catering towards the governor, or the …

Two things here: cater towards rather than cater to; and the sense of the combination.

Cater towards (or cater toward) rather than cater to (not with specific reference to supplying food) is moderately common, though very much dwarfed by cater to. Two representative cites with towards, two with toward:

Nationwide Health Properties (NHP): NHP owns skilled nursing, senior housing and long term care properties catering towards the elderly. (link)

A nice, small grocery store catering towards the Hispanic population, this is a great place to go if you live near one. (link)

Campus recreation offers many opportunities for teambuilding initiatives, catering toward campus groups, corporate outings, school groups and more! (link)

A long list of vendors, activities and entertainment catering toward women will be featured. (link)

A number of verbs selecting the P to have toward(s) as an alternative. Pander, for instance:

He [Mitt Romney] knows the Tea Party brand of crazy would never win a national election so he tries to pander towards whatever group he’s speaking to that day. (link)

As Twitter continues to pander toward the average Internet user, the service becomes increasingly hostile to its long-standing early adopter base. (link)

(Like cater, pander originally selected for rather than to.)

And, for that matter, don’t cotton to has occasional alternatives don’t cotton toward(s).

The circumstances in which V + toward(s) is an alternative to V + to deserve further study.

Back to cater in the youth radio quote, which has an extended sense of the verb, something like ‘address, direct oneself to, direct towards’. Three examples:

For the past four years I have been teaching English to Spanish learners. During this time and to some degree without really realising it, I have also been refining the vowel sounds in my drilling voice to those that I feel are most suited for their voices (not their ears).  In a sense, I have been catering towards the sound of my students‚ natural L2 accents rather than the sound of any native L1 English accent. (link)

Gopher Girl Virtual Assistance has launched a new website catering towards mutual marketing for small business owners. (link)

For example, if you have a web site catering towards Bollywood films, and you notice a strong contingent of users hailing from the Middle East, it might prove profitable to translate your pages into Arabic for that demographic to use if they wish to purchase films from your web site. In addition, for a web site catering towards sports, if you notice a particular demographic from a city or state not covered on your pages, you might consider adding coverage to keep that population coming back to your site. (link)

In these cites, some group (Spanish learners, small business owners, Bollywood or sports fans) is being catered to, but this is expressed via something associated with the group (a Spanish accent in English, mutual marketing, Bollywood films/sports coverage), rather than directly.

Once again, there are loose ends and uncertainties. There’s a lot more to be discovered about cater to and cater toward(s).


6 Responses to “cater to”

  1. Ferrers Locke Says:

    On a not dissimilar note, I’ve noticed that subject and object are becoming oddly reversed when people use ‘fascination for’: I increasingly hear sentences of the form, “I have a fascination for stamp-collecting”.

    In that case, however, it’s easier to see it as a mixing up of prepositions, the different meanings generated by ‘for’ and ‘with’ (“I have a fascination with stamp-collecting”, and “stamp-collecting holds a fascination for me”) becoming conflated.

    There is an intrigiung arbitrariness about prepositions, as your for/to/towards suggests: in many cases, it doesn’t much mater which is used, so long as the choice is idiomatically understood: ‘in back of’, which appears to be standard American, vs. ‘at (or to) the back of’, which would be standard British English – ‘though ‘behind’ would be more standard: I don’t know wheher that’s common usage around the U.S.

    (To prove that prepositions nonetheless can matter very much, I altered “in the U.S. to “around the U.S.”, for greater precision: I would be unsurprised to find that ‘behind’ was common usage in _some parts of_ the U.S., without being widespread.)

    Also, thank you: ‘cotton on to’ something is commonplace in British English, and I hadn’t quite distinguished the idiomatic difference the ‘on’ makes. Always interesting to distinguish something only half-perceived.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The first is very specific: Xthing has/holds a fascination for Yperson ‘X fascinates Y, X is fascinating to Y’ ~ Yperson has a fascination for/with Xthing ‘Y is fascinated by/with X’. So this apparent reversal is just a slight overlap in several different patterns.

  2. Allison Wright Says:

    Then there is “cotton on” in the sense of “catch on”, as in,
    “The craze never really cottoned on in this neck of the woods.”

    I have just done a Google search, and I am hard pressed to find an example online.

    I am beginning to think that phonetic similarities between “cottoned on” and “caught on” may be responsible for this.

    I definitely used to hear this quite often at least as early as 1975 in Zimbabwe, and possibly South Africa. I have no proof, just my say-so! I would be keen to know if anyone else could back this up.

    I loved your detailed blog. Thank you.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I haven’t been able to find any good examples of THING cotton on ‘catch on’ (like the one you give). What I do find are examples of PERSON cotton on ‘cotton/catch on (to something), figure (something) out’, as in “Have people only now cottoned on?”

      For that usage, interference from catch (involving both phonology and semantics) is plausible.

  3. Complex reversal: confuse « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] These new patterns fall in with other cases of alternation between Ps in various constructions: different from/to/than, at risk for/of (here), new lease of/on life (here), plus a great many Ps selected by Vs, for example in V to/toward(s), for cater, pander, and cotton (here). […]

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