“Hash Brown Built-In”

On Facebook, this photo:


Jeff Shaumeyer wondered:

(1) Does “hashbrowns” really have a common singular form, and is this it?

(Bob Boutwell amplified on this, saying that “Hashbrown potatoes” is commonly used on menus, but he’d never seen “hashbrown” used as a singular noun.)

And Robert Coren asked:

(2) And what’s a “hash brown built-in”, anyway?

I’ll have answers, but there’s a good bit of background to get through.

First, the source of the photo, at a Taco Bell restaurant. #1 depicts an A.M. Crunchwrap™, a stuffed breakfast — hence the A.M. — tortilla, one of a set of Crunchwrap Supremes™; the beef version is described on the Taco Bell website as:

A warm, soft, flour tortilla filled with seasoned beef, warm nacho cheese sauce, a crunchy tostada shell, reduced-fat sour cream, lettuce and tomatoes and then wrapped up and grilled for maximum portability.

The A.M. versions are entire breakfasts in a tortilla. Description of two of them:

(3) A.M. Crunchwrap – Sausage: All the classic breakfast tastes like fluffy scrambled eggs, a golden crispy hash brown, real cheddar cheese, a delicious sausage patty and creamy jalapeno sauce wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla and grilled for maximum portability.

(4) Country A.M. Crunchwrap – Sausage: A warm flour tortilla with a golden crispy potato hash brown, fluffy scrambled eggs, a delicious sausage patty, real cheddar cheese and warm country gravy, wrapped up and grilled to go.

They’re intended to be portable, held in the hand (though they’re so big that I wonder what happens when you bite into one while you’re on the go).

Point 1: In answer to question (1), as you can see in the boldfaced parts of (3) and (4), Taco Bell definitely does think of hash brown as a normal count noun, usable in the singular. And in fact the hash browns they sell are things rather than stuff and so would naturally be referred to by a count noun. A photo of two of them:


What, then, about the prevailing usage, with hash browns as a plural count noun (plural in morphology, plural in syntax), but referring to stuff (for which you’d expect a (singular) mass noun, with no plural)? (Compare the photos in my posting on hash browns and home fries: the hash browns in #1, presented as undifferentiated stuff, vs. the home fries in #2, presented as single things.) More on this below.

Point 2: In answer to question (2), “Hash brown built-in” is to be understood as ‘has a hash brown built in’; the hash brown is part of the Crunchwrap package, built into it.

The history of hash browns. Here the story is quite complicated, and not entirely clear to me, though I have a plausible story.

NOAD2 on hash browns:

hash browns (also hashed browns) noun chiefly N. Amer.: a dish of cooked potatoes, typically with onions added, that have been chopped into small pieces and fried until brown.

At first, the hash in hash browns is inscrutable, but the clue lies in the alternative hashed browns. This actually makes some sense — see below — and English has a widespread process of “t/d deletion”, in which PSPs serving as modifiers are shortened: ice tea, drop ceiling, close-caption, bake goods, skim milk, mash potatoes, etc. That gets us hash browns from hashed browns.

Now, the sense of hashed here. From NOAD2 on the verb hash:

N. Amer. ‘chop’ (meat or vegetables), with its origin, in the late 16th century, from French hacher [‘chop’], from hache [‘axe’]

(NOAD2 adds that the noun senses of hash — ‘a dish of cooked meat cut into small pieces and cooked again, usually with potatoes’, N. Amer. ‘a finely chopped mixture’, ‘a mixture of jumbled incongruous things; a mess’ — are derived from this verb.)

So much for the hash part of hash browns. A speculative source for the browns part starts with the idea that brown is just like hash:

hashed browned potatoes > hash brown potatoes (t/d deletion, twice) > hash browns

The last step would be an instance of “nouning by truncation”; from a 1/6/10 posting of mine:

Very commonly, adjectival modifiers are converted to nouns by truncation, with the Adj in an Adj + N phrase treated, at least historically, as a noun with (roughly) the meaning of the whole phrase.

(attending < attending physician, viral < viral video, Indian < Indian restaurant, etc.). When the noun in question is plural, the plural number is “inherited” by the truncation, as in the long-established truncation privates for private parts.

This account provides a rationale for the plurality (in both morphology and syntax) of hash browns, despite the semantic misfit I noted above: hash browns inherits its plurality from potatoes.

2 Responses to ““Hash Brown Built-In””

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    The most participial hash browns are to be found at the Maison d’Hesitation (a.k.a. the Waffle House), where John Donne often doeth lunch:

    Butter my heart, O omelet God, are thou
    Not smother’d, cover’d, pepper’d, chunk’d, and dic’d?

  2. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    I was surprised to hear that NOAD2 lists hash browns as ‘chiefly N. Amer.’; they are ubiquitous on this side of the pond as part of the full breakfast.

    That said, nGrams shows the term is about four times as frequent in US English than in the UK.

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