Ruthie copes: Moses and the doggie bag

Two recent One Big Happy strips, in which Ruthie wades into interpreting unfamiliar expressions (bulrush, Israelite) and interpreting one familiar expression (doggie bag) in a non-standard way.



The story of Moses, thrillingly re-told. Ruthie entertains her neighbor James with an action-packed modern interpretation of the biblical story of Moses, along the way supplying her unpacking of the plant name bulrush (involving “rushing around with some bulls”) and the ethnonym Israelite.

Ruthie analyzes Israelite as Israel + –lite ‘low in some component’ — in this case, fat, but other possibilities are alcohol, sugar, calories, and tobacco tar — rather than Israel + –ite ‘inhabitant of’. For Ruthie, Israelites are people from Israel who are low in fat, that is, who are skinny (from laboring as slaves).

The plant name bulrush is much more complex. The biblical context is from chapter 2 of Exodus. In the KJV:

And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.
2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.
3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.

Some translations also have bulrushes, but others have reeds, water-plants, rushes, grass(es), or papyrus, all referring to grass-like plants that grow in water. These plants belong to many different species, from at least seven different plant families.

Start with the KJV’s bulrushes. From NOAD2:


Bullrushes (seed heads on right)

noun bulrush: 1 a tall rushlike water plant of the sedge family. Native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, it has been widely used for weaving and is grown as an aid to water purification in some areas. [Scirpus lacustris, family Cyperaceae.] 2 another term for cattail. 3 (in biblical use) a papyrus plant. ORIGIN late Middle English: probably from bull in the sense ‘large or coarse,’ [a semantic development from the bovine noun] as in words such as bullfrog.

So bulrush is etymologically bull + the plant name rush. Nothing to do with rushing about, and its connection to bulls is more indirect than Ruthie supposes. Still, a compound — but not a subsective one: bulrushes are not rushes, just like rushes.

From NOAD2:


Juncus effusis

noun rush: a marsh or waterside plant with slender stemlike pith-filled leaves, widely distributed in temperate areas. Some kinds are used for matting, chair seats, and baskets, and some were formerly used for strewing on floors. [Genus Juncus, family Juncaceae.]

The plant family is a new one on this blog (#71). From Wikipedia:

Juncaceae is a family of flowering plants, commonly known as the rush family. It consists of 8 genera and about 464 known species of slow-growing, rhizomatous, herbaceous monocotyledonous plants that may superficially resemble grasses and sedges. They often grow on infertile soils in a wide range of moisture conditions. The best-known and largest genus is Juncus. Most of the Juncus species grow exclusively in wetland habitats. A few rushes, such as Juncus bufonius, are annuals, but most are perennials.

In fact, it seems clear that the waterside plants in Exodus, from which the ark for the baby Moses was made, were neither bulrushes nor rushes (nor grasses), but papyrus plants. Well, at least they’re in the same plant family as bulrushes. From Wikipedia:


Cyperus papyrus (papyrus sedge, paper reed, Indian matting plant, Nile grass) is a species of aquatic flowering plant belonging to the sedge family Cyperaceae. It is a tender herbaceous perennial, native to Africa, and forms tall stands of reed-like swamp vegetation in shallow water.

Papyrus sedge (and its close relatives) has a very long history of use by humans, notably by the Ancient Egyptians — it is the source of papyrus paper, one of the first types of paper ever made. Parts of the plant can be eaten, and the highly buoyant stems can be made into boats. It is now often cultivated as an ornamental plant.

In nature, it grows in full sun, in flooded swamps, and on lake margins throughout Africa, Madagascar, and the Mediterranean countries.

Doggie bags. For Ruthie in #2, a doggie bag is a bag containing leftovers meant to feed a dog. So if Ruthie’s dad asks for a doggie bag, that must mean that the kids are getting a dog.

Well, not really. The etymology might be on Ruthie’s side — even that isn’t entirely clear — but dogs are not involved in doggie bags. From NOAD2:

noun doggie bag (also doggy bag): a bag used by a restaurant customer or party guest to take home leftover food, supposedly for their dog.

In fact, bags are not necessarily involved, either. Asking for a doggie bag these days will get you a take-home container, and it might be in a bag, but the actual container for the food will probably be some kind of box — some descendant of the oyster pail of the late 19th century, which then became the standard take-home container for Chinese food in the U.S. and other Western countries, and more recently has been extended to general take-home use and adapted to be more environmentally friendly (through the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials).

From the (extensive) Wikipedia entry on leftovers:

Leftovers are the uneaten edible remains of a hot or cold meal after the meal is over and everyone has finished eating. Food scraps that are not considered edible (such as bones or the skins of some vegetables and fruits) are not regarded as leftovers, but rather as waste material. In order for something to appropriately be classified as “leftovers”, it must a constitute a meal by itself, and therefore should not be limited to just portions of the original (side-dishes, garnishments, etc.).

The ultimate fate of leftovers depends on where the meal was eaten, the preferences of the diner, and the prevailing social culture. Home cooking leftovers are often saved to be eaten later. This is facilitated by being in a private environment, with food-preserving facilities such as airtight containers and refrigeration close at hand. Some leftover food can be eaten cold from the refrigerator, while others may be reheated in a microwave or a conventional oven, or mixed with additional ingredients and recooked to make a new dish, such as bubble and squeak.

… The word “ort”, meaning a small scrap of food left after a meal is completed, is not commonly heard in conversation, but is frequently encountered in crossword puzzles.

[Leftover cuisine:] New dishes made from leftovers are quite common in world cuisine, and many were created in the days before refrigeration and reliable airtight containers existed. Besides capturing nutrition from otherwise inedible bones, stocks and broths make an excellent base for adding leftover morsels too small to be a meal themselves. Casseroles, paella, fried rice, Shepherd pies, and pizza can also be used for this purpose, and may even have been invented as a means of reusing leftovers. Among American university students, leftover pizza itself has acquired particular in-group significance, to the extent that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service offers, as its first tip under “Food Safety Tips for College Students” by Louisa Graham, a discussion of the considerable risks of eating unrefrigerated pizza.

At some holiday meals, such as Christmas in Protestant countries and Thanksgiving in the United States, it is customary for the host to prepare much more food than can be eaten, specifically in order to send leftovers home with the guests [or to use as the basis for sandwiches or further cooked meals]. Cold turkey is archetypal in the United States as a Thanksgiving leftover, with turkey meat often reappearing in sandwiches, soups, and casseroles for several days after the feast.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese cuisine gained a foothold in the USA with the opening of several chop suey restaurants. There is no set history of how American diners became enamored of “chop suey” — which means “assorted pieces” or “miscellaneous leftovers” — although it is unlikely that actual leftovers were served at any chop suey restaurants.

[Doggy bag:] Leftovers from a restaurant meal may either be left behind to be discarded by the restaurant or taken away by the diner for later consumption. In order to take the food away, the diner may make a request for it to be packaged. The container used for such leftovers is commonly called a doggy bag or doggie bag. It is speculated that this derives from the euphemistic pretense that the food will be given to the diner’s pet, rather than eaten by a person… [or the usage might have been mostly jocular rather than euphemistic] The term doggy bag was popularized in the 1970s etiquette columns of many newspapers. Doggy bags are most common in restaurants that offer a take-out food service as well as sit-down meals, and their prevalence as an accepted social custom varies widely by location. In some countries, especially in Europe, some people would frown upon a diner asking for a doggy bag [under any name].

Then on oyster pails, from Wikipedia:

An oyster pail (also known as a Chinese food box or Chinese takeout container) is a folded, waxed or plastic coated, paperboard container originally designed to hold oysters. It commonly comes with a handle made of solid wire. Currently, it is often in use by American Chinese cuisine restaurants primarily throughout the United States, to package hot or cold take-out food. It can also sometimes be found in European countries such as Germany and England, but is rarely seen in China and other Asian countries with high numbers of ethnic Chinese.

… Early patents date to 1890, 1894 and 1908. The paperboard oyster pail was invented at a time when fresh oysters were more popular, more plentiful, and less expensive than they are at present. Since shucking oysters (removing the raw meat from the shell) takes some amount of skill and can be difficult and dangerous, it was common to have the oyster seller open the oysters so they could be taken home for use in cooked dishes. The oyster pail provided an inexpensive and sanitary way to accomplish this. In the early 20th century oyster pails were also used to hold honey. In the mid-20th century, overfishing (and the subsequent rise in price) of oysters left manufacturers with a significant number of unsold oyster pails.

However, in the US after World War II, there was a huge increase in sales of prepared foods that could be purchased from restaurants, and heated or finished at home. Chinese food proved to be a popular choice, since it was tasty, unusual, fairly inexpensive and traveled well. The oyster pail was quickly adopted for “Chinese takeout”. The paperboard pails were to some extent self-insulating, and could be used for a wide variety of foods including cooked rice, moist dishes such as egg foo young and sauced dishes, though they were generally unsuitable for hot highly liquid dishes such as soups.

(#6) Oyster pails, of various sizes, for Chinese takeout

The containers are also used by restaurants offering classic American takeout food, such as French fries or fried clams, but the paperboard containers have become strongly associated with Chinese takeout in popular culture.

Now in other settings, made from other materials (and without the wire handle):


Also from Wikipedia, the partially overlapping article on take-out / takeout:

Take-out or takeout (in North American (U.S and Canada) and Philippine English); also carry-out (in some dialects in the U.S. and Scotland); take-away (in the United Kingdom other than Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Ireland), parcel (in Indian English and Pakistani English), refers to prepared meals or other food items, purchased at a restaurant, that the purchaser intends to eat elsewhere. A concept found in many ancient cultures, take-out food is now common worldwide, with a number of different cuisines and dishes on offer.

… Take-out food is packaged in paper, paperboard, corrugated fiberboard, plastic, or foam food containers. One common container is the oyster pail, a folded, waxed or plastic coated, paperboard container. The oyster pail was quickly adopted, especially in the West, for Chinese food, “Chinese takeout”.

An alternative to the oyster pail: the clamshell, so called because of its appearance rather than its contents. From NOAD2:

noun clamshell: the shell of a clam, formed of two roughly equal valves with a hinge; a thing with hinged parts that open and shut in a manner resembling the parts of a clamshell, such as a kind of mechanical digger, a portable computer, or a box for takeout food

Clamshell takeout boxes, first in environmentally evil styrofoam:


Then in recyclable clear plastic:


And in biodegradable cardboard:


One Response to “Ruthie copes: Moses and the doggie bag”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    The “oyster pail” is unknown here. [AZ note: Chris lives in London.] Most of the Chinese takeaways we get here are in plastic tubs with a plastic reclosable top. Sometimes they are in aluminum tubs with a cardboard top. I understand that the oyster pail, devoid of its metal handle, can be flattened out to form a plate to contain your food while you eat it.

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