Complimentary bread

In the 10/21 New Yorker, this sdf (Seth Fleishman) cartoon, hinging on an ambiguity in the adjective complimentary:

(#1) complimentary ‘praising, approving’ vs. ‘supplied free of charge’

It’s not just that it’s complimentary; it’s also that it’s complimentary bread.

Previously on this blog: my 7/21/15 posting “complimentary”, with a Bizarro cartoon making the same pun on complimentary, but with coffee rather than bread:


(Other versions of the coffee variant can be found on-line.) Then there’s a common nuts variant; one comics site has four strips with this one. The site charges a fee for reproduction, so I’ll just give the texts here:

cartoonist Nick Kim:  caption The drinks were expensive, but at least the nuts were complimentary.  Comments from the nuts: Nice tie!; Yeah – it really goes with your shirt…; Have you lost weight recently?

cartoonist Mark Lynch: sign on bar Complimentary Nuts. Comment from the nuts: You may be the most virile, handsome chap in the room tonight.

cartoonist Mark Lynch: sign on bar: Complimentary Nuts. Comment from the nuts: Nice tie!

cartoonist Doug Bentley: bartender to patron Try and ignore the bar snacks, Miss. They’re complimentary. Comment from the nuts: WOW!!..You look fantastic! That dress is just so you, and your hair is amazing!!…

How is bread different from coffee (and nuts)? In most American restaurants, bread (of some sort) comes automatically with most meals, usually before the rest of the meal is served; it doesn’t have to be ordered, and it’s not separately billed (its cost is folded into the costs of the other parts of the meal). The idea seems to be that the bread is a symbol of hospitality. (In some American restaurants, and in many European ones, bread might come without asking but is charged separately, or it must be specifically ordered.)

So, the bread is virtually always complimentary ‘supplied free of charge’, and complimentary bread is redundant in normal circumstances (though it can be used to remind the hearer that the bread routinely comes with the meal: The waiter brought us small cups of rich broth and of course the complimentary bread).

Coffee, on the other hand, is normally charged separately — so that in circumstances where it’s made generally available to customers for free, that will be announced (as when coffee is set out for patrons in the reception areas of motels). (Much the same is true of nuts.)

This difference in customs is reflected in a gigantic difference in frequency between the expressions complimentary coffee and complimentary bread, as can be seen in this Google Ngram plot for them:


(Since 1940, both coffee and bread have been frequent, and at close to the same level, so the difference above can’t be attributed to the head nouns.)

In any case, what’s crucial here is (sociocultural) expectations: in certain contexts, other things being equal, we expect bread to come for free and coffee not, so free coffee merits comment. Compare the situation in my 10/13/19 posting  “Unaccompanied”: being musically unaccompanied is not merely lacking an accompaniment, but lacking an expected one.

A different but related source of cartoon puns. This time on complement vs. compliment, yielding cartoons in which medicines compliment their users and colors compliment those who wear them — exploiting two different senses of complementary:

— from the Lexico site about the noun complementary medicine:

British Any of a range of medical therapies that fall beyond the scope of conventional medicine but may be used alongside it in the treatment of disease and ill health. Examples include acupuncture and osteopathy.

— in complementary colors (“opposites” on the color wheel — red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet/purple)

And one more complimentary cartoon. One of  many cartoons on the financial calculus of complimentary stuff, here from Gabriel Utasi’s Pokerdoodle strip:

(#4) Complimentary food and drink is often used as a lure to bring people to spend substantial money on other things (including, but not limited to, other food and drink): what are a few nuts in comparison to a round of serious drinks?

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