The Grammarphobia Blog

A do or a don’t

Q: My wife and I run a cheese shop where we make sandwiches to order. Lately, people come in to order a sandwich and say, “I’ll do a ham and cheese.” I don’t care to know if our customers are going to do something besides eat the sandwich. I think this is poor manners in ordering. I’d like to know what you think.

A: We too have overheard this usage, mostly in delis and other takeout places, though occasionally in sit-down restaurants as well.

It’s certainly casual, but we wouldn’t call it ill-mannered. Then again, we don’t have to listen to it all day, unlike you and your wife!

The verb “do” has been around for more than a thousand years, and this usage seems to be a variation on a theme.

People have been using “do” to mean consume (as in “do a couple of pints” or “do a burger”) since the mid-19th century.

The three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang has examples dating from 1862 and the Oxford English Dictionary from 1867.

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from James S. Borlase’s story collection The Night Fossikers: “I asked him to come to Poole’s shanty and do a chop and a nobbler [a drink] with me.”

Here’s a more modern-sounding example, from a 1987 issue of the Sunday Telegraph: “An invitation to lunch might be pitched as, ‘Come on, let’s do sushi,’ or ‘We have to do some Korean.’ ”

“Do” can also mean to habitually eat or drink something, as in “You still, ah, do coffee?” (from William Deverell’s novel Mindfield, 1989), or “Ellis doesn’t do alcohol any longer” (from the Denver Post, 1994).

I’m surprised you didn’t say that you and your wife “do” sandwiches at your shop, since that use of “do” has been around for a while, too.

In this case, the OED says, “do” means “to provide or offer (esp. meals) commercially.” Oxford gives two citations for this colloquial usage:

“[Farmers’] wives are encouraged to take visitors and ‘do teas’ ” (from the Observer, 1966), and “The Marina doesn’t do meals other than breakfast” (from William John Burley’s novel To Kill a Cat, 1970).

Then there’s the ubiquitous “let’s do lunch,” which has been around since the 1970s.

The OED describes “to do lunch (also dinner, etc.)” this way: “to meet for the specified meal, esp. with a view to conducting business.”

Here’s Oxford’s first citation, from Richard Price’s novel Ladies’ Man (1978): “I was gonna do lunch; you wanna do lunch?”

And here’s a later one, from Nelson DeMille’s novel The Gold Coast (1990): “This is better than doing dinner or some beastly Easter thing with lamb parts and a house full of paesanos.”

Over the centuries, the verb “do” has had scores of food-related meanings, most of them slang or colloquial—that is, more representative of common speech than formal English.

The one you mention is slightly different from the others discussed here.

At a take-out shop, “I’ll do a ham and cheese” is just another way of saying “I’ll order …” or “I’ll have …” or “I’d like a ham and cheese sandwich.”

For an ancient and endlessly versatile verb like “do,” it’s all in a day’s work.

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