English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

A bunch of sauces?

Q: Have you noticed that suddenly people are using the word “bunch” as an all-purpose collective? Even (especially) when the objects in question cannot readily be visualized as making up a bunch? The NY Times, for example, has a seafood restaurateur talking about “a bunch of different sauces.”

A: We agree that “a bunch of different sauces” sounds a bit off-kilter, and we’d prefer a different wording. But this is a legitimate usage, according to nine out of ten standard dictionaries.

In modern English, “bunch” is widely used in three distinct ways:

(1) It can mean a cluster or bundle of similar things that are fastened or held together, like a “bunch” of grapes, flowers, or keys.

(2) It can be a collective noun for things or people considered as a group, as in a “bunch” of houses, friends, or lies. Here, “a bunch of” means “a number of.”

(3) It can be a quantifier meaning a large quantity or amount of something, like a “bunch” of malarkey, trouble, or mustard. Here, “a bunch of” means “a considerable amount of.”

Of the ten standard dictionaries we checked, American and British, all include definitions that would fall into categories #1 and #2. (Several consider #2 “informal,” and Macmillan accepts it as applying to people but not things.)

However, only five accept the newest use (#3), where a “bunch” means a considerable amount of one thing, and three of them label it “informal.”

Their examples include “a bunch of money,” “a bunch of trouble,” “a bunch of food,” and “slather on a bunch of Dijon.”

(For the record, these are Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and Oxford Dictionaries Online.)

Your example, “a bunch of different sauces,” falls under definition #2. And by the way, the Times has printed the phrase more than once. It appeared over a decade ago in an article describing a Colombian-style hamburger that “loads on ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a bunch of sauces, including the inevitable pineapple” (June 15, 2008).

As we said, we wouldn’t describe a collection of sauces as a “bunch.” We have a hard time thinking of liquids as a “bunch,” but that’s just a prejudice on our part. Inelegant though it is, the usage must be acknowledged as standard.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, makes an interesting point about this use of “bunch” for a collection of things. If the plural noun that follows “bunch” is “qualified by an adjective or other qualifier that indicates  a feature or features held in common,” he says, “the informality is much less evident.” His examples: “a bunch of corrupt politicians” … “a bunch of weary runners.”

So in Butterfield’s view, “a bunch of different sauces” would be less informal than “a bunch of sauces.” We think he’s right.

Today’s uses of “bunch” have been a long time in the making. The word has had a very long history and it didn’t always mean what it means today.

In medieval times it meant a hump or lump on the body of a person or animal—like a swollen tumor, a camel’s hump, and so on.

The word, first recorded in the early 1300s, is “of uncertain origin” and “probably onomatopoeic,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. (Similar-sounding words were also used to mean a hump or swelling: “bulch,” circa 1300; “botch,” c. 1330; “bouge, 1398; and “bulge,” c. 1400.)

The OED’s earliest confirmed example is from a religious poem, “Body and Soul” (c. 1325), where the word appears in a passage about fiends and hell-hounds: “Summe were ragged and tayled / Mid brode bunches on heore bak” (“Some were ragged and tailed / With broad humps on their back”).

This later OED example describes the humps on a dromedary: “A camell of Arabia hathe two bonches in the backe.” From John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Properties of Things”), a sort of medieval encyclopedia written by Bartholomew de Glanville in 1240.

The modern meaning of “bunch” as a bundle emerged in the 16th century. Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “A collection or cluster of things of the same kind, either growing together (as a bunch of grapes), or fastened closely together in any way (as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of keys); also a portion of a dress gathered together in irregular folds.”

In the dictionary’s earliest use, dated 1570, the Latin floretum is defined as “A Bunche of flowers” (from Peter Levens’s Manipulus Vocabulorum).

Half a century later, “bunch” was also used more generally to mean any collection of things or people—much as we use “lot,” the OED says.

In the dictionary’s examples, “bunch” in this sense is used for collections including “Patriarches, Prophets, Judges, and Kings” (1622), “duties” (1633), “cherubs” (1832), and “railroad workers” (1902). Exemplary people have been described as the “best of the bunch” since the late 19th century.

The OED’s entry for “bunch” (which it says “has not yet been fully updated”) has no separate definition corresponding to #3 above—the use of “bunch” for a considerable amount of something.

However, it does include an example of one such usage, by Samuel Johnson: “I am glad the Ministry is removed. Such a bunch of imbecility never disgraced a country” (from a 1782 conversation, cited in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791).

Johnson’s quote is also mentioned in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, along with an example of “a bunch of hooey” from two centuries later (New York Times Book Review, Nov. 21, 1999). M-W has no reservations about the use of “bunch” for an amount of something.

The usage guide says various objections to “bunch,” chiefly from “writers of college handbooks,” arose in the early 20th century as the word became more popular.

“Objections were first to its application to a group of people, then switched to its use as a generalized collective,” M-W says. “Along the way an objection to its use before a mass noun sprang up. This was a particularly bad idea.”

All these objections, the usage guide says, have “had no ostensible effect on actual usage—except perhaps on papers written for college courses.”

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