Studies of the Web as a corpus of linguistic usages: mug

One of the marks of a truly multicultural society is said to be that everyone speaks its principal language badly. It certainly seems to be the case of the café scene in anglophone Toronto. Many cafés offer the choice of take-out coffee in a styrofoam or polystyrene container, or drink-in coffee in a china container. The latter is larger than a cup, which needs a saucer, and is taller than it is wide. Dollar stores sell decorated mugs, just as they also sell decorated t-shirts. Yet asking for "a mug of coffee" in a café is to invite incomprehension. After the server has scrabbled around in answer to the customer's injunction "There, on the same shelf as the microwave oven", and finally put his or her hand on the required mug, the answer to the customer's question "What do you call it then?" is usually one of the following: "china", "a cup", "a china cup", "I don't know" or even a look of complete bafflement due to a lack of the means of linguistic comprehension and expression.

The Web offers a little help. On 27 September 2004, a Google comparison of Canadian (.ca) and U.K. (.uk) sites shows the following for mug/cup of tea/coffee/hot chocolate :

Remarks. 1) The higher percentage of "mug of..." on U.K. sites would seem to correspond to a more frequent use of the word mug in that country. 2) It is perhaps rather in the home than in a café that one enjoys a mug of hot chocolate. 3) As one would expect, coffee has a higher frequency than tea in Canada, and the opposite in the U.K.

There are two obvious levelling factors. On the one hand, whether in Canada or the U.K., a take-out drink is served in a styrofoam or polystyrene cup, with the result that whether the drink container is made of foam or china, whether it is large or small, whether or not it has a handle, or whether it is accompanied or not by a saucer, it is a cup, at least in Toronto. And on the other hand, the container itself is hardly ever named during the transaction between customer and server. One asks for "a coffee", and is then asked if one wants a "regular", "medium" or "large" (etc.) size ; is it "to take out" or "for here"?

© 2004 Russon Wooldridge