Monday, June 13, 2011

the true meaning of "all set"




In this post from last month, one of many discussions on this blog about my experience as a lifelong Southerner moving to Boston, I mentioned the odd way that Bostonians use the phrase "all set."

I had definitely heard people say "all set" before I moved up here and, I probably even said it myself from time to time. But I had never heard it used with such a frequency until I moved up here. Bostonians say it CONSTANTLY. You might hear the following conversation at Dunkin Donuts.

CUSTOMER: I'll have a coffee.
CASHIER: You want a donut or are you all set?
CUSTOMER: No I'm all set.
CASHIER: Okay that's $1.25.
[money and coffee are exchanged]
CUSTOMER: Okay am I all set?
CASHIER: You're all set.

Am I exaggerating? Not really.

As I mentioned in the aforementioned post, I did some Googling and found several discussions online about this peculiarity of Bostonian speech, both on Urban Dictionary and on message boards.

There's a lot of discussion online about how difficult non-Bostonians find it to understand the many shades of meaning of the phrase. After all, the word set has 464 definitions in English, making it the word with the most definitions out of all the hundreds of thousands of words in our strange language. The phrase literally could not be more ambiguous.

"All set" seems to have a range of meanings, from "okay as I am" to "ready" to "finished." This site even cites a third-generation South Bostonian who uses it when people break up: Teresa's all set with that guy, he was an ahhshole.

I had a major realization the other day. All of the many meanings of "all set" converge into one single idea: not wanting to interact with someone any further.

Yes, it's true. This phrase is used constantly in Boston because everyone hates to talk to strangers.

"Are we all set?" means "Can we stop talking now?"

"I'm all set." means "I would like to stop talking to you now." or even "Stop talking to me."


Let's revisit the Dunkin Donuts scene.

CUSTOMER: I'll have a coffee.
CASHIER: You want a donut or are are we almost finished talking?
CUSTOMER: No donut, just stop talking please.
CASHIER: Okay that's $1.25.
[money is exchanged, coffee is handed.]
CUSTOMER: Okay are we done interacting?
CASHIER: Yes thank God.



Oh, New England. Y'all crazy.

It's 55 degrees and raining today. I think I'm all set with this weather.

Discussion Question:
What's your favorite regional verbal tic?

27 comments:

  1. My mom HATES the phrase "gone missing" with a fiery passion. Things don't *go* missing, and she will talk to you about it in no uncertain terms. Naturally, I use it as much as possible now that I know how it irks her.

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  2. I have never in my life thought of that as a strange phrase. I kind of like the flavor it has--like the missing object has moved itself. Is it a Southern thing?

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  3. i respectfully disagree with this assessment.

    i am not all set with it

    (though i didn't realize it was a boston/new england thing. i say "i'm all set" or "i'm good" aaaall the time)

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  4. that's cool Molly, we're all set

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  5. New Yorkers use all set as well, although not QUITE as much as Bostonians do, so it's not strictly a New England thing.

    Katie, maybe you can settle a disagreement between me and my brother-in-law (who is from Maryland, so... w/e): he claims if someone shows up at your door, without calling first or in any other way making plans with you, it is rude to not invite them inside and just hang out with them until whenever they leave. Where I'm from, you would NEVER just show up at anyone's house without calling first - it would be the height of rudeness. Is this a regional thing?

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  6. I can't speak for all Southerners (though I often do!), but I'd say it's pretty common for people to drop by unannounced in the South. I certainly don't raise an eyebrow if a friend or family member turns up to pay a random visit. And your brother-in-law is definitely right that it would be considered rude not to invite them in and pretty much let them hang around as long as they're inclined to. Although a good Southerner would know when to leave :)

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  7. Katie, I'm going to be listening for all those "all sets" whenever I make it into the city, since I'm not hearing that so much in Concord! There are some turns of phrase I truly miss from my years in Texas, though, including "fixing to," as in "I'm fixing to go to Faneuill Hall," and one of my all-time favorites, "all y'all." I wish all y'all a good night!

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  8. So true! I grew up in the Midwest and have called Jacksonville, FL home for 9 years, but my in-laws live in New England. The whole not liking to talk to strangers thing is honestly part of the reason I hope to never live there. I like the weird friendliness of talking to people I'll never see again! I think I'd feel lonely if no one wanted to talk to me. LOL.

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  9. Kathleen--"Fixin to" is an active part of my working vocabulary. One of many things I probably shouldn't say as an editor :)

    Bethany (and Isaac)--I love chatting with strangers about nothing in particular, but I am coming to understand how New Englanders truly find it bizarre that someone would want to make small talk with a stranger. It's not rudeness or coldness--just a cultural difference. Enjoy the warmth (from the sun AND from the people) down in Florida!! Thanks for reading.

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  10. Did you craft or did you discover that highly-appropriate Dunkin Donuts picture? Either way, well done.

    I can't say I've noticed people saying "all set" here, but I love your translation of its true, antisocial meaning.

    I think some friendly / folksy phrases disappear between DC and Boston but reappear up in rural New England. Like, I heard some country Mainers use "I reckon" last time I was up there. Hmm.

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  11. It took a while to find the right picture of a grumpy Dunkies employee, but I think it was worth it in the end.

    I need to meet some country Mainers, apparently!

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  12. As a life long New Englander, I think I can state with confidence that it is the particular aloofness of us Yanks that preclude talking to strangers. We simply do not wish to intrude on anyone's privacy. Although I'd also posit that a true native of these parts also doesn't mind being spoken to by a stranger and, indeed, we then open up warmly and give directions, or say something pithy, perhaps even smile. Although I won't deny we may end by saying, 'Are you all set now?'

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  13. I wish my blog had a "like" function so I could like that comment :) Well said.

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  14. My favorite was actually a point of discussion this weekend: Bless your heart. It is the quintessential introduction to salacious, terrible news. I love it.

    My absolute least favorite, one that I cannot for the life of me understand why it exists, is the Pennsylvanian use of "yins." From Urban Dictionary, yins is the Western Pennsylvania slang for "You all," e.g. "Yins guys wanna' go down n' watch dem stillers play? Den we'll eat n'at."

    What. The. Hell. I have a number of good friends from Pennsylvania, and this is one of the few things I begrudge them. That and Rick Santorum.

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  15. I love all of the many dialectical ways English speakers try to deal with the lack of a you plural. Bless all y'all's hearts.

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  16. Surely all set isn't that dismissive. Could you make the same inference about "good to go?"

    But good to go seems like you want to at least ensure safety or stability of the person's state of transport before adjourning. Don'chathink?

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  17. I think "good to go" is more specific than "all set," but it's the same idea. Also "good to go" is farrrr less ambiguous than "all set," so its usage doesn't seem as strange.

    Try to imagine a conversation in a Dunkies that contained the phrase "good to go" four times...

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  18. I say "all set" pretty rarely, but since your last post on this I've been more aware of it! I find all of your transplanted-Southerner posts really interesting. I don't think I would do well living long-term above the Mason-Dixon line. :)

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  19. Thanks Brenda!! I've got a great counterpoint blog post on the way that you'll dig :)

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  20. I literally laughed out loud reading your translation of that interaction. I can't imagine how different life in Boston must be from my beloved Wilco. I embrace my Southern lifestyle and dialect with pride!

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  21. You've gotta come up and visit some time :)

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  22. Katie,

    I am writing to you from the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. I was fixin' to resume my own creative writing project. But my son, from Chaaalston, South Caalina sent me a link to this post, and I love it! It may sound nerdy for me to say; but your inclusion of the statistic regarding the number of different definitions of the word, set, really drove the point home. Ambiguity is the key. To those who disagree with your assessment I can only say: "Whatever."

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    1. Thanks for reading, Eric! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Now that I've been up here in Boston for almost 3 years, it has started sounding pretty natural and reasonable to my ears. ;)

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  23. I don't believe this!!! I am Eric's sister, and both he and his son Ryan sent me a link to this post. As I was reading this post, I was thinking, "I'll have to add a comment that I'm fixing to go upstairs and drink a coke (generic southern term for any iced soft drink)" But I see my brother beat me to that "fixing" idiom. Does anyone know what region we can blame for the use of the term "I'm good" to mean "No thank you, I don't need anything else?" It reminds me of Little Jack Horner or something.

    Y'all hurry back.

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    1. Like you have to explain the coke thing to this Southern girl!!

      When I first pointed out the "all set" thing to my New England pals, they were puzzled as to what the alternative response would be. I told them that I'd normally say, "I'm good," which they found appalling.

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  24. Growing up in the South, I never thought I was a social person. Then I moved to New England. "All set" has been a real benchmark of fluency for me here. I've noticed it relaxes people and actually improves their demeanor when I use it correctly, which is to say pre-emptively and decisively. Demonstrations of independence actually lay the groundwork for connection, oddly. "You don't care to interact? Me neither-- now we can interact!"
    The one exception is "hun" as a term of affection, which still warms my snow-chilled heart. It allows the tender shove-off "You're all set, hun."

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    1. "You're all set, hun," is such a pleasing amalgamation of my worlds!!

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