The meaning of English words
April 8, 2013 4:04 AM   Subscribe

I have three English questions. All are from a movie. 1) About a verb"play". "You could play Holiday Inn." I understand this sentence. But a bit confused about.. "You've played a lot of tough houses.When they didn't listen,did you quit and go home?Or keep playing?" I guess that "houses" means the audience.So what does this "play" mean here? To deal or to handle? 2) "They just sit there staring up at me. There's no there there." What is this " there"?? A noun? And what does it mean actually? 3) "It's Monday.It's turkey spam surprise. You could mortar walls with it. Word of advice. Always bring a bag lunch." My question is, what is this "surprise"? Could you explain it and give me more examples to use this "surprise"?Thank you.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The "play" I would take to mean "perform" - probably in a musical sense.
The "there" is hard to explain - I'll let someone else with a bigger brain do that.
The "surprise" in terms of food normally means there's some secret ingredient in a dish. But its sometimes used as a joke for something that is just a random collection of ingredients, or something that's not very nice. It's like a way of jokily pretending that it was on purpose. "Its not a collection of cheap ingredients mixed together and flung in the oven - its tuna surprise!"
posted by billiebee at 4:11 AM on April 8, 2013

1) In this context I assume it's taking about a performer of some kind (e.g. singer or a band). "Play" means perform their act at that venue. "Play Holiday Inn" = play their music at Holiday Inn. "You've played a lot of tough houses" = you are correct, houses means venues, (tough houses = venues with unkind/rough audiences), so it means "you've played your music/performed at a lot of tough houses".

2) I'm not sure what the "There's no there there" part means either actually. It might need more context (more of the surrounding conversation).

3) There is a category/type of dish (a recipe) that is called "[something] surprise". Typically it has an unusual element or ingredient, and that's what the surprise is. Sometimes though this name is used as a joke because the dish went wrong somehow (they burnt it or used the wrong ingredient) or if the recipe is actually very standard or boring and there is nothing surprising at all.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:14 AM on April 8, 2013

1) "Play" is show-business slang for "perform", and "House" and "room" are slang for the audience - "I played a tough room" means "The audience didn't like my performance."

2) This is a play on words - "there's no there there", means there's nothing there. The implication is that you are traveling someplace, literally or metaphorically, with nothing of worth at the destination.

3) Surprise in this context means it's a low-quality food - diners and cafeterias and other eateries of poor reputation will use a lot of filler and low-quality ingredients to reduce costs, and try to hide this with a cheerful name using the word "surprise," like "Turkey Spam Surprise."

The joke is that the "surprise" is unappetizing additional ingredients.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:16 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of these are more "slang" definitions so don't worry about them not being very clear.

1) About a verb"play". "You could play Holiday Inn." I understand this sentence. But a bit confused about.. "You've played a lot of tough houses.When they didn't listen,did you quit and go home?Or keep playing?" I guess that "houses" means the audience.So what does this "play" mean here? To deal or to handle?

"House" does indeed mean the audience, kind of; but more accurately, it means "the audience at that specific venue". Sometimes some cities or some performance venues have a reputation for attracting audiences that are more discriminating than others, so if you talk about a particular "house" in this context, it's not just the audience, it is the audience in that particular venue. And also, when speaking of "playing tough houses", "playing" means "performing for".

2) "They just sit there staring up at me. There's no there there." What is this " there"?? A noun? And what does it mean actually?

This is an especially subtle one - this is actually referencing a famous quote from Gertrude Stein. She went to visit some place that she felt was just not very special, but couldn't really explain why she felt it was so ordinary - and finally she said that "there just wasn't any there there." The best definition I can give is that she meant it was a place that was just very ordinary and wasn't really unique enough to be worth visiting.

In the context you're talking about - "they just sit staring at me, there's no there there" - perhaps it means that the audience just seems very dull, not very lively and not very involved in things.

....Other people have explained "[something] surprise" pretty well already.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:17 AM on April 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

For "house" see House here. For example, "House lights" are the lights over the audience in the theatre, the ones that are turned off when the show starts. So a "tough house" is a tough audience.

In theatre terminology you can say "this comic is playing the Arena tomorrow" (performing at). So in this context "Keep playing" just means, don't give up - try again.
posted by emilyw at 4:18 AM on April 8, 2013

(1) Play: In this context play has multiple connected meanings. "To play a house" is to perform (play) in a venue (a house). It's usually used by musicians. A "tough house" is a difficult / unappreciative audience. So the second sentence could mean - when you perform to a difficult audience, do you give up or carry on performing

(2) I've heard the phrase there's no there there before in a performing context. It means there is little sense of the audience as an audience. They aren't attending or responding as a unified group. it is just a group of people, rather than an audience.

(3) This is often used as colloquial sentence for institutional food (workplace or school) that isn't very nice and usually consists of cheap ingredients disguised.
posted by Gilgongo at 4:20 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

With regard to the second question, as noted previously, this is hard to answer without more context. Taking a guess, I would suspect the previous discussion concerned someone discussing trying to involve an audience in something they are doing (the audience could be multiple people or a single person). The person speaking is expecting some reaction from the audience, which will show to the speaker that the audience is in the same place mentally. I would interpret "there" as "the common thought, feeling or understanding that the speaker wants the audience to experience".
posted by oclipa at 4:22 AM on April 8, 2013

And for "no there there", maybe you can imagine...

"Atlantis! That sounds great, I want to go there on holiday"
"Don't be silly, there is no there for you to visit"

and it's only a small stretch to

"Don't go to Atlantis, there's no there there".

As others have mentioned, it was originally said of a boring town, that there was metaphorically nothing there.

Said of an audience it is difficult to understand, but presumably means the audience is not responding, and they are also metaphorically not present.
posted by emilyw at 4:23 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

To break apart number 2, "there" is used first as a pronoun to start the sentence, then as an noun, then as an adverb.

There (pronoun) is no there (noun) there (adverb).

The noun use denotes a sense of existence. As others have said, it's a play on words to indicate there's nothing there - no place, no feeling.
posted by Jimbob at 4:36 AM on April 8, 2013

For #2, think of "there" as a stand in for place (that's what the pronoun does). A place is like a landscape. When talking to someone that has no internal "landscape" - a boring or feeble-minded person - that's how it feels, right? Like nothing is "in there" in their mind.
posted by notsnot at 4:57 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re: There's no there there, it just means that the speaker didn't feel as though their audience were actually present to listen to their performance.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:23 AM on April 8, 2013

In the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, the main character runs a small hotel. In one episode, he is forced to serve dinner to important guests, but only has two options to offer them: Duck with Orange and Duck with Cherries. He tells the guests that the menu choices are "Duck with Orange, Duck with Cherries, and Duck Surprise." When one of the guests asks him what the Duck Surprise is, he is forced to admit that it is actually Duck without Orange or Cherry.

Adding "Surprise" to a food's name was once a way to make it seem more special than it really was, but today it is recognized as a cheap ploy, and it is shorthand for an unappetizing dish.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:09 AM on April 8, 2013

You're watching Mr. Holland's Opus! Great movie!

With "There's no there there," think of it like, "I looked in the students' eyes and I saw intelligence there." Well, these students are just staring up at him, and not only is there no intelligence there, but there's no "THERE" for it to be in. They are so dumb, so disengaged, that there's no THERE there.

It's very idiomatic and depends a lot on delivery, so it's hard to explain exactly, but that's the general idea: you can't find what's supposed to be "there" (intelligence, identity, whatever), because there isn't even a THERE for it to be in. It's a way of saying something is extra empty or bland or useless or dumb.

In this context, a "turkey spam surprise" suggests a cheap, institutional lunch where they used low-quality meat (spam is in itself amusing as a comedy line to non-Hawaiian Americans as being cheap and gross) and disguise it with other low-quality ingredients. I googled a bit and most "turkey surprise" recipes involved leftover turkey, frozen mixed veggies, and either rice or biscuits put in a casserole dish, with campbells cream-of-mushroom soup dumped over the whole shebang and cooked. It wouldn't necessarily taste bad, but it's not very healthy and would be mushy and not very appetizing when served. It's also pretty old-fashioned; most "surprise" recipes were the sort of things that were popular in the 50s and 60s. (The sort of thing that'd be fine if your mom made it the day after Thanksgiving with real leftovers as a low-effort meal after the huge feast the day before, but kinda gross when your school made it with low-quality ingredients as an entree.) When an American comedy calls something "turkey surprise" or "beef surprise" or anything surprise, they mean to invoke low-quality, old-fashioned, institutional food that won't be very edible.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:37 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I have not seen this movie, but for context, Holiday Inn is a pretty low budget hotel chain and not a nice venue to perform at. So the suggestion to play Holiday Inn could be kind of a joke, saying keep your standards low...
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:58 AM on April 8, 2013

1) You are correct that "play" means to perform. Here it has the added subtext of meaning that the performer could perform well despite a difficult or nonreceptive audience.

2) "there's no there there" is an idiom and doesn't translate well, especially without context. Given the rest of your question I assume this is being said by a performer describing an audience that is not responding to the performance? It means that the performance is not connecting with the audience. The performance was not well received.

3) "[random meat] surprise" is exactly what Eyebrows McGee says above. A bland, low-quality meal. This is a common cliche especially when describing cafeteria food.

Sidenote: treehorn+bunny if the movie in question is Holiday Inn (a 1942 Fred Astaire movie) it has nothing to do with the budget hotel chain.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2013

Everyone has answered the questions really well, so I'll just add that it's a common phrase for one to say that [people] "just sat there". It means the audience or group (whatever) just sat in their respective places not giving any feedback or indication of enjoyment or involvement whatsoever. It indicates that the person giving the performance felt the audience was not receptive or appreciative at all.
posted by Eicats at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2013

If you need a bit more clarity on the "there there", see Kunstler
posted by humboldt32 at 9:41 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

As covered above, "There's no there there" is from a Gertrude Stein quote. It can be helpful to understand it, but I wouldn't recommend ever using it as an English idiom. It barely makes sense as a one-off quip in its original context, but now it gets overused by people who want to sound clever (and fail, in my opinion).
posted by stopgap at 9:46 AM on April 8, 2013

"There's no there there" is from a Gertrude Stein quote. It can be helpful to understand it, but I wouldn't recommend ever using it as an English idiom. It barely makes sense as a one-off quip in its original context

She was speaking about her hometown of Oakland California, and I can say from direct experience, she was fairly comprehensively incorrect.
posted by suelac at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows McGee ftw. (Re: "playing" a "house" - you'll also find an an especially rousing performance described as "bringing down the house", which, confusingly enough, usually means the audience actually does the opposite: leaping to their feet for a standing ovation.)
posted by progosk at 2:06 PM on April 8, 2013

I think of "there's no there there" more in the Kunstler sense of referring to a physical location that lacks cultural coherence. It's not so much a physical description (eg. a town that is labelled on the map but doesn't have a discernible presence when you drive through it on the actual road), but refers more to a lack of feeling among the people living in a place that they are part of a community. It's a disparaging comment about local culture - or lack thereof. The use in this context seems to be a metaphor on this original meaning, and I think notsnot has described the correct meaning - that the audience members were completely mentally vacuous. The (lack of-)cultural aspect of the original expression carries over well in this metaphor.
posted by eviemath at 5:40 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The use of "Holiday Inn" actually reminds me of another thing I find isn't commonly realized by non-Americans. When I've travelled abroad, a Holiday Inn (the hotel) is typically a fairly nice hotel. Not exactly five-star, but upscale - definitely toward the higher end of "normal people" hotels.

In the US, there are some nice ones in big cities, but the Holiday Inn hotel chain is more known for being the kind of place people who want to save money go. It's almost a generic term for "second-rate hotel."

So saying a performer is "playing the Holiday Inn" isn't specifically a description of where they are playing, it's a metaphor for saying they are not superstars. They are doing whatever they can to make a living, playing whatever non-glamorous place will have them, for non-sophisticated audiences.
posted by ctmf at 7:06 PM on April 8, 2013

suelac: " She was speaking about her hometown of Oakland California, and I can say from direct experience, she was fairly comprehensively incorrect."

She was speaking about her home in her former hometown having been torn down. The people who are "comprehensively incorrect" are the ones who infer that she was referring to Oakland in general, rather than to the no-longer-existing house at 13th and E. 25th.

Signed, an Oaklander who feels irked every time she sees the title of the sculpture in City Center
posted by Lexica at 8:42 PM on April 8, 2013

As a final note on the "Holiday Inn" reference here, in the Blues Brothers movie, most of the band "are playing in a nearly empty Holiday Inn lounge" before the full group reunites.
posted by stopgap at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2013

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