I recently returned from a vacation to southeastern Massachusetts, where my wife grew up and I know of as the home of the greatest restaurant in the world (apologies to Calvin Trillin, longtime advocate of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue joint in Kansas City). I refer to The Bayside, in Westport, Mass., which claims the honor via not only its chowder, fried clams, lobster roll, strawberry-rhubarb pie, and Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream, but also view from its dining deck of the Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
As I noticed when I first started spending time up there, years ago, the most commonly heard phrase at The Bayside—and indeed at all restaurants in the area—is “all set,” often used in the second person interrogative mood and sometimes elongated to “all set with that.” I associate it with New England the same way I do “bubbler” (for water fountain), “rubbish” (trash), “jimmies” (sprinkles), “cold meat” (cold cuts) and “ruf” (roof). In 2011, a blogger who calls herself Quidquid Katie and describes herself as a Southerner “in exile” in Boston, wrote in a post, “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.”
Quidquid Katie gave an example of a conversation you might hear 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: OK am I all set?
CASHIER: You’re all set.
By the way, I had thought of “a coffee”—as opposed to “a cup of coffee, “some coffee,” or just plain “coffee”—as a Britishism. But it may be a New Englandism instead, or as well.
I personally like “all set” for its local color, especially the way the southeastern Mass. glottalization makes it come out something like “all seh.” It’s also useful and versatile, all the more so before the nationwide popularity of the comparable “I’m good.” But not everyone is charmed. A recent post on Joe Roy’s blog “Clear Writing With Mr. Clarity” presents an anecdote that the author says will “demonstrate how lazy and inconsiderate the promiscuous use of this cliché really is.”
A waiter served me an entire dinner using only six words, consisting of the question “All set?” three times:
When he first approached the table, he didn’t say a word of greeting; he simply left the menu.
When he saw that I had finished looking at the menu, he approached and asked, “All set?” I went along with the gag and assumed that he meant “Are you ready to order?” and I ordered.
When he brought my dinner, he said nothing.
When he saw that I had apparently finished eating, he approached and asked “All set?” I stuck with the gag and assumed that he meant “Shall I bring the check?” I said “Yes.”
He brought the check folder and left it, saying nothing. I counted out a quantity of cash and put it inside the folder.
He noticed, approached, picked up the folder, waved it, and asked “All set?” for the third and last time. I assumed he meant “May I keep the change?”—he was hustling a tip. I said “Yes,” by which I meant to say “Yes, you may keep any money in excess of the check total. However, I believe that I have left the exact amount, to the penny.” I’m usually a heavy tipper, but this stiff was asking to be stiffed.
Mr. Clarity doesn’t give his geographic coordinates, but a little sleuthing led me to the unsurprising knowledge that he’s a New Englander, from Meredith, N.H.
The most memorable occasion when I’ve heard the phrase came not in a restaurant but on Luther Avenue in Somerset, Mass., where my wife grew up and where we used to visit her parents in the summer. Traditionally, the town would hold a 5K road race on the Fourth of July, with the finish line at the top of Luther Ave. The memory of being awakened by the pitter-patter of the leaders’ sneakers is a nice one. One year, we got dressed and watched as the middle of the pack made their way up this benign version of Heartbreak Hill. One of the neighbors, an 8-year-old named Brady, had some water bottles that he offered to the runners as they passed. Brady also was obsessed with a particular superhero and spent every possible hour—whether awake or asleep—in this character’s getup, including the cape.
To appreciate what one of the runners said to him, you have to hear in your mind’s ear not only the glottalization of all seh, but also the non-rhotic pronuniciation of super as soop-uh. So anyway, as Brady holds the bottle out, the guy says, as matter-as-factly and respectfully as it’s possible to be:
“I’m all set, Superman.”