Trope Workshop:One from Column A and Two from Column B
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A Stock Phrase dating from the middle 20th Century. It is used to suggest either a combination of two or more elements or explanations, or to describe a situation where there are a large but limited number of options available in strictly controlled combinations.
The phrase comes from menus from mid-20th century Chinese restaurants, where full-course dinners being ordered prix fixe "family style" (or as individual combination entrees) would be presented in the form of two or more columns of items, with instructions to pick, for example, "One from Column A and Two from Column B"
This usage was popularized by comedian Buddy Hackett, whose "Chinese Waiter" stand-up routine was a famous and expected part of his act from 1952 through the early 1970s, and the earliest occurrences of the phrase (in the mid to late 1950s) explicitly referenced Hackett's act. By 1958, though, the phrase had entered the meme pool, and it was no longer necessary to footnote Hackett.
Ultimately, it became so familiar that presenting choices from "Column A" and "Column B" in any context (business, mathematics, etc.) came to be called a "Chinese menu" system. Although that usage seems to have started to fade since the beginning of the 21st century, the more generalized sense remains and can be frequently found online and in print, indicating that it's nowhere near Discredited Trope territory.
- Played with in the song "Friend Like Me" from Disney's 1992 film Aladdin, when the Genie emphasizes just how unlimited the scope of Aladdin's wishes can be with:
Try one from Column A,
- Unfortunately the animators apparently had never heard the phrase, so they animated actual Doric columns instead of a menu.
- William Safire, in his 1968 book The New Language of Politics: An Anecdotal Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage, defines a "split ticket" as
a voter selection, as from a Chinese menu, of “one from column A, one from column B,” as opposed to a straight ticket, going down the line for a party’s candidates.
- The Mail Order Shopping Guide, a 1963 book by Elizabeth Squire, describes purchasing from one vendor thusly:
You order yours by picking doors from column A, hardware from column B., etc.—a bit like ordering a Chinese dinner.
- The 2013 gay romance novel One from Column A, One from Column B by Diana Sheridan uses it as both title and metaphor for the main character's romantic choices.
- Right From Wrong: Instilling A Sense Of Integrity In Your Child by Michael Riera and Joseph Di Prisco uses the phrase to descibe how an eleven-year-old child's moods fluctuate.
- Todd G. Buchholz's 1996 treatise From Here to Economy: A Shortcut to Economic Literacy uses it to describe how policymakers initially interpreted the economic choices presented by A.W.H. Phillips' work tracking the relationship between inflation and unemployment, and explicitly calls it a "Chinese menu".
- A 2007 New York Times "City Room" blog article about the intersection of Jewish and Chinese food had the title "Hot Dogs From Column A, Pastrami Egg Rolls From Column B".
- It showed up in the July 12,1959 installment of Poor Arnold’s Almanac, a local comic strip by Arnold Roth published in the Oakland Tribune of Oakland, California, on the topic of the history of ice cream:
Marco Polo brought back improvements from China!
- A 2015 article from the (Delaware) Cape Gazette exploring Chinese restaurants in the Delaware Cape Region is entitled "One from Column A and one from Column B: And pass the hot mustard". In this case, the phrase is being used self-referentially to describe the variety of options for Chinese dining in the area.
- As noted in the main text, Buddy Hackett had a 1952-vintage stand-up routine about a Chinese waiter taking an order from a table full of (non-Chinese) patrons through which the phrase entered the popular, even though the phrase in the routine is actually "two from column A, one from column B".