On behalf of Toms everywhere, I’d like to proclaim our innocence. For hundreds of years, our name has been associated with a shameful adjective: peeping. That opprobrium is due to a minor character in the Lady Godiva legend, a Tom who hoped to catch a glimpse of the naked lady on horseback. There must have been lots of Toms who followed the rule that day in Coventry, who stayed inside with their shutters closed. But do you ever hear anyone use the expression “Law-abiding Tom”? No! Because of one rogue Tom, we all get a scornful nickname.
If we go by our given name, things don’t get any better. What adjective is associated with Thomas? Right — doubting. OK, I’ll personally plead guilty to harboring doubts on any number of subjects, but there are probably lots of Thomases who are trusting, even gullible.
Similarly, all Janes aren’t plain; I know some Janes who are vivacious and pretty. Not every Gus is gloomy. I think you’ll agree that there are some Jims who aren’t Dandy. And among the world’s population of Susans, many are not lazy.
I started wondering about that particular example of character assassination while we were in China. In many restaurants, we were seated at circular tables that each had a large lazy Susan on which food platters were placed. As you know, a lazy Susan is a sort of round tray mounted on ball bearings; rather than having to ask someone to pass the fried rice, you could give the lazy Susan a spin and bring the bowl right to your place.
I was fairly certain that the lazy Susan was not first called that in China, since Susan isn’t exactly a common name there. So where did it originate, and how did it get that name?
Some know-it-alls claim that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson and that he named it after one of his daughters. A flaw in this explanation is that Jefferson did not have a daughter named Susan. Another flaw is that the revolving tray was probably in existence in Europe before Jefferson could have invented it.
There are extant models that date to the 18th century, when they were called dumbwaiters; the term lazy Susan first appeared in print in the early 20th century. Some sources cite an advertisement in a 1917 issue of Vanity Fair that referred to a “revolving server or Lazy Susan”. The price was $8.50, which, the advertisement said, was “an impossibly low wage for a good servant.” There were earlier uses of the term lazy Susan dating back as far as 1903, but the connection with the servant reference in the Vanity Fair ad may supply a possible explanation for the name.
There seem to have been lots of Susans who were employed as servants, and Susan may have become a generic equivalent, like calling every butler Jeeves whether that was his name or not. The “lazy” part of the name relates to the lack of work required of the server; those at the table are serving themselves. “Susan” can sit in the kitchen with her feet up.
Well, no one knows for sure, but that generic-Susan-as-servant idea seems plausible to me. Being a Thomas, however, I have my doubts. I’ll bet you’d have no trouble convincing Simon that it’s true, though. After all, he’s… you know. Simple.