Dish Out | What does this phrasal verb mean?

Dish is a word with a long history. Coming from the Greek diskos (“disco” obviously), passing through Latin discus and Old English disc , came the modern dish – “dish”.

Now, in the early days of English in its most recognizable form, dish also acquired the meaning of “distributing (food)”. For obvious reasons, of course. From then on the word changed very little: around the seventeenth century it began to register its use along with the preposition out with the meaning of “to distribute (something)”. Only in the past century has dish out begun to be used with the very common sense today of “distributing” (or “dispensing”) justice / punishment / criticism. The nuance here is that generally dish out refers to something “distributed” without much consideration or careful evaluation.

From this latter sense came the untranslatable idiom to dish it out , which can mean anything from “dismissing” criticism or abusive language to “making effusive praise”. Confused? If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only one. I can imagine dictionary compilers scratching their ears and trying to decide how to define this expression!

Let’s divide the example sentences into four categories: dish out as “distribute”, dish out as “distribute” or “dismiss” anything; dish out as “distributing” or “dispensing” justice, punishment or criticism, and finally dish it out – untranslatable.

Open your Anki, then, and get ready to record some review sentences; or check out our tutorial here if you don’t know this great memory revision and consolidation method yet.

1 – “Distribute” or “serve” food.

He was dishing out a chicken stew.
He was handing out a chicken stew.

Jon, could you dish the carrots out for me, please?
Jon, can you hand me the carrots , please?

We should get back to our table – the waiters have started dishing out the food.
We should go back to our table – the waiters started to serve the food.

I’ll dish it out , and you take it to the table.
serve and you take it to the table.

Careful how you dish out the mashed potatoes. There may not be enough.
Be careful how you distribute the mashed potatoes. There may not be enough.

The hosts dished out lots of steaming vegetables for the dinner guests.
The hosts handed out heaps of steaming vegetables to the dinner guests.

Could you dish the soup out while I pour the drinks?
Could you serve the soup while I serve the drinks?

2 – “Distribute” or “dispense” with anything, usually without sufficient consideration or consideration.

Some doctors are dishing out drugs their patients do not need.
Some doctors are distributing drugs that their patients do not need.

A good doctor listens to the patient rather than just dishing out drugs.
A good doctor listens to the patient, rather than simply distributing medicines.

The press secretaries were dishing reports out as fast as they could write them.
Press secretaries were distributing reports as fast as they could write them.

The company dishes out advertising on a regular basis.
The company distributes advertising regularly.

He dishes out advice to one and all.
He dispenses advice to everyone.
(One and all: “one and all,” or rather, “all the world.”)

The company dished out some $ 10 million in bribes.
The company distributed about $ 10 million in bribes.

We made copies of our performance and dished them out to our friends.
We made copies of our presentation and distributed them to our friends.

Doctors, not pharmacists, are responsible for dishing out drugs.
Doctors, not pharmacists, are responsible for distributing medicines.

The council wants to dish the money out to specific projects.
The board wants to dispense money for specific projects.

Linzi is well qualified to dish out advice.
Linzi is very well qualified to give advice.

3 – “Dismiss” or “distribute” criticism, justice, punishment.

He’s very keen to dish out criticism.
He is very ready to dismiss criticism.

Ross is better at dishing out criticism than receiving it himself.
Ross is better at distributing criticism than receiving it himself.

That teacher gives much harder grades this semester – he must have gotten in trouble for dishing out too many A’s.
That teacher gives much harder grades this semester – he must have been in trouble for giving out too many grades.

The boss was dishing criticism out this morning.
The boss was distributing criticism this morning.

The teacher dished out a scolding to each one who was involved in the prank.
The teacher gave a scolding to everyone who was involved in the prank.

He sees situations in black and white and in a very small context, rarely looking at the bigger picture, focused on dishing out justice without any thought to who it might impact.
He sees situations in black and white and very small context, rarely looking at the bigger picture, focused on dispensing justice without any consideration to whom it might impact.

4 – Dish it out (note the addition of it ). Untranslatable, but the general meaning is to punish, verbally abuse, fight etc. Especially common is the phrase he (she) can dish it out, but can’t take it : “know how to give but not take”, said in reference to that person we all know who loves to mess with others but can’t take a kidding on a good one.

He’s mad at me for teasing him – he can dish it out, but he can’t take it ! He is furious with me for making fun of him – he knows how to give but not take .

He can dish it out with the best of them, but he can’t take it .
He can trade insults with the best of them, but he can’t take it .

When it comes to flattery, it can really dish it out .
When it comes to flattery, he knows how to do it .

He’s a big man and he’s prepared to dish it out if he has to.
He’s a big man and he’s ready to get in a fight if he has to.

And here we close today’s post . What did you think? Did you know this use of the word dish ? Leave your comment there and tell us!

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