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From 'menu' to 'barista' to 'evoo,' cooking and foods provide one of the quickest way for English to heap new words onto its plate.
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May 13, 2008
Domains in which new words and meanings flood into English often involve cooking and eating. There's nothing especially new about our enthusiasm for exotic words for things that we eat and how we cook them. Alas, not all innovations are welcome.
Not long ago, a wire-service story reported grumblings about new food words, among them Rachael Ray's habit of calling extra-virgin olive oil e-v-o-o, and the perky foodiste has put up a glossary of Rachaelisms so we can feel her joy when she uses e-v-o-o and words like yum-o and delish. She even got a certificate honoring her for the creation of e-v-o-o and a promise that it will appear in a new edition of a major dictionary. But these signs of respectability did not shield her from criticism from linguistic purists.
Complaining about the words we eat by has a long history. With aristocratic refugees flooding England in the wake of the French Revolution, John Bull—the English equivalent of Uncle Sam—and his family discovered that the French had better furniture, more appealing clothing, and tastier foods. So a fad for French domestic arrangements spread through the prosperous households of Britain. In 1804, a snarling writer complained about these French aristocrats and their swanky lifestyle: "It is they who are rendering Dr. Johnson's Dictionary obsolete, that they may supply in its place a Polyglot of pies and puddings, of pickles and flummeries."
Like a lot of complainers, John Bull was onto something. Plenty of food words did come into English in the wake of this migration: béchamel (1796), au gratin (1806), à la carte (1826), menu (1837), hollandaise (1841).
Nowadays we have even more eating words. Take barista, for instance. High-priced coffee houses hire baristas to prepare and serve drinks, and barista has found its way into a new dictionary, the Shorter Oxford. Its origin is Italian for bartender, and it is interesting as a word in that an Italian barista is a woman who jerks the java, but in America young men are as happy as anyone else to be a barista. There's even a Barista Magazine. All of the joys and afflictions of coffee shops are chronicled there, including the occupational safety issues presented by barista elbow.
Another recent expression shows how existing words can take on new meanings: the breath of the wok. The English phrase translates Cantonese wok hay, an expression hardly known outside the southern region of China. Breath of the wok is English for a distinctive kind of cooking, and there's a whole book about it by Grace Young. Breath of air (as in "Let's step outside for a breath of air") has long been in English but the breath of the wok seems to mean the power or energy of the cooking—like breath of life in Genesis. In this phrase, breath has a new meaning that it didn't have before.
Words are reinvented far more often than wheels. A new store will soon open in Ann Arbor: the Jefferson Market & Cakery. The proprietor, Mary Rasmussen, says she invented cakery.
It's easy enough to see where the new word comes from. It's a blend of cake and bakery. But Ms. Rasmussen might have trouble with her invention since there are several cakeries already registered with the Patent Office, one—The Cakery—having been given trademark status in 1997. Fortunately for Ms. Rasmussen, these marks seem not to claim an "exclusive right" to cakery
What does all this come down to? We may not like eating our words but we love wording our eats.
Richard W. Bailey is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. His latest publication (co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) is an edition of a chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle of the sixteenth century. This electronic book incorporates images of the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a modernization of the text for easy reading. Thanks to the University of Michigan Library and the University Press, the work is freely available to all: http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/machyn