Posted by Neal on July 26, 2006
Earlier this month, my WordPress dashboard listed “A guide to the gourmet shaving experience” as one of the top WP postings. The title intrigued me, as my usual shaving routine is to lather up my face with bar soap in the shower and shave it with a disposable razor that I probably should have disposed of two weeks earlier. The post is long, but quite interesting and informative. After reading it, I was so inspired that I threw away my disposable razor even though it was probably good for at least another week of shaving. Then I got out another one from the packet under the sink.
The post also made me realize something: gourmet has undergone some semantic broadening. I’m used to this word being used to describe only food or food-related things, not just any old thing that happens to be made or done with the finest materials and the greatest care. Gourmet pizza, yes. Gourmet ice cream, even gourmet cat food, yes. Gourmet shave, no. Gourmet shit is OK, but only if the stress is on gourmet, with shit deaccented, as Samuel L. Jackson’s character properly does when praising some expensive coffee in Pulp Fiction. This is a phonetic point that Cold Bacon glosses over for humor’s sake:
“This is some serious gourmet shit.” Here, one can probably assume he is referring to the coffee rather than some off screen turd. This theory finds support in the extended explanation of how the coffee really is very good coffee. Again, out of context, people might take this the wrong way. They might think Mr. Tarantino buys gourmet shit “because he likes to taste it.” If Tarantino began receiving bags of poo in the mail from well-meaning fans, he would have no one to blame but himself.
As it turns out, though, even in strictly food-related contexts, gourmet exhibits some semantic shift from the meaning given in the dictionaries I checked. My 1972 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines gourmet as “a connoisseur of food and drink,” and that’s it. In other words, it’s just a noun. That means in a phrase such as gourmet food, the word gourmet is not an adjective meaning “really good,” or at least it wasn’t originally. The phrase meant “food fit for a gourmet,” just like baby food means “food fit for a baby.” Now, though, gourmet is a true adjective, at least for speakers who can modify it with adverbs to get very gourmet or truly gourmet, add suffixes to get gourmetly or gourmetness, or can use it after be, as in is very gourmet.
Once gourmet has gained status as an actual adjective, then it can mean just “made or done with the finest materials and the greatest care,” and if that’s all it means, then why wouldn’t it be used to describe anything that could be made or done this way? And sure enough, I Googled for and found attestations of gourmet manicure, gourmet pedicure, and gourmet massage, and gourmet sex. There are only one or two hits for gourmet tattoo, and none as yet for gourmet oil change and gourmet carwash, but don’t be surprised when these phrases are coined.
As for gourmet shaving, if you want to learn more about it, be sure to search for gourmet shaving, not gourmet shave. If you search for gourmet shave, you might be taken aback when you find pages like this one.