Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Food-related’ Category

Fried Eggs in Bacon Grease

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2010

Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s annual fall campout last weekend. For our Saturday and Sunday breakfasts I packed bacon and eggs in our cooler. But as I assembled our camp stove on Saturday morning, I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to pack any butter (OK, margarine).

“Shoot!” I said to myself. “Now what am I going to fry the eggs in?”

Then it hit me: I could fry the eggs in the bacon grease! The way eggs were meant to be fried in the first place! We’ve been using the convenient microwave packets of bacon for so many years that I’ve gotten used to never having any bacon grease to fry eggs in, and using margarine instead. But this weekend, on this campout, with no microwaves in sight, I’d fry our bacon the old-fashioned way, and have fried eggs the way Dad used to make them.

As I fried the eggs, I thought about the phrase frying eggs in bacon grease. I was thinking about it because frying eggs in bacon grease reminded me of a quotation from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Entertainment Weekly a number of years ago, where she said she liked eating “fried eggs in bacon grease”. Now that, to me, sounded disgusting. Eggs that had been fried in some substance — maybe bacon grease, maybe butter, maybe oil — now sitting in a bowl, in a matrix of gray, congealed bacon grease.

Why does frying eggs in bacon grease set my mouth to watering, while a similar phrase with the same verb, same noun, and same prepositional phrase — in the same order — has me curling my lip in revulsion?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Semantics, Syntax | 8 Comments »

More Lemon, Please

Posted by Neal on August 1, 2010

“Can I get you a refill on your iced tea?”

“Yes, please,” I answer. “And some more lemon, too.”

That’s right, more lemon. I like my iced tea with one or two wedges of lemon in it, depending on the size of the glass. I don’t get pre-sweetened tea, because it’s always too sweet. I don’t put in sugar, either. Want to know why? Because it doesn’t dissolve worth a damn! You get tea that’s not sweet at all at the top of the glass, and tea that’s too sweet at the bottom, with a white sludge that all of your stirring couldn’t keep from precipitating out. The same goes for sugar substitutes: Equal, Splenda, Sugar Twin. The only thing I’ve found that dissolves evenly through the tea is Sweet N Low. When I get the mix just right, it’s great. In fact, I’m having some right now.

But eventually, the glass is empty and it’s time for a refill. Usually the server will bring you another lemon with the tea if they’ve taken away the whole glass to refill it, or they’ve brought you a new one. But you still have to ask, because you never know when they’ll bring the glass back with no fresh lemon, and what then? You just cannot get the right mix of tea, sweetener, and lemon juice when you’re trying to use the same, sorry, squeezed-out lemon wedge that you used before. You have to be especially vigilant if you’re at a fancier place, where there are people whose job it is to come around and refill glasses of water and iced tea. A momentary lapse of attention there, and the balance is thrown off before you’ve drunk even half the glass, and you’ll have to spend the next ten minutes looking for someone to flag down for more lemon. Or worse, actually drink enough of the tea for someone to come by and top it off again.

So my server returns, with a fresh glass of iced tea, with more lemon. Yes! But wait: This time, instead of one lemon wedge straddling the rim of the glass, there are two, maybe even three. That’s great, but why, when one would have done?

Maybe it’s so they won’t have to bring more lemon for the next refill. But often, when I get my second refill, they’ll bring another two or three wedges with it, so that explanation can’t always be true.

Well, I asked for more lemon, and (unlike merely one wedge) two or three wedges of lemon are more than one wedge.

But on the other hand, if the server brings just one lemon wedge, I will still have more lemon than I did have, right? What gives?

At times I’ve thought it had to do with the vagueness of sentences with more when you don’t express them fully. For example, the sentence The server brought more lemon could mean, among other things, that they brought more lemon than lime, or more lemon than the restaurant manager brought, or more lemon than they brought the first time. It’s probably that last meaning that has servers bringing me two or three lemons when they brought me only one with the first glass.

But that still leaves the meaning I actually have in mind when I ask for more lemon. What kind of sentence would carry across that meaning? Bring me more lemon than I have now? No, that doesn’t work. That still seems to call for the server to bring at least two lemon wedges if I have one already.

I think that we actually have an ambiguity in the word more. There’s the one meaning, where the amount of lemon wedges that the server brings has to be greater than the size of some other contextually determined set (like the amount of lemon wedges the server brought the first time).

And then there’s the meaning I have in mind. For that one, what you’re considering isn’t the amount of lemon wedges the server brings when they refill your glass. It seems to me that what you’re considering is the amount of lemon wedges the server brought this time and last time put together, and that amount has to be greater than just the amount of lemons your server brought you the first time. As long as none of the amounts are zero, that’s an easy requirement to satisfy.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with different ways of asking for “more lemon”: some more lemon? additional lemon? extra lemon? Nothing works consistently.

Well, except for one thing. These days, when a server asks for our drink orders, my wife will jump in and ask, “Could you bring us a little bowl of lemon wedges with the drinks?” Now is that cheating, or what?

Posted in Food-related, Semantics | 12 Comments »

Reach For It

Posted by Neal on March 24, 2010

A few years ago, I wondered if eating something healthy (healthful, if you insist) wasn’t enough; you had to enjoy it, too. After all, the brochure said

To lower your risk of cancer, enjoy 3 to 5 servings of fruit per day.

Well, I guess the answer is no. Look at the advice offered in these messages:

  • Craving candy? Reach for fruit instead (link)
  • When anxiety strikes, reach for homeopathic remedies. (link)
  • In Sugar Blues author William Dufty has a chapter titled Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet, where he seeks to demonstrate that sugar is far more dangerous than tobacco. (link)
  • 10 Healthy Snack Choices You Should Reach For Every Week (link)
  • Currently most teen girls are getting far less than the recommended 700 milligrams of calcium per day. So, reach for foods rich in calcium now. (link)
  • Reach for the chocolate – it’s healthy (link)
  • When to Reach for a Sports Drink (link)
  • Reach for the foods that don’t come with a long nutrition label, such as broccoli, spinach, apples, brown rice, whole wheat flour, fresh fish, nuts, or beans. (link)

You don’t need to enjoy it. You don’t even need to eat it. All you need to do is reach. If it’s right in front of you, just move back a few steps, and then reach. You have to watch out, though. Look at these:

  • Not only are our minds preoccupied with the stressor at hand, but our bodies are telling us they desperately need support, so we reach for foods that provide quick energy. (link)
  • Emotional eaters also tend to reach for foods that are high in fat, sugars and calories instead. (link)
  • Reach for a banana, not Doritos. (Doug remembers reading something like this in a Weekly Reader article on nutrition.)

Just as merely reaching for the right things does you good, merely reaching for the wrong kind of stuff can do you harm.

Posted in Advertising, Food-related, Quantity and Relevance | 4 Comments »

Make Good Choices

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2009

Back in 2004, and again in 2007, I wrote about the unusual use of choose and choice among teachers and school administrators I’ve encountered. Now, like my posts on back to school and troops, these two have been combined and expanded into a Visual Thesaurus column, augmented with corpus data and interviews with education professionals.

In the article, there is a link to a 1953 article that employs the phrase make good choices, and here I have to confess: It was Visual Thesaurus CEO Ben Zimmer who found that attestation, which was significantly earlier than what I’d found. (The guy’s good!) What didn’t make it into the article, though, is the fact that make good choices is well-attested during the 20th century in the Google News Archive; it’s just that until the 1980s or so, most of them are irrelevant. Mostly what you get for “make good choices” before then is stuff like this:

  • The flowered silks make good choices for the Spring suit if one does not care for plaid. (1914)
  • The short two-button length in white kid make good choices as gifts for the holiday season. (1938)
  • Dried prunes and filberts will make good choices. (1958)

Posted in Diachronic, Food-related, Variation | 2 Comments »

Cider Sentence Syntax

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2009

Doug and Adam have been learning about the tragedy of the commons this fall. Every year we pick apples at Lynd’s Fruit Farm, and also buy some of their apple cider. I can take it or leave it, myself, but Doug and Adam love the stuff, so much that this year my wife has made several more trips to Lynd’s to get more of their cider, until they closed for the season. We finished the last jug of it a week or so ago. One evening at suppertime, shortly after we’d opened that last jug, Doug was deciding what he wanted to drink. He considered having some of the cider, but then decided he’d have milk instead, so the cider would last longer.

“Go right ahead,” I said, “but Adam’s going to keep on drinking that cider with or without you.” Doug quickly changed his mind back to having cider with his supper. He’d already been sensitized to how quickly the stuff went. A few weeks earlier, we were nearing the last of an earlier haul of cider, and Doug asked incredulously, “How do we run out of cider so fast?”

“You guys keep drinking it, would be my guess,” I told him. It was true. If there was cider in the fridge, that’s what they wanted to drink, for breakfast, lunch, supper, or a snack.

“Hey!” I said. “Did you hear how I used a complete sentence as the subject of a sentence?” This was a little while after I’d done those presentations on parts of speech, phrases, and sentences for Doug’s language arts class, so I knew the topic would be fresh in Doug’s mind.

“Huh?” Doug replied.

“Yeah!” I said. “The predicate is would be my guess, and the subject is You guys keep drinking it, which is a complete sentence itself! Isn’t that cool?”

“Wow, you listen to yourself talk and figure that out?” Doug asked. “That’s amazing!”

There's a subject in that predicate!

I can hear it now: “Oh yeah? Well my dad can diagram sentences in his head!”

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Posted in Food-related, Syntax, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

Mayonnaise and Margarine

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009

It happened again. My wife asked me to hand her the mayonnaise, and I did. As soon as I did, I sensed her exasperation, and realized I’d messed up again.

“I mean, Miracle Whip,” she said, handing back the mayo. I handed her the Miracle Whip, and as she spooned it into the bowl of tuna, I knew she was wondering how, after thirteen years of marriage, I could still be thinking she wanted mayonnaise when she asked for mayonnaise.

Well, I’m sorry! Just because it’s white and you spread it on bread for your sandwiches doesn’t make it mayonnaise. I know from unpleasant personal experience that mayonnaise and Miracle Whip are quite different things.

Still and all, I guess my wife figures I can learn to accommodate this feature of her vocabulary. After all, she learned long ago that I want margarine when I ask for the butter.

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, The wife, Variation | 14 Comments »

High-Frying Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on September 23, 2009

Larry Horn sent a message to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list this morning, with the following headline that a colleague had brought to his attention:

McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers

McDonald's fries holy grail

I showed it to Doug, who was home with a fever, and he and I laughed and laughed over McDonald’s having found, and fried, this holiest of artifacts.

Not too long afterward, Ben Zimmer posted a message thanking Larry and noted the headline over at Language Log, where several of the comments have brought out exactly what properties of English, and in particular headline-ese, made this ambiguity possible. If you want, you can read through the (at time of this writing) 20 comments there and get the same information as you’re going to get here, but I’m going to write it up anyway, with all the contributing properties discussed in a single place.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Food-related, Morphology | 9 Comments »

Apple Juice and Double Cheeseburgers

Posted by Neal on September 1, 2009

Time to order Adam’s Happy Meal. I leaned my head out the car window and spoke:

I’d like a chicken nugget Happy Meal, with fries and apple juice.

The voice of the order taker came back:

That’s a chicken nugget Happy Meal, fries and a double cheeseburger?

Wha–? Where did the double cheeseburger come from? I responded: “No, apple juice.”

The voice: “A double cheeseburger and apple juice?”

Gimme a double juiceburger!

Now Doug and Adam started cracking up in the back seat, because I was getting a taste of my own medicine. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Affricates, Food-related, Phonetics and phonology | 9 Comments »

Lollipops, Suckers, and Maggots in the Trash

Posted by Neal on August 26, 2009

While eating breakfast yesterday, Adam was somehow reminded of the time I videotaped maggots in the garbage can.

It happened when Adam was in kindergarten. One Thursday afternoon I set about taking the emptied garbage cans back into the garage, and as I pulled one of them upright, I saw some stuff in the bottom. It turned out to be maggots, eating what appeared to be pieces of chicken from a fast-food sandwich. I figured my wife must have gotten the sandwich on her way home from work earlier in the week, and tossed the bag with the leftovers directly into the garbage can in the garage on her way into the house. The food had spilled out of the bag sometime after that, to become accessible to the flies. I hosed out the can, but not before I’d fetched our videocamera and taken a couple of minutes of footage to show Doug and Adam later on. Apparently it made quite an impression on Adam.

MaggotsI think Doug remembered it, too, not because he said, “Yeah, that was cool!”, but because he told Adam, “It wasn’t a garbage can, it was a trash can.”

“Garbage cans and trash cans are the same thing,” I said.

“Oh? Well, I say garbage can for the small ones in the house, and trash can for the big ones in the garage.”

“You’re free to do that,” I told him, “but don’t expect everyone else to know about or respect this distinction you’re making.”

I looked it up just now, and my Random House Unabridged Dictionary has garbage for the wetter, slimier stuff, typically from the kitchen; trash for dry refuse. I’d never known about that difference. Doug never did, either, and instead created his own distinction, at least between garbage can and trash can.

It reminded me of an idiolectal distinction of my own that I had from toddlerhood to my junior year in high school.LollipopsSuckersI had two words for two similar kinds of candy: A lollipop was a sphere of hard candy on a stick, while a sucker was a disk of hard candy on a stick. This distinction was reinforced by the existence of Tootsie Pops and Blow Pops, two kinds of spheres of hard candy on sticks (with the added attraction of Tootsie Roll stuff or bubble gum in the center), with names that obviously contained a clipped form of lollipop. As I grew up, on occasion I’d hear people get it wrong, calling a lollipop a sucker. I was finally moved to comment on it one year in high school, when the band was selling Blow Pops to raise funds (or should I say, to fundraise?). Every day for several weeks I’d see classmates buying or (in the case of band members) selling these lollipops, but not once did I hear anyone call one a lollipop. They might refer to them by the brand name of Blow Pops, but otherwise, they called them suckers. I finally complained to a friend about it one day, wondering if people just didn’t like the word lollipop because it sounded childish or something. I was puzzled when I learned that the meaning difference between lollipop and sucker didn’t exist for her.

I tried to remember how I’d learned the distinction, but couldn’t. All I can guess now is that the first time I saw a globe of hard candy on a stick, it was just chance that whoever told me the name called it a lollipop instead of a sucker; and vice versa for the first time I saw a disk of hard candy on a stick. Then, finding myself with two words for a similar kind of object, I looked for the difference that would explain why one object was called a lollipop, and the other a sucker. The difference I seized upon was the difference in shape. Carving the distinction in this way made it hard for me to know what to call squares or cubes of hard candy on sticks.

What Doug and I did is a manifestation of a tendency that linguists call “One Form, One Meaning.” The idea is that there are no perfect synonyms, and that even if two words start out as synonyms, over time speakers will create a distinction between them, even if it’s just a distinction in degree of formality. Arnold Zwicky has blogged a lot on OFOM as it relates to prescriptive rules on grammar and usage. For example, when some English speaker decided there must be some meaning difference to account for the different forms of healthy and healthful, it was the same kind of reasoning I used when I beheld the maggots in the garbage can and decided that the longer, fatter, slightly yellow ones and the shorter, whiter ones must be different species of flies.

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Posted in Doug, Food-related, Lexical semantics | 18 Comments »

She Can Do It; She Can Help.

Posted by Neal on August 4, 2009

Unless there’s leftover pizza, Adam’s regular breakfast these days is Cheerios, bacon, and apple juice. Morning after morning I’ve read the weaselly claims on the Cheerios box about how it will can eliminate reduce help reduce your cholesterol levels, and Doug and I have had fun pointing out all the hedges that appear in the claims. Help in particular is one that I learned to watch for, back when we did the unit on advertising back in eighth grade language arts. Cheerios uses the word help a lot, but even so, I was more annoyed than usual to read it on the back of this box, where a woman is gushing:

I can help lower my cholesterol 10% in one month?

I'm so happy! This is like, the best news I've heard all year!

Part of my annoyance with this ad was the fake enthusiasm on this woman’s face, all because of this awesome news about her favorite cereal. More was from how the copywriters had finally crossed the line, entering territory where help ceases to mean anything. To be sure, help hasn’t meant anything for the non-savvy ad reader for years; it’s just the obligatory verb that introduces whatever more significant verb comes next: help fight, help reduce, help control, help increase, etc. Those who have been alerted to the tricky language, though, know that help means “we’ll do some of the work, but you have to work, too.” Wait, what am I talking about — doesn’t every English speaker know that’s what help means? Sure, but it’s just so common in advertisements, it tends to pass unnoticed.

However, the writers for this ad seem to have fallen for their own trick. This woman will can help lower her cholesterol. In other words: She can do it; she can help. Cheerios, I suppose, will can help her help herself.

This failure to take a change of point of view into account reminds me of people who record a message on their voice mailbox saying,

Leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.

To them, it apparently doesn’t sound like they’re saying, “I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Maybe. If I feel like it.” All they know is that people who leave them messages say, “Please call me at your earliest convenience,” so they’ll honor that request by calling at their earliest convenience.

There’s another failure to mark a shift in point of view in an episode of The Simpsons (thanks to Heidi Harley for documenting this one):

Movie mucky-mucks: Look, we wanna buy this movie and we’re prepared to offer you anything!
Skinner: We’re prepared to accept anything!

Is there a term for this thing I’ve been calling “failure to mark a shift in point of view”? Any pragmaticists care to weigh in?

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Posted in Food-related, Pragmatics | 8 Comments »