Or, where linguistic geekery meets a food obsession.
At dinner at a certain Jew-ish deli a few weeks ago, I found myself in a circular conversation that hinged on a confusing little word.
My friend was enjoying her food, but complained that she couldn’t taste any liquor in the sauce.
“That sauce is the liquor,” I pointed out.
“But I can’t taste anything in it besides parsley and lemon,” she explained. “It’s lovely, but there’s no liquor in it as far as I can tell.”
“No,” I went on. “That is the liquor that you can taste.”
“But it doesn’t taste remotely of liquor! I’m not a lush (well – maybe just a little), but I think it’s a bit misleading of them to say that.”
The problem, if course, is that liquor has two pretty much entirely separate meanings. Liquor (particularly in American English) is a synonym for spirit, in the alcoholic and not the ghostly sense. (Gosh, English is confusing.) But it’s also the traditional, vibrantly green parsley sauce served in London’s pie and mash shops, once a common sight in working-class areas of the capital. With pie and mash shops very much a dying breed, it’s hardly surprising that plenty of modern-day Londoners aren’t familiar with this definition of the word. I only encountered the parsley version because I was lucky enough to catch the final few years of Goddard’s Pie House in Greenwhich – sadly since closed to be replaced by, I think, a chain burger restaurant. Quite a loss, as it had been open since 1896.
The two meanings arose independently, it would appear: the London version is so-called because it was traditionally made from the liquid used to stew eels – jellied eels being another ‘delicacy’ on pie shops’ menus.
But our mix-up got me thinking about other confusing culinary homonyms – that is, words that sound and are spelled the same, but which have different meanings.
A few days later, a housemate was watching me make a cake and offered to help, so I asked him to cream together the butter and sugar.
“When do I add the cream?”
I’m sure I don’t need to explain to most people that ‘creaming together’ is the baking term used to describe the process by which you beat together soft butter and sugar to incorporate air into the mixture, turning it from yellow to a pale cream in the process.
And then there was a third mix-up, when my doubt over Burger and Lobster‘s Americanos made with sloe gin – I’m a bit of a traditionalist with my cocktails – was misinterpreted as a reference to a much more disgusting innovation. Black coffee with sloe gin would certainly be far more of an abhorrence than sloe gin with campari, but thankfully that’s not what’s being served up by Burger and Lobster.
As food and language evolve in different places and at different speeds, it’s inevitable that duplicates will arise. What I most love about confusing coincidences like these what they tell us about the way that both food and language have evolved throughout history: in that, they’re the central point in the Venn diagram of all the things I most love.
I have, of course, saved the most glorious of all foodie homonyms for last – as it ought to be – and that, surely, is pudding. If it isn’t the word which, on a menu, has the most potential for confusion, then I’d very much like to know what is. With a view to helping alleviate potential muddles, a helpful assistant produced (via the most high-tec means) the above handy ‘cut out and keep’ guide.
But even this doesn’t cover the full range of pudding-meanings out there, as any speaker of American English will notice… In fact, the etymology of pudding is worthy of a post all of its own (coming soon, but don’t wait up).