Out-Of-My-League Fatigue

I’ve been working on an assignment for the past year that requires reading massive amounts of text. I search for new words, senses, usage, or terminology on specific subjects, and when found, record the citation. Sometimes I’m assigned reading, and some subjects are covered by other readers, but in general I’m on my own. The point of the job is collecting ‘evidence,’ or instances of our language evolving in ways that may or may not mainstream. The citations are entered into a database that helps create testimony to the year the term first began appearing in print. No one can predict what terms are passing trends and which ones may someday become very relevant. A good example is the ‘prepper’ movement. A few years ago most people had never heard of a ‘bug-out bag,’ now, this 72-hour survival kit seems almost essential.

My favorite reading is magazines or books about subcultures, which could be anything. Mixed martial arts, extreme skydiving, low-riders, scrapbooking—even meth addiction—all have their own vocabulary. I’m always on the lookout for new or used magazines on subjects that may not have full coverage in a dictionary (who knew bull riding had such a devoted following?). The citations have to exist in print (rather than solely online) so they can be documented. It’s not my job to have an opinion on the reading material—but since there’s so little in the world I feel neutral about…

My least favorite magazines are the plush glossies catering to pursuit of the good life. These upscale manifestos extol food cruises, guided adventure tours, $5000 bicycles, BMWs. Full-page ads hawk plastic-surgery centers and financial advisors. They’re selling a fantasy that most folks can never have. Or can they? I’m so far removed from luxury that I’m bewildered by anyone who’s not in debt—but somebody’s buying this stuff. Who are you people?

Upscale cooking magazines are the most distasteful to me. Though they serve their purpose as sources for new food words, haute cuisine is to me the most boring, smug, and unappealing subject in the world. (You know why these meals are ‘fast’? Because they’re raw.) My diet is so simple it’s hard for me to understand the histrionics behind an out-of-season tomato.


From the time on Star Trek when Neelix had to serve dinner to the visiting Romulan dignitaries? Nope. Photo from Bon Appetit.

Today, the most popular cuisine is Asian and Latin American, so it’s assumed everyone wants their food at least 100K on the Scoville scale. Restaurant reviews have titles like Go for the Burn and key words are fiery, blistering, blazing, scorching, tongue-searing, combustible, code red. Begin your dinner with a jalapeño gimlet or Grey Goose martini with serrano chile and finish with Sichuan pepper ice cream and a chipotle latte. I feel like the only person in the world who just doesn’t get off on swallowing lava. But what do I know—I  was raised on fifty shades of cabbage.

Recipes center on beef, pork, or sea creatures. What goes unmentioned is overfishing, inhumane slaughterhouse practices, and the ever-expanding environmental destruction caused by the meat industry. Larger than life food-porn, shellacked with glycerin or beaded with Rain-X, has the opposite effect on me than what was intended—rather than inspiring flesh-lust, it makes me a little sick. A bite of meat comes with guilt that’s just not worth the taste. Read a Nature Conservancy right after a Bon Appétit and it’ll happen to you too.

And what’s with the word ‘slurp’? A word that evokes onomatopoeic visions of wet chins and icky sucking noises now cheerfully describes how to eat Asian food. It’s like a slurp-pride movement. Office workers happily slurp their pho ga; try the slurpworthy ginger broth with soba noodles; slurp your way through a brimming bowlful of yukgaejang.  And this: ‘Lush pork and heady broth you can’t stop slurping—it’s no wonder ramen joints are drawing droves of diners, chefs, and everyone on your Instagram feed.’ I’m not exactly sure what an Instagram is but I hope it doesn’t have audio.


40 responses to “Out-Of-My-League Fatigue

  1. Well I suppose someone has to do it. I think my head would explode, to be honest. I tend to take a dim view of ‘made up’ jargon that then gets passed off as mainstream. But language evolution is inevitable. Especially the English language, which is such a mixed up hybrid that I thank my lucky stars that it was my mother tongue. I pity the fool who has to learn it otherwise.

    • Yes it’s a lot to keep track of, but fascinating to see citations of ‘new’ words that have been around a lot longer than you’d think. I’m glad I’m a native speaker too, it’s a hard language to learn for a grown-up!

  2. We might be the only two people on the planet who watched Voyager :-). Great post – what an interesting assignment!

    • LOL — Voyager is the only Trek that I can remember the cook being a developed character. Yep it’s an interesting assignment — readers have been doing this for a couple hundred years but had a lot less to read back then!

  3. Reminds me of my remark about quinoa (http://wp.me/p3UzWy-81#millet).

    • Yes I remember reading a few years ago about Ecuadorean farmers who can’t afford to eat their own staple crops. But I also hear we’re growing it in the US now, or at least trying. It’s apparently not as simple as it looks and very climate-sensitive. But anything’s better than cattle, cattle, and more cattle.

  4. Instagram alas does have audio :-/

  5. Always enjoy your insight and humor…..
    Phrases like “tipping point”, “double down” etc. gets so over used.
    In the food line, wine snobs and coffee snobs are the ones that I find hilarious…

    • Those are two boring phrases, that’s true. New ones are always popping up though, and some are quite clever. Like I’m always on about, it’s up to the writer to create interest by choosing livelier synonyms.

      Yeah I like my wine and coffee too—whatever’s on sale is fine with me! I’m happy to have it. I’ve given up trying to get a decent pizza in AZ though, they just don’t get it. Easier to make your own.

  6. A fascinating assignment and how wonderful you get to read about so many topics! I really enjoyed this! Your perspective on writing, words, and, indeed, life are fresh and certainly unabashed. But your best line in this piece is ” But what do I know—I was raised on fifty shades of cabbage.” Me too but with a lot of beans mixed in!

  7. Thanks Bill. I’m very lucky to have this, there are only about five other U.S. readers doing what I’m doing and some have been at it for 20+ years—so I hope it continues for a very long time. Magazine racks often reflect local culture, and I’m the only reader in the Southwest, so it’s gratifying to contribute info on some unique lifestyles.

    And do you still like cabbage? I still love it in all its cruciferous diversity. Yes we ate it with beans or canned tomatoes or ground beef or in coleslaw. I cheat now and buy prepackaged coleslaw mix—unheard of back then!

    • I still love cabbage. Cole slaw, sauerkraut, shaved in a salad, and cooked with ground venison. As a kid we ate it with chicken (we raised them for food), beans, and rice. It really is one of the most diverse vegetables! Sometimes I shave it and eat it with a light splash of cider vinegar. Used to eat it with salt too but those days are over.

  8. This is terrifically interesting. I recently started following a fellow who calls himself the Quote Investigator. It’s not precisely the same as your work, but the collecting, sleuthing and reportage bear some resemblance.

    I’m with you on the upscale food. One of the first times I ran into it, I ordered a salad (prim little baby spinach leaves with a faint drizzle of raspberry vinagrette and a piece or two of walnut) and some three-cheese ravioli. There were exactly THREE ravioli in the middle of a 12″ plate, with an artistic looping of sauce around the edge. If I’m paying $18 for a dinner, you can bet I’m not going that route. I’ll stay home and have some black beans and rice, thank you very much.

    And you know what else drives me absolutely crazy? People who photograph their food and then post the picture to the web. What’s up with that? Selfies run amok, says me.

    Say — you don’t suppose all that slurping going on is the Foodie crowd trying to cash in on the popularity of the 7-11 Slurpee, do you?

    • Very cool website. I’ve never heard of him but I see he lists Oxford reference books among his sources (I was looking for that!). What he’s doing is similar in that the amount of research required for one word or phrase can take hours, as any lexicographer on a deadline will lament, and which he mentions. I love working with the OED because it’s a historical, citation-based dictionary and the quotes go back to the Middle Ages. Whether you’re being paid or not, it’s a labor of love.

      Aye, so many photos like you describe! Big square artisan-designed ceramic plates with a tease of food and a swirl of whatever sauce! Why do people post pictures of their food, why? Doesn’t this all seem like an embarrassment of riches?

      Haha I don’t know about the Slurpees. I’m just amazed sometimes at what passes for class in the world. Is a $100 dinner that you slurp not oxymoronic?

  9. “Today, the most popular cuisine is Asian… [slurping] now cheerfully describes how to eat Asian food.”
    In Japan and China, slurping soup is a sign of approval and appreciation of the cooking. The cooking magazines and cooking shows have simply attached this unique cultural habit to ALL Asian foods in their descriptions. Another example of word overuse and usually used inappropriately.

    Just wait for them to pick up on another fine Chinese custom when eating – It’s fine to spit bones or shells onto the table when eating chicken or fish or shellfish.

    • I knew a guy who served in Korea and he said the same thing about eating there, but that was 60 years ago and it was wartime and people were hungry so you’d expect it. But there are certain examples of fear, repulsion, base humor, etc., that you kind of expect to be universal. Fear of spiders, certain bodily functions, slipping on a banana peel, etc. So you’d think slurping would be among the sights and sounds that would make any human cringe a little. I guess this is another example of the age-old evolutionary mystery of nature vs. nurture.

      • In the case of slurping it’s nurture. People in Asian countries slurp and chew with their mouths open. It doesn’t bother anyone there. You see it here too with the Asians born here but not that often. It repulses me but I know it’s because I’m not used to it being born here. Nose picking in China isn’t impolite in some public situations. Even in a city like Hong Kong it’s not that frowned upon. When I was in Hong Kong my cousin’s (born in Canada) cousin had his finger up his nose for like a minute at the dinner table of 8 people. My cousin and I had our heads down because we were laughing so hard. No one else thought anything of it..haha

        I think the idea of slurping is to suck in as much of the broth and flavour as possible. And you get less noodles that are chewed off half way. Or maybe it’s just for speed.

        • Gross. Slurping apparently shows appreciation too, as does leaving a big mess all over the table. So not only is global food more and more trendy, we’re going to slurp or dig into a communal plate with our right hand or belch loudly after eating (but never lick your chopsticks, you rude pig!). I can’t even stand to hear people chewing loudly on a TV show or movie. When food twits find out about nose picking, it’ll not only become acceptable, it’ll be considered insulting if you don’t. Like we talked about before, the West is obsessed with food, and I think it’s shameful to make that the most important fixation of life, unless it’s a matter of life and death.

  10. A real pity but the old words (such power!) are rehashed, reinvented, recycled, recirculated and generally destroyed into modern use. Usage. Whatever.

    For myself I’ll carry on using the language I was brought up in—I shall continue to slurp shamelessly. I like slurp. Slurp is good, we should slurp more often … but not in public. Some things are best behind closed doors in the company of a consenting adult.

    And if (when!) I slurp it’s ‘cos I want to, not because some pimply blasted ‘trend setter’ thinks its icy. Chilled. Bugger … aaaah … cool.

    • It’s true that the ubiquitous portmanteau trend isn’t very original, yet so many stick. It would be awkward to call our blogs ‘web logs,’ etc. But every new thingy has to be called something.

      Haha consenting adult—with an ear-plug option!

      The concept of waste is lost on magazines whose purpose is to seek abundance in food, travel, toys, whatever. I just read an article about the best restaurants in Dubai—compare that to the plight of the slave labor who built that horrid city, and how they are tricked into continuing to come.

  11. I’m curious, Debra, what exactly is the assignment and what magazine is it for ? btw I’m glad I found your blog

    • Hi JLeo, I’m sorry your blog is no longer available! How are you? The assignment is for Oxford University Press, North American Reading Program. It’s ongoing, something OUP values as indicator and evidence of new words or senses. It doesn’t mean these words go into the OED, they may never go anywhere, but in case they take off, we have citations for them.

      • Hi Debra. My blog is available but its under a new name: just google ‘The Wallah Of Whimsy’: it will come up.

        May your assignment go well. Like you I have a strong interest in words especially the differences between Australian English and American English. We never use the verb ‘dove’ tmk. We say ‘dived’

        • I had no idea you had a new blog—if you add your link to your gravatar page, people will be able to find you! Your gravatar page just has your name but no way to find your blog.

          I just read a few articles about Australian slang, I was going to use some—and all the commenters just argued! ‘We don’t use this. Yes we do. No we don’t. You must be way out in the outback to use this’…etc., etc. Haha, typical!

  12. So happy to see you back. Just wanted you to know that I still think of you. I wish I could see you and Arizona, some day. Love from the far, far away land.

  13. Ha,’Fifty Shades of Cabbage’. “holy gastronomical gas Batman”. Bacon, sauerkraut and egg noddles was a favourite growing up in our house—part Pennsylvania Dutch and a throwback to the depression area. The vernacular of food truly is fascinating and telling of a region’s peoples. Talking trendy, when it comes to food my tastes are similar to my choice in music, no particular genre—if it is good I like it, if bad I don’t like it. Love figs (they’re sexy), hate Limburger cheese. Hottest food my stomach and I agreed upon was Kenyan bean something or other.

    Now for the assignment. I’d assumed this kind of scrutinizing was going on and was necessary. What is surprising that it is being done by intelligent, rational people. Actually glad there is a breathing body and not a computer in the bowels of a university. Bonus for someone such as yourself with a nose for insight-fullness. Reminiscent of some backroom Intel think tank amassing reams of seemingly useless information on an adversary –to quote Sun Tzu, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

    I am no expert by no means of the imagination, but I would think much of the ‘new’ language in recent history comes or was birthed in sub or subterranean movements—an underground does not necessarily mean subversive but rather bucking of the conventional. And that which is unconventional, over time seems to float to the top and assimilates with convention. Underground cultures tend to invent new ways to communicate amongst themselves and stay under the radar? Your example of the ‘prepper’ movement made me think of the Beat Generation, Underground Hip Hop. Cuban Hip Hop a good example that invents and a twists the language for social change—at least that is my understanding from what I have read on the internet.

    BTW. Good to see John Malone out and about. I was sadden for months when he fell out of sight. He was never out of mind. The good ones never are.

    • Well, there are computer programs, too, to gather data, but yeah the thinking is done by obsessive people like myself. Before computers, they had massive files containing slips of paper with citations written by hand. When I worked at OUP before the internet, research was a lot more complicated and personal—we had to find people to ask about any of thousands of subjects. Not only for definitions, but pronunciations too!

      Unconventional is how conventional begins, right? We just can’t know what will take off and become mainstream. When ‘underground’ cultures use public media to communicate, they grow. We live in a world where absolutely anything is possible every day, where huge changes can occur in a short span of time—whether motivated by love of a hobby or fear of a scary new world. The question I’m always asking myself when recording new language is ‘what if?’ And it’s not always a nice vision—in fact, sometimes it’s depressing and awful. Some of the texts I read make me cry and affect me for days, or forever. I guess knowledge is always better than no knowledge, but I often think ‘Do I really need to know this?’ I no longer read a daily news homepage, the anger and frustration I feel actually makes me physically sick.

      John Malone lives—see new comment!

  14. For better or worse, we are consumerized. I personally find the word “consumer” itself to be offensive (do we exist only to consume, like some portable trash incinerators?), but I’m odd, at best. By the way, and I hope you don’t take offense at this , but I’ve found inspiration for a short fiction piece in your opening paragraph.

    • The word consumer does evoke a negative slant. Like ‘the U.S. is the largest consumer of wood products’ (forest destruction) or ‘China is the biggest consumer of ivory’ (poaching) or ‘Belarus is the biggest consumer of alcohol.’ They’re all things that should cause shame—humans stripping the earth or ruining their health in the name of consumerism.

      Huh, I never thought I would inspire fiction, but I can see ways that paragraph might be interpreted in a creative mind! Please post!

  15. Perhaps you know the answer off the top of your head. When was the phrase “go Galt” first used to mean “To recluse and stop contributing to one’s society”?

    I didn’t know that was what I was doing in early 1990 so I am guessing it did not enter common usage until sometime after that date.

    I hope you are doing well. I have not found any more interesting pay phones. Found two booths but they were simply abandoned and not worth of mention much less pictures.

    • Hi Ed, I don’t know who first used it but it picked up popularity for sure in response to the direction many people see our government taking. Mid 2000s? I’m guessing. It doesn’t really mean to stop contributing in the negative sense, but more a reaction, a politically charged anti-socialism expression, but so far just words. It’s cool that Atlas Shrugged has made a comeback though. (Forgive me you probably know all this but it’s fun to talk about.)

      Poor abandoned phone booths, even most of them are gone. Think of all that past drama. Now and then that line from the Joan Baez song that may or may not be about Bob Dylan pops into my head—‘Where are you calling from? A booth in the Midwest.’

      How the hell are people supposed to maintain any sense of mystery today?

      • Oh, it was most definitely Bob Dylan. Just sayin’.

      • Thanks for the guess on “Go Galt”. I am a fan of Atlas Shrugged but Fountain Head even more so. You are probably familiar with the two famous speeches from Fountain Head; if not I have posted them on my site starting 29 March, 2011.

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