I was reading a snotty restaurant review on TripAdvisor today (you can count on at least one snotty review no matter how good a place is), and I saw the word mediochre in it.
I’m sure most of you are thinking, “That’s mediocre. There’s no h in it.”
And indeed the person was not talking about a forgettable shade of drab. Nor was he making a pun. More’s the pity; it’s a perfectly good pun, and it’s not the first time it would have been made. In fact, it even has its own Urban Dictionary entry: “A shade of dark yellow that just isn’t living up to its potential.”
You can get more than 37,000 Google hits for mediochre, but most of them are not colour puns. No, they’re evidence of the effect of the weirdness of English spelling. In some languages, if something is spelled differently from how it sounds, you doubt the spelling; in English, the stranger variant is often likely to be assumed to be the more correct one. English even gets it in the neck – there are many people who assume that it’s spelled kneck.
Well, it’s not as though they lack precedents; there’s knock and knick-knack and knuckle to set a pattern for kneck. And for mediochre there’s euchre, sepulchre, Christmas, catachresis, and of course ochre. Since we don’t have a reliable, consistent system of spelling, if we’re unsure of a spelling, we think of other words of similar sound, and we will prefer the ones that stand out somehow.
Which is why mediocre is such a put-down. The definition of mediocre is supposed to be “middle of the road, neither good nor bad”; it comes from Latin mediocris, from medius “middle” and ocris “mountain, peak”, from Greek ὄκρις okris “point, protuberance”. So midpoint. The peak in the middle. The Romans didn’t have Gaussian curves, but the image is pretty much right on: the mediocre is the median, that big mass in the middle. It just happens that we generally despise that big mass in the middle. That’s where the shiny iron of excellence gives way to rust, and fails to “exceed expectations.” (Somehow we always expect that our expectations will be exceeded, and if something doesn’t exceed expectations, then it doesn’t live up to expectation. It’s a sort of Lake Wobegon Effect.)
So if someone writes “The food was mediocre,” it means “The food was really disappointing.” That TripAdvisor review I mentioned was a one-star review, not a two-star or three-star review. A mediocre talent is the worst kind: not good enough to be at all good, but not spectacularly, entertainingly bad. Mediocre stands right in the middle, and none of us want to be right in the middle, it seems, just not living up to our potential. We want standouts, exceptions. And, similarly, we want words with weirder spellings, silent letters and so on.
We want, in short, to paint the town red, not ochre. Well, rather, we want someone to paint the town red. Most of us do not really want to extend ourselves and take the risk. But we really do like those exceptions. Ochre is nice enough for decorative purposes, with its muddy yolk colour, and its name derived from Greek ὠχρός okhros “pale yellow” – nothing to really jump out at you there. But it’s, you know, rust. Literally – ochre colouring comes, historically, from iron oxide. You need some vivid accent colours to go with it, or you get a sort of ochlocracy (mob rule) of the middling.
And, likewise, your food has to have some spark of genius or insanity, or it’s just yuck, crap. Not that there’s any great spark of genius or exceptionality in using a middle-of-the-road word as a putdown. And, ironically, misspelling words in some exceptional way under the influence of other words with nonstandard spelling is an entirely too common and unexceptional thing to do. So a review that criticizes food for not going that extra mile as being “mediochre” is… well… need I say it?