Everyone knows: if you want to trim your girth, it won’t hurt to do some yoga and eat some yogurt (maybe in a yurt, just for the experience). Now, I’m more of a jogger (or runner) than a yogi (I can hardly bear it – instructors who assume that everyone can flop forward, and who treat downward dog as a resting position – but my wife does it with astonishing ease), but I do like yogurt.
But please, none of that low-fat over-sweetened rubbish. What a fraud. They take away something essential that makes it better tasting and more satisfying, and in compensation double up on something that is rather worse for your health. When I eat yogurt, I eat the full-fat kind. The kind I only need two spoonfuls of and I’m good.
I have said before that every word is one of Proust’s madeleines, a key to memories, and yogurt is certainly that for me. There are two particular things it brings to my mind. The first is visiting the University of Calgary campus when I was still in school and one of my parents (can’t remember which one at the time) was working on a graduate degree there. Yogurt was fairly newly faddish, its fame fed by tales of Balkan and Caucasian centenarians subsisting on it, and it seems to me that I was having it almost for the first time from this cafeteria in the Social Sciences building. Or was it the one in Science A that let out into the internal courtyard garden? Either way, I do still remember the flavour, tangier than it often is now, but also a bit rounder. Novel. I liked it. It seemed, as the university did, a harbinger of the future.
The other memory is of sitting at a sidewalk café in Brighton (the one in England) with Aina (my wife) and some of her friends from her time skating with Holiday on Ice. Our party happened to get chatting with some people at a neighbouring table, and I do recall that they were grumbling about the illiteracy of youth etc. One thing they couldn’t abide was mispronunciation of yogurt. But it became apparent that while people in our party and people in their party agreed it was terrible how it was mispronounced, in fact they differed on the proper pronunciation. “Yo-grt?” “Yog-rt?”
Well, as it happens, if you’re going to be fussy about it, they’re both wrong. I may say “yo-grt” and Oxford may lean to “yog-rt,” but really, it should always have been “yo-urt.”
Here’s the thing. Our source word is the Turkish yoğurt. Do you see that breve on the g, that half-halo that looks like a little bowl to put some dairy product in? In Turkish, that means that the g is basically not pronounced. Compare Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister of Turkey: his last name is pronounced like “air-doe-on.” In order to convey this, some spellings of yogurt have used gh, as in dough: yoghurt.
The problem is that because this is not an English word, we assume that a gh we see is not to be treated as we would in English. So either way, g or gh, we lose the essential diacritical mark, and in its place we have an unnecessary extra sound, /g/, adding weight to it. Of course, without that sound we would quickly make it one syllable, if a long one, but at least it would be trim and smooth.
Not that the word was borrowed to English as recently as Turkish has been written in Roman letters, of course. It first showed up in English in the 1600s, at which time Turkish was written with an ill-fitting adaption of the Arabic alphabet. Yogurt then was exotic, a thing Levantines ate, not Englishmen. But by the 1930s – the decade after Turkey had officially switched to Roman writing – it was an accepted thing for domestic consumption in England, as mentioned, for example, by novelist Evelyn Waugh: “Mrs. Beaver stood with her back to the fire, eating her morning yoghourt.”
It is a lovely thing to have around the house, and delicious, especially if you get the kind that is made as it should be, without the fat decreased and the sweetener increased. But do spare me the ukulele-scored TV ads that push the idea that (a) yogurt is for young women and (b) young women must always want to eat things with low fat (and compensating sweetener added) because otherwise they can never feel good about themselves. Yogurt is too good to be a tool in the clutches of such abusive monsters. It’s even actually healthy, if you don’t try too hard to make it “healthy.”