Category Archives: word tasting notes

veg, veggie, vegan

Let’s start with a little tone association. What kinds of phrases does each of these words – veg, veggie, vegan – bring to mind? Here are some that come to me.

“Meat an’ two veg.” “I’m just going to veg for a while. I’m bagged.”

“I’ll have the veggie burger.” “So go ahead and have fun livening up your menu with lots of fresh healthy veggies!”

“Don’t you have any vegan options on your menu?” “She’s a vegan, so we have to consider that in the menu planning.”

So. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ has, in my world, a distinctly British tone, and is especially associated with the phrase meat and two veg. But veg meaning ‘vegetate’, as in ‘relax and do nothing of any importance’, is quite common in Canada and, I suspect, much of the US (I note that the Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from a Canadian newspaper, and two of the five it cites are Canadian). Sometimes you’ll see it with out (i.e., veg out).

Veggie meaning ‘vegetable’ seems perky. Too perky sometimes. The sort of forced perkiness that you often see in lifestyle writing. It’s a common word, of course; I suspect many people say veggie more often than vegetable.

Did you know that both of these words have, in the past (not so much in the present), also meant ‘vegetarian’?

Veg meaning ‘vegetarian’ showed up first in the 1880s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ first showed up even earlier, in the mid-1800s. It’s very difficult to do a proper Google Ngram search to see historical frequency, because veg. is also used as an abbreviation in technical documents, which doesn’t really count. So I don’t know when exactly it became really popular. But meat an’ two veg (in literal reference to a standard menu) shows up in the early decades of the 1900s.

Veggie meaning ‘vegetarian’ (noun) shows up first in the 1950s; meaning ‘vegetarian’ (adjective), which is the same as meaning ‘vegetable’ (attributive noun), shows up first in the 1940s; meaning ‘vegetable’ (noun) shows up first in the early 1900s. But if you do a Google Ngram, you will see that it was used barely at all until the late 1970s, and then it just shoots up. (It’s still running way below vegetable and vegetables, though.) So it’s really a fad term of the last few decades. (Don’t bother checking the post-2000 numbers on the ngram, because a large number of historical books were added and it registers them erroneously as when they were added rather than when they were first published, so the numbers for recent terms slump.)

Both veg and veggie can also be annoying to many people named Reg or Reggie, who may occasionally be called Veg or Veggie, since vegetable also has an unpleasant use referring to someone who is comatose or brain dead, and it seems to bleed over when these words are used on a Reg or Reggie. I suspect it’s more of a nuisance for adolescents than for adults. My brother, Reg, is over 50 now. I should ask him whether he still has a distaste for the words veg and veggie.

How about vegan? Does that seem like an even newer fad? When was the first time you heard of vegans? I heard of them in the 1980s. You know what a vegan is, right? If not, here’s a quote from the person who invented it, in the place where he introduced it:

‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ of cows and fowls, therefore… we must make a new and appropriate word… I have used the title ‘The Vegan News’. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as the vegan diet, and we should aspire to the rank of vegans.

This is from the first issue of the The Vegan News, published by Donald Watson in November, 1944, wherein he started a society for people who eat nothing that has come from animals, living or dead.

So yeah. Veganism has been around for 72 years.

And while we associate veg with either working-class vegetables or just classlessly vegetating after work, and veggie with perky colloquial vegetables, many of us associate vegan with dietary difficulty and restriction. After all, it’s just so hard to find food that doesn’t use things made from animals or animal products!

Well, less hard than it used to be. (And most alcoholic beverages just happen to be vegan. So, by happenstance, do many other treats, such as Oreo cookies.) And there are all sorts of other things we could eat but we don’t. Generally in our society we don’t eat cats or dogs or certain parts of cows and pigs, or sheep’s eyeballs or live monkey brains, and we get along fine.

I’m not a vegan, but I do know some vegans. I even work with two of them. While vegan might, for food, seem first of all to many of us to involve restriction, and for some might call to mind militant animal rights activists, all the vegans I can think of whom I personally know are happy, pleasant, good looking, and healthy. (And not averse to a drink or two.)

I wonder if people named Regan are at all bothered by the word vegan. People named Megan ought not to be, since it doesn’t rhyme with their name, anyway. But vegan doesn’t have any connotation of the sort vegetable has. It just has that confusion with Vegan, which means someone or something from Vega.

Vega, aside from being a model of car, is a star. The star is so named because in ancient Egypt the constellation it was part of was called the Vulture, and the Arabic al-nasr al-wāqi ‘the vulture coming down’ was shortened and mutated to Latin Vega.

So, um. That set of people who distinguish themselves by not eating dead animals or anything to do with animals have a name that coincidentally is the same as a name that traces back to a vulture, an eater of dead animals. Well, at least this should help ensure vegans get enough irony.

oolong

“It’s been too long,” I thought. “Surely we can get oolong.” And with that, the black dragon reëntered my life.

By a simple fortuity, tea for two. But had I the fortitude? My medulla annotated a noology of longing as I spooned the oblong rolls of leaves into the pot. It would be exquisite.

My relationship with oolong took root a long time ago. When I was young, it was one of many tea options, but it was the one with the googly, gangly, foolish-looking name. The tea we had came in bags and was none too precious; at best I might tell orange pekoe from Earl Grey. Oolong was notable first for its name, which to my childish eyes might have been an English estate, though to my adult eyes it looks more like an Australian city. But oh! long way off there.

Oolong is, in fact, mutatis mutandis, a Chinese term. It is 烏龍, wū lóng, black dragon. Does that 烏 look like a dragon? It is a crow, and from that it is black. The 龍 is the character for dragon, and it has a rich and complex history. As rich and complex as the tea it names.

In wine there may be truth, but in tea there is wisdom, and none more so than this oolong owling its two o eyes at you for long too long. Tea is oxymoronic: it can heat or cool the mind; it is fit to foment ferment or distillation in stillness. But oolong is different from other teas in that it is half-fermented and is also well oxidated. There are many ways of making it, with many different results; the variety and depth of the results make it akin to a fine wine grape, the taste as sublime as Laocoön.

And, like fine wine, the best oolong can cost more than a few doubloons. Go to a tea shop and see: the top pick will be a lulu, a real doozy. It may cost you one or more of your right oöcytes. But ah, what a fine cup it will make, and another and another. It is a good way to get through a long afternoon.

All it takes is opening the cupboard or cabinet. And looking. And seeing it, there in a lagoon of black, coolly looking back.

tiki

“At the tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki room!”

A song from my youth, when we first visited Disneyland. The Tiki Room was not an actual bar – hardly suitable for children, you know; it was an audio-animatronic presentation of tropical birds in a Polynesian theme. I believe it still exists, but in updated form.

Polynesian themes were a preferred exoticism of the mid-late 1900s. There was even a Grammy for Best Hawaiian Music Album. Home electronic organs had Hawaiian presets (ours did! I was very impressed). Ah, hulas, the tropics, palm trees, pineapples, wooden statues, and fancy drinks. Of course it was all a fantastic confection. It used adapted borrowings from other cultures to feed a fantasy. It was not simply idealized; it was idolized. And then fashion moved on.

Did it? To some extent, yes, but the idea persisted. The Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World is still there, still themed in that Disney way with fantastic tropics in colour-saturated decay. Fancy umbrella drinks are still available in many places.

People want to think themselves world-wise and well informed, but they often seek sanitized, idealized, shrink-wrapped versions of wisdom: where before we sought the dim, hurricane-lamp-lit wooden rooms and heady sugary alcoholic beverages, now we seek serene beaches and refreshing massages and images of meditation and rejuvenation. It’s still a fiction, but one that pretends to enlightenment.

But some still like the old fiction. Of course now they know that it is a fiction. But it is an entertaining one. And now it’s really a throwback to a half century ago, with quotation marks on it. So we don’t endorse the reductionism, right? But we sure do enjoy the atmosphere and beverages. Tiki bars, it turns out, are a thing once again, at least in some places. The San Francisco area has several.

What is this word tiki? Does it seem a bit antique-y? Or anyway creaky? A tiki is some kind of wooden image or charm, we seem to recall. Is it one of those many statues of ancestors and deified beings that are associated with Polynesian cultures? In an extended sense, perhaps. But originally Tiki is the representandum of one particular class of statues, those representing a primogenitor, a first ancestor – a male one in particular. The word comes from the most southwestern Polynesian culture, the Maoris, who live in New Zealand. It has come to be adopted and adapted and Disneyfied by Americans, on the far northeast of Polynesia (Hawai‘i) and beyond.

So now it is a word that, in American English, bespeaks a certain kitschy pseudo-Polynesian style, especially one that involves dim bars with fancy cocktails. A tiki room doesn’t have audio-animatronic parrots. So what does it have?

A front door, for one, which is the limen between the honest constitutive quotidian reality and the fantastic escape within. Walk down Gough Street in San Francisco and you will pass a rather plain metal-and-dark-glass door with no sign other than a piece of paper announcing the hours of Smuggler’s Cove. Open it and push aside a black curtain and you are in a space smaller than you probably expected. There is a doorman. (“Do you have your IDs on you?” “Yes, we do.” They do not show their identification. He lets them pass.) There is a bar that you will need several seconds even to see. In case you had forgotten the term a dark-adapted eye, you may remember it now.

You peruse the menu. You order a drink from a fellow in a tropical shirt.

He makes it.

You go upstairs, to where there is still more decor.

You drink it.

And repeat.

Heady drinks in heady décor. Entertaining. Is tiki tacky? Yes – but attractive too. An idealized, idolized way to spend idle time.

gnome

There was a gnome on the gnomon, guarding the garden.

“You will pass,” he said.

“I—” I was about to ask about the missing “not” but thought then I should not. I walked forward. He reached out a red concrete hand and blocked me. The path was too narrow for me to go around without traipsing on flowers. I stopped.

“I didn’t say you will pass now.”

“Well, when?”

“When you say something gnomic.” He folded his arms.

“Gnomic,” I said.

“Economic with words but soaked in gnosis.” He tilted his little hatted head a bit.

“I know.” I could have said “γινώσκω,” but it may have been Greek to him. It would have made the point: something gnomic is of the nature of a gnome – but not a diminutive guardian spirit of the earth; this gnome is a shorty, pithy statement of a general truth, from γνώμη gnomé, ‘thought’.

We don’t know why the gnomes we all know as gnomes are called gnomes. Ask Paracelsus, the German Renaissance scientist and occultist par excellence – he may have invented the name. He may even have invented the gnome!

But that’s academic. I was standing here at the gate to a garden that I so dearly wanted to enter, and I was interdicted by an enchanted chunk of concrete. Beyond: a firework of flowers, a mosh pit of moss, wooden benches backed with capes of leaves ready to be draped on my back as I sat, and cats. But in front was this sundial and its angling guardian taking my time. Puffy blue coat, red mittens, pointy red hat, brown pants, all on a pyknic figure, and all formed of curiously flexible concrete.

He leaned forward and his brow somehow scowled in an oddly animatronic way. “Without something gnomic you won’t be coming any further.”

“Don’t get short with me.” I stepped forward on the path. His hand shot out again.

“Gnome,” he said.

Beyond him I could see a cat curl up on the bench.

I so desired to sit and smell the petrichor and pet the cat. To shower in flowers and dream again in green.

But I did not like this little no-man. A soreness surged in me to spite him in spite of myself. It was thoughtless, but so was I; I could not have piece without giving him a piece of my mind, but I was dry.

“How do you know I will pass?” I folded my arms.

“I know you. You always pass, without fail. You want to go in.”

I leaned close, my mouth next to his ear, and spoke with a scalpel softness. “We can’t have everything we want.”

A concrete hand smacked me on the back of the head and I tumbled forward. I was in. Rubbing my occiput, I went and planted myself on the bench. Now, where did that cat go?

And who still has garden gnomes?

vermiculated

It is time once again to turn to my bookshelf, that great pile of paper. What once were trees (and, in the finer cases, linen) are now paper with marks on them and will at some future time be dust or soil or ashes or the turds of worms. All our knowledge is written on fertile soil, and the seeds of future trees of knowledge sprout in it, but it must be aerated by those lowliest of crawling things. Perhaps you and I, too, are the worms of the world: bookworms digesting words with our minds only so that the spaces we have left may make the field more fecund.

I do have a lot of books, along with some other ways of seizing the transient images of the world.

In the heart of that photo is a book I got from a bunch that had been in a box in someone’s basement or attic in India. I still have never read it through, though I have sampled it.

It looks like a book of recipes, doesn’t it? And it is – but it is recipes for living, and food for thought.

It is moral guidance in Tamil. By an author whose name looks oddly Tolkienian. With English translation.

The English translation is in rather stiff rhyming couplets. I cannot comment on the quality of the original, but, as the book is revered, I rather suspect it counts as elegant because it helps set the standard for elegance – somewhat as, say, Shakespeare does for English. Shakespeare’s usage is archaic, of course, and poetic, and so we revere it for that, but we also take it for its aphorisms, sometimes somewhat changed in modern times. Here’s one: “The smallest Worme will turne, being troden on.”

And what will the worm turn? How about the pages?

How can a worm turn pages? Simple. It turns them into worm turds.

This book is vermiculated.

There was another book in the bunch that was so thoroughly digested it could not be kept. This one has been sampled by bookworms, but the substance remains. You can see the little traces like shredded vermicelli in the negative.

You did know that vermicelli means ‘little worms’, right? Well, enjoy your next plate of it. It’s still among the most delightful of pastas. Think of it as being the strings from some violoncelli instead.

The verm in vermicelli is of course the same as the verm in vermiculated – and, yes, the verm in vermin too, though that has shifted in sense (and in sound when you say varmint). The sum of vermiculated means (as a past participle) that it has been affected (ate) by little (icul) worms (verm). Ickle worms ate it, to be exact. All of it? No, but enough to articulate vesiculations in it.

Are these profane worms? Do they profane the words? They do not eat the bodies men of life bereave, but do they eat the minds? Or just the traces of the minds? Are books more than the fertilized soil left behind by a mind, enriched by the excretions of thoughts? And on their way to become soil again? If so, what are these bookworms except precocious?

And will they turn again?

pistachio

It’s tempting to say that this word is a tough nut to crack. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Better to say it’s the seed of an interesting exploration once you start to pry it open.

Prying open is, certainly for me, the essence of pistachios. The shells are always partly open, sort of like vegan clams, and the one thing a bowl of pistachios will guarantee is that my thumbnails will be separated a bit more from the quick by the bottom of it. And I will get to the bottom of it. Set out a bowl surreptitiously and you will be sure to catch me red-handed.

But not literally, I hope. Please don’t give me the ones that are coated in red colouring or your place will look like a crime scene (and so will my face; you will eventually figure out that I just touch my eyes a lot and am not actually in an emotional crisis). The red colouring isn’t really needed anymore anyway – it was added to hide stains on the shells, but since they’re picked by machine rather than by hand now, it’s not really an issue.

Pistachios are one of those things that are one thing to normal people and cooks and another thing to botanists. You and I and Julia Child classify things by their qualities in cooking and eating; botanists classify them by… different criteria, to do with form and function in nature (not in the pot). In botany, a banana is a berry and a strawberry is not. This does not mean that “a banana is really a berry and a strawberry really isn’t a berry wow can you believe it!!!!!!” Botany just came to use existing words in reconfigured senses rather than coming up with new words; they determined that consistency of sense in certain qualities was important and in other qualities was unimportant, and you and I and Julia have different priorities. Anyway, a pistachio is not a nut, botanically. It’s a seed. It’s in the middle of a fruit – specifically a drupe (cherries are also drupes). We don’t eat the fruit. We don’t eat the whole seed. We just eat the soft part in the middle of the seed. (Which, incidentally, gets very soft indeed if you cook it.)

How do the seeds get half-open, by the way? They just pop open at a certain stage in ripeness. Pop! They dehisce. “De-hiss?” Well, popping is quite the opposite of hissing… Dehisce means ‘open up’. It can also mean ‘doff your clothes’. Which can itself get a little seedy but never mind.

But never mind the sound of popping and of not hissing. What is the sound of pistachio?

This may seem obvious, as you probably say it the same way all your friends say it. But it has been a bit of an issue for me for some time. You see the word looks like an Italian word, and if it’s Italian, the ch is pronounced “k.” So “pi sta ki o.” But no. You almost certainly say it “pistashy-o.” But you may say it “pistatchy-o” if you’re British. So what’s up? What do the Italians say?

The Italians spell it pistacchio, with two c’s. And say it “pi stak ki o.” Well, they do in standard Italian now. But this word has been in English since the 1400s, and it came in by way of French as much as Italian. French for pistachio is pistache, though in earlier times there has also been a pistace version. And in Italian? Well, there’s the modern form, and there’s the regional variant pistacio, which in standard Italian would be said “pi sta chi o” (i.e., /pi.ˈsta.tʃi.o/), though I can’t say how the regional dialects say it.

But where did all that come from? Latin pistacium. Which in the medieval style says “ch” for the c but in classical style says “k.” However, the genus name – also “Latin” but botanical Latin, which means a special-use version of Latin no one has ever made complete Latin sentences with – is Pistacia.

Right, so OK, where did Latin get it from? Greek πιστάκιον pistakion. And Greek got it probably from Farsi pistah or Pahlavi pistag, and perhaps ultimately from Aramaic pistqa. So there we have it. A uvular stop /q/, then velar stops /k/ and velar or glottal fricatives /h/. And over time it moves forwards in the mouth and gradually softens, through affricate /tʃ/ to fricative /ʃ/.

So does that mean the correct pronunciation is “pi sta ki o”? Not in English. Just as pistachios soften with time in the cooking pot, that last consonant in pistachio has softened with time going from language to language. But whereas it has moved forward in the mouth, what it names tends to move back in the mouth as you chew and swallow it. And then, of course, you reach for the next one.

sláinte

Not that St. Patrick’s Day is a huge thing in Ireland, but this isn’t really for the Irish, it’s for everyone else. They all want to celebrate the Irish, or anyway to party in honour of a culture stereotyped as bibulous, and they want to do that by wearing, eating, and drinking green things and doing so until they, too, are green. Or perhaps grey. They sing rubbishy songs that have little to do with true good Irish music, and they drink themselves sick… toasting each other’s health.

May the road rise to meet you! What that really means, of course, all motion being relative, is that you fall to meet the road. But, you know, same result. So slant your glass, and then slant yourself! Slant ya!

Sorry, that’s spelled Sláinte. That’s the Irish word for ‘health’, as in yours. It’s pronounced like “sloncha.”

Doesn’t look like that’s what it spells? It does in Irish. Irish spelling is much more consistent than English spelling; it just happens to follow quite different rules. Why not? The grammar is different too. Tá do leabhair agam, ‘I have your book’, is said like “taw doe looer a gum” and, word for word, means ‘is your book at-me’. Do bhris sé an cathaoir orm is said like “doe vrish shay a ca-heer orum,” word-for-word means ‘… broke he the chair on-me’, but doesn’t mean he broke it literally on you, just that he broke it to your detriment, the same as in casual English we use “…on me” to mean ‘to my detriment’, as in “He went and sold it on me” or “She walked out on me.”

So anyway, Irish consonants can be either narrow or broad, which means palatalized or not. English parallels would be like the difference between the two common pronunciations of news (/njuz/ or /nuz/) or of mature (/mətʃʊr/ or /mətur/). The way they indicate this in writing is by having them flanked by either “narrow” (i, e) or “broad” (a, o, u) vowel letters, as appropriate. So there are a lot of “silent vowels” in written Irish. (For other reasons, there are apparently silent consonants too – but really they’re part of digraphs, like th is in English – but I’m not going into that now.) But when there’s an e at the end of a word, it’s pronounced, but just as a reduced vowel: /ə/. And if there’s a t right before it, it’s narrow, which means it’s said like “ch” – that is to say, the same thing many of us do when we say “meet you” or “slant ya.”

This word sláinte, which means ‘health’, is – incidentally – related, way back in Proto-Indo-European, to Latin salus ‘health’ and German selig ‘blessed’. Also to Italian salute and Spanish salud, which both mean ‘health’ and both are used as toasts too. We do like to wish each other good health as we raise a glass. However green its contents may or may not be.

Incidentally, the Irish word for ‘green’ is glas. It’s also the Irish word for ‘grey’. Just as we see the sky, the sea, and many other shades and saturations as different versions of blue, Irish sees all these greens and greys – and the colour of blue-grey eyes – as different shades and saturations of glas. (Which means my wife and I have the same colour eyes in Irish, though not in English.) That kind of makes sense; a lot of the greys you’ll find in nature are easily seen as desaturated green.

So about 90% of the scenery in Ireland is glas. Also about 90% of Canadian pub-goers on their way home at 3 AM after St. Patrick’s. And 100% of the ones the road has risen to meet.