Elixirs of Life

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Drinks of the Immortals

Nectar

Before nectar was the drink of bees it was the drink of the gods. Nectar is the Latinized version of the Greek νέκταρ which breaks down into nek (death) and tar (overcoming).

Ambrosia

Ambrosial now refers to something that is extremely pleasing to the senses, especially taste. At further examination you can see its parts a- (not) + mbrotos (mortal). In Greek mythology the gods were often drinking or eating something called ambrosia, literally meaning immortal, which imbued them with youth.

Whiskey

Uisce beatha is Gaelic phrase from which we take our word whiskey (a mispronunciation of the first word uisce). Uisce beatha literally means water of life.

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Cellar Door

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Cellar door is considered by many to be the most euphonic sound combination in the English language. Say it slowly and pay attention to its completeness, its pleasing sensation in your mouth. Some might say it’s like biting into a delicious piece of roast, well seasoned and tender. If you can imagine a word creating a taste in your mouth you are experiencing insight into a condition called synesthesia. In some people words can vividly impart taste. These people experience what is called lexical-gustatory synesthesia. To these few, the word jail might taste like a cold piece of bacon. The word gazebo might taste like dutch cholocate. For people who experience lexical-gustatory synesthesia these word flavor associations are life long occurrences. They will always distinctly associate the same flavor with the same word.

Other forms of synesthesia exist as well, all blurring the lines between perceptions. Some people always see the number eight as blue. Some people might hear a sound when experiencing a certain taste. Scientists don’t know much about this condition but believe that it comes from some level of cross wiring in the brain.

In the movie Ratatouille there is a scene in which Remy, the chef mouse, tries to describe why some flavor combinations are so delicious. When combining a bit of cheese and fruit, color explosions erupt around him in a synesthetic experience.

While you might not taste a hot café latte when you hear the word bookshelf, most people are affected by sound in profound physiological ways that they are unaware of.

The study of the euphony or cacophony of words is called phonoaesthetics. Some languages are considered more euphonic than others. For example, French is famous for having an enchanting sound. Can the sound of a language have an effect on the speaker of that language? Do the French value beauty because of their beautiful language or did the language grow beautiful because of the French ideologies? Or is it all a coincidence?

Corny

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Two corncobs were walking down the street when one corncob noticed that a third corncob was following them. The first corncob said to the second one ‘I think we are being followed by a stalker’.

This is of course a corny joke. How did failed attempts at entertainment become known as corny? Just like Popsicle sticks are infamous for their dreadful wisecracks, old corn catalogs similarly used hackneyed jokes to ‘entertain’ the reader. This phrase evolved from corn jokes to just plain corny.

The jokes from the seed catalogs may be prosaic, but the artworks that adorn the covers are the opposite. You have never seen more beautiful pictures of food in your entire life. Visit the Smithsonian’s website to view their collection of about 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs dating from the 1830’s. This is where I found the amazing King Corn pictured above.

http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/SeedNurseryCatalogs/collection.cfm

Friday quiz

This word for food in Spanish is related to the word meaning “capable of igniting” in English. (Think car engine)
What are the two words?

Salary

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I make a decent rentaryRentary is the word that I propose take the place of salary, as our salaries no longer go towards buying expensive salt. (Think sal like salt in Spanish). Salary originated in Roman times when soldiers were issued stipends for the purchase of salt.  If a soldier did not do a good job he was not worth his salt.  Now we work mostly to pay our rents or mortgages.  I have a few coworkers that I could argue are not worth their rents.     

Sweet

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Language is full of metaphor, and calling someone sweet is a prolific one.  But what does it mean?  To an American, sweet is perhaps our most cherished taste, so to be called sweet is a compliment.  To a Japanese person, on the other hand, sweet might be a taste considered simple and obvious.  The word for sweet in Japanese, amai, when applied to a person often means that the person is naïve or unprepared (yatsu wa amai やつは甘い).  It can be used to say someone is spoiled or a brat. (amai hahaoya 甘い母親)  It is even used to describe a car with bad brakes. (bureeki ga amai ブレーキが甘い)  To the Japanese, sweet often carries a negative connotation.

Historically, the Japanese food culture has not focused on desserts.  Meals were traditionally ended with a few bites of ripe fruit.  Later the wagashi culture developed (pictured above).  Wagashi are ornamental sweets served with tea, typically made from plant ingredients.  Because of how ornate they are, their price is limiting, so no more than one or two would be eaten in a single sitting.

The Japanese are now making more desserts, beautiful desserts, and still they have a much more balanced flavor profile than the western dessert tradition.  They often contain savory ingredients like beans and seaweed.

When Oreo wanted to introduce their product to Japan they were forced to make it less sweet to suit local palates.  They created and marketed the Mildly Sweet Oreo.

This highlights one of the difficulties of translating from one language to the next, cultural perception.  When an American smiles happily at being sweet a Japanese person may grimace. To paraphrase Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, “translation is like looking at the back side of a tapestry, the images are all there but covered in threads that make them indistinct”.

Tasting food from another culture can be the same. By eating food different than your own you are looking at the backside of that tapestry, not able to see what the natives see so clearly from the front side.

Old Chestnut

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An old chestnut is a story that has been repeated many times and has become dull.  This phrase first came into existence when in the well-liked 1816 melodrama play Broken Sword two characters exchanged these lines:

Zavior. Let me see–ay! it is exactly six years since that peace being restored to Spain, and my ship paid off, my kind brother offered me a snug hammock in the dwelling of my forefathers. I mounted a mule at Barcelona and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when, suddenly, from the thick boughs of a cork-tree–
Pablo. [Jumping up.] A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut!
Zavior. Bah, you booby! I say, a cork!
Pablo. And I swear, a chesnut. Captain, this is the twenty-seventh time 1 have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

After this, newspapers began referring to stale stories as chestnutsOld was later added for emphasis.  And eventually the phrase old chestnut made it’s way into common vernacular.

Barack

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Ethiopia is the proud birthplace of coffee. Coffee there is drunk ceremoniously, and to be invited to the house of an Ethiopian for coffee is a great honor. If you find yourself invited to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, remember to stay for all three servings. After the coffee is roasted, ground and brewed (a series of sacred tasks done only by women) the coffee is served in three rounds, abol, tona and baraka. You are right to think baraka and Barack might be related. The last round of the coffee ceremony, baraka, just like the name Barack as in Barack Obama, means blessed. Baraka and Barack both come from the semitic language group which includes Hebrew, Arabic and Amharic (the language of Ethiopia).

Nowhere could I find a satisfactory etymology for the other two rounds of coffee, abol and tona. Some claim that they simply mean first round and second round, respectively. I imagine there is a better story than that. If you know where these words come from let me know!

Friday quiz

What candy gets it’s name from the German word pfefferminz?

French Food Vocabulary

Déjeuner du matin

By Jacques Prévert

Il a mis le café 
Dans la tasse 
Il a mis le lait 
Dans la tasse de café 
Il a mis le sucre 
Dans le café au lait 
Avec la petite cuiller 
Il a tourné 
Il a bu le café au lait 
Et il a reposé la tasse 
Sans me parler 
Il a allumé 
Une cigarette 
Il a fait des ronds 
Avec la fumée 
Il a mis les cendres 
Dans le cendrier 
Sans me parler 
Sans me regarder 
Il s’est levé 
Il a mis 
Son chapeau sur sa tête 
Il a mis 
Son manteau de pluie 
Parce qu’il pleuvait 
Et il est parti 
Sous la pluie 
Sans une parole 
Sans me regarder 
Et moi j’ai pris 
Ma tête dans ma main 
Et j’ai pleuré. 

 

The Brunch

He put the coffee
In the cup
In put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the cafe au lait
With the little spoon
He stirred
He drank the coffee
And he set down the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit
A cigarette
He made rings
With the smoke
He put the ashes
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put
His hat on his head
He put
His raincoat on
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I put my head in my hand
And I cried.

 

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