Foods are Something Else!

Let’s talk about hamburgers. Depending on your druthers a carefully-proportioned build of the bread, meat, vegetables and condiments makes for an American classic that – despite trendy variations – hasn’t changed in over a century. But here’s a curiosity for you: Why does every ingredient in a burger also serve an entirely different purpose in the English language? Let’s disassemble, shall we?  Top to bottom, I now give you the eleven essential ingredients.


The bun comes first of course; the capstone to lock all other burger components into place. But a bun is also an element of a hairstyle, is it not? You have that coil of hair on top of the head or at the nape of the neck and you call it a bun.  We even have the man-bun.  Er, not me.  The only bun I identify with is on my burger.

Below the bun we find a very small vegetable garden.  For today’s purposes we include onions, tomatoes, lettuce and pickles.  But did you know, if you know all there is to know about a topic, you “know your onions“?  Did you also know a tomato is old-world slang for a woman or a girl?  Lettuce is today’s language for cash – dollar bills if you will.  And a pickle, well that’s one of those predicaments where you say, “how did I get into this?”

Here’s a favorite ingredient.  I like bacon on my burger.  But not only are we all trying to bring home the bacon (i.e. make a living), but we’re also occasionally trying to save someone’s bacon (i.e. they desperately need our help).

Time for condiments.  In no particular order, squeeze on a little mustard, relish and ketchup.  Now, if I approve of your hamburger I tell you it “cuts the mustard“.  And when you sit down to enjoy your burger I assume you relish the taste.

(Confession timeout: ketchup exists for the one and only purpose of serving as king of the condiments.  Call it ketchup or catsup; all I know is the Chinese claim its invention.  So opportunity knocks; let’s get ketchup out of the bottle and into an alternative use in the English language!)

Now add a slice of cheese.  Think about that ingredient for a moment.  Where else do you use cheese outside of the food world?  Why, in front of the camera of course!  And when you “say cheese” let’s also agree it has nothing to do with the food, but rather the way the word forces your mouth into the requisite smile for the photographer.

We’re almost there.  The beef (patty) that is the essential ingredient of the hamburger is so much more than ground round.  It’s a reference to muscle or brawn (but not to be confused with “beefcake” as this blog is rated “G”).  Having a beef is about a complaint or an argument.  Building something in size or amount means beefing it up.

Let’s not forget about the bottom bun.  If we combine it with the top bun we have the plural, and that of course refers to a certain part of the human anatomy.  Pursue your “buns of steel” if you must; I will settle for my buns on burgers.

That’s all for today’s enlightenment on the vocabulary of the hamburger.  For extra credit check out the spice rack (“salt”, “pepper”, and so many more) or the bakery case (“cookies”, “rolls”), Foods are chomping to be more than just something to eat!

Sounds Good to Me

At the movies last weekend, as we waited for the lights to dim, two women were having a conversation in the row in front of us.  What struck me was not what they were talking about, but how they sounded.  Their voices projected loud and clear above the quieter chatter of others in the theater.  Yet they were talking normally, neither straining nor raising their voices.  It’s like they had built-in megaphones.

36 - velvety

I find that fascinating about the human voice.  With one person the words come out all velvety and smooth, like honey-dripped taffy.  With others it’s all cymbals and brass band.

Take “Debbie” on the current season of television’s “Survivor”.  If you watch, you know who Debbie is (the self-proclaimed uber-intelligent “Brain Tribe” member).  But even if you didn’t know all that about Debbie, you’d recognize her voice in a heartbeat.  There’s just something about her combination of accent, volume, and non-stop blah-blah-blah.

When I hear voices like Debbie’s, I’m spirited back in time to high school speech class.  Midway through that semester so many years ago, our teacher brought in an “alumna” to demonstrate public speaking at its most refined.  I’ll never forget it.  Our guest spent several moments standing quietly in front of us; eyes closed, breathing deep, as if preparing for a long delivery.  Then she simply said:

Thank you for the plums.  They were delicious.”

That was it.  That was her entire speech.  But I was utterly spellbound.  The way she delivered just two lines: enunciating each word completely, starting and finishing each sentence smoothly, captivating her audience with her words as well as her body language – was the total sensory experience.  I could hear her eating those plums.  I could see the juice dripping down her lips.  I could even taste those plums myself (and they were delicious).  To this day it is one of the most powerful moments of speech I have ever witnessed.

The accents in the Southern states – i.e. Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia – are similarly spellbinding.  I remember touring a plantation house once when I was a teenager, and our guide was a short, heavy-set black woman who possessed one the softest, sweetest voices I had ever heard.  Her words were so calming and mesmerizing I found myself falling asleep on my feet, jaw dropped.  I hope she realized that was a compliment, because I can still hear her voice to this day.

The Irish accent is even more affecting to me.  Male or female; on the Emerald Isle or watching the movie “Brooklyn”; there is something utterly captivating about the Irish spin on the spoken word.  It is soft and fluid, with subtle twists of pronunciation and emphasis.  It’s like an audio massage.  I could listen to the female Irish voice for hours on end (just as my wife could listen to the male equivalent.  Hate you for that, Colin Farrell).

Since I am neither Irish nor a resident of the South, nor even a refined public speaker, I settle instead for using words that simply sound nice.  Search the Web and you’ll find lists of “the most beautiful words” or “the sweetest-sounding words”.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • cashmere
  • cinnamon
  • chimes
  • dulcet
  • effervescence
  • grace
  • lithe
  • mist
  • murmur
  • rhapsody
  • sapphire
  • serene

Don’t those sound nice and velvety?  Don’t they bring just a tinge of comfort, or conjure up images of the nicer things in life?  To conclude, some of us may not possess the most pleasant of pipes (like Survivor Debbie).  But at least we have some sugary words that can bring us a little closer to that honey-dripped taffy.


Planed English

Have you ever listened to a friend or family member talk, and you realize you just enjoy listening to them regardless of what they’re talking about? Why does this happen? What gets the credit for your undivided attention? I would venture to say your friend or family member has a personal command of the English language. That is, you are drawn to this person’s unique subset of the hundreds of thousands of words available to them. He or she can string together words in a way that makes you smile or laugh, or even react the particular way they would want you to. They speak with fluency and aptness. They speak with eloquence.

Today’s generation does not speak with eloquence. Thanks to the convenience of email and text, in fact they hardly speak at all. My children have a habit of telling me “they spoke to so and so” and when pressed, I realize they’re referring to texting. The phone calls of my generation have become the texts of theirs. Even email is beginning to take a back seat to instant messaging.

Whatever the medium, today’s conversations have been reduced to a minimum of words, or not even words at all! Incomplete sentences. Acronyms (i.e. LOL). Emoticons. Hashtags. It might as well be its own language. Are we really intent on leaving “Queen’s” English in the rear-view mirror, for something not even qualifying as “plain” English?

Most of what we see and do and experience can be summed up in a few words. My endeavor with this blog is to bring a single, elegant word to the table, back it up with a meaningful moment or story in my life, and send you away thinking how you might use that word more often in your everyday conversations. We all have something to say. But can we say it in a way that captivates and inspires? Can we say it with eloquence?

Join me on this journey, won’t you? Let me show you life in a word.