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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: cooking

baked in

(2000’s | financese? | “built in”)

In a literal sense, we use “baked in” to refer to an ingredient incorporated before cooking, meaning that it is inseparable from the other ingredients and inextricable from the dish as a whole (as “baked-in flavor”). When we use it figuratively, it means something more like “inevitable.” It seems to have originated among financial types in the seventies and eighties (LexisNexis records the great banker Walter Wriston dropping it in 1979), generally in the form “(already) baked in the cake,” i.e., predetermined because macroeconomic conditions now in place (not necessarily because we planned it that way) must result in certain consequences no matter what we do.

Nowadays “baked in” retains that air of inevitability, but an alternate connotation has arisen: there from the start (also inherent in the literal). It is unreasonable to expect to get rid of it because it was always there, and everything around it has changed to reflect its presence. Any strongly held tenet of a political stance, a social movement, a scientific process, or a hunch can be baked in — and the phrase is still used often to talk about markets and marketing. Take a sentence like “In America, racism is baked in,” a proposition obvious to anyone with a glancing knowledge of our history. It was there from the beginning, it’s impossible (so far) to get rid of, and it continues to loom over contemporary politics and events.

“Baked in” doesn’t have to refer to a flaw, but it usually does. Here are two in the same ballpark: “hard-wired” and “overdetermined.” They are all generally used to explain after the fact why something happened and to tell us we should have seen it coming. The relation to the older “built in” — which “baked in” has not to date displaced — is obvious; the connection to “half-baked” is more subtle. “Steeped in” is another old culinary metaphor that works the same crowd.

Even now, “baked in” usually comes after the (linking) verb and spends little time acting as verb itself. (You do see it occasionally, especially among techie writers.) It doesn’t act as adjective often before a noun, either, but it could. It seems noteworthy that it is much more common in a passive mood than an active, a significant trait that may change over time. Poetic justice favors its use in discussions of climate change, but that turn does not seem to have been fully taken.

The descent from “baked in the cake” to “baked in” reminds us how many new expressions arrive at their final form simply by having pieces lopped off, usually at the end. An elaboration deemed necessary when an expression sounds new and daring grows tiresome over time, and we retreat gratefully to the shortened version. As with “lean in” and others, the process has yielded a new phrasal verb, or rather made an old one more common, operating over a much wider field.

Lovely Liz from Queens has ventured “baked in” more than once, which means she considers it a good candidate for the blog. Dead-on as usual, ba-bee! I know you will set me right if I have erred.

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(2010’s | journalese?)

This word has started popping up frequently in New York City, where the government has launched a campaign against this particular urban blight. For those of you fortunate enough to live in rural areas, a fatberg (“berg” as in “iceberg”) is a mass formed of cooking fat and other stuff — baby wipes are common — in the sewers large enough to obstruct the flow (examples here). A Briticism, the expression was pressed into service in 2013 when the things made their presence felt around the United Kingdom, notably in Kingston in August, when a fifteen-ton fatberg the size of a London bus was discovered just in time, before it caused raw sewage to pour out through the manholes. That occasion spread the term all over the English-speaking world and introduced it rather precipitately to the mainstream. It had shown up before in the British press, often in articles about London entrepreneurs who aimed to convert fatbergs into energy with some good old British pluck and ingenuity. The lads intended to salvage the grease, truck it off to the biodiesel plant, and turn it into kilowatt-hours. Makes me glad I have a desk job.

Presumably fatbergs result from changes in our flushing habits along with increased population and antiquated sewers. More products — mainly wipes and cat litter — advertise themselves as flushable nowadays, and disposal of used grease — known in the trade as “FOG,” which stands for “fat, oils, grease” — is the same problem it’s always been. Most municipalities do not have household-level collection of oil and fat, which is laborious and probably would not pay for itself. Which means that as it always seems to be in America, the landfill is the last resort; if you don’t know what else to do with it, throw it away. Even environmentally conscious New York City, which in some areas does actually collect food waste, including bones, grease, etc., must tell residents of other neighborhoods that they should throw used cooking oil away instead of dumping it down the drain. The city has inaugurated an educational campaign (Dave Barry is not making this up, and neither am I) that instructs residents to flush only the four P’s: pee, poop, puke, and paper. They forgot phlegm.

Fatbergs do seem to have caught our imagination. There’s a children’s book and a prospective West End musical (grease is the word); the Museum of London had a piece of a fatberg on display for a while (it was sealed in a plastic container, so you couldn’t smell it). Two guys in Amsterdam are building a fatberg in the sea. Part of our fascination stems from horror or disgust. Yet there’s also an element of pride in our ability to generate waste and create vast subterranean messes that someone else has to clean up — because there’s no way to get rid of a fatberg except to send people down there to hack away until it no longer clogs the pipe. They are born at the intersection of consumerism and hygiene, the repressed dark side of our unremitting consumption and the waste that goes with it.

“Fatberg,” like “workaholic,” is formed with an affix that is otherwise nonsensical, yet we understand it right away (cf. “Jumbotron,” “McMansion,” and “robocall“). While it was not born at an ascertainable time and place, like “irrational exuberance,” it went from zero to sixty in a hurry.

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(1990’s | athletese | “bust,” “trouncing”)

A word that has gone in several directions since I learned it in junior high phys. ed. while engaging in every boy’s favorite sport, wrestling. (The term was also used in football, even then, though not as much.) It’s a tackle, basically, where one person falls on another and holds him down, both having started from a standing position. Now it’s used in quite a variety of fields, most but not all of them direct descendants:

Another from athletese: in archery and target shooting it was used as an adjective to describe a bow or long gun that is easily disassembled, as in a “takedown bow.” You will encounter this sort of use now and then in other fields, to the point that “takedown” may serve as the opposite of “set-up.” It doesn’t seem to be used often that way, but it is available for spot duty. (As in “Takedown is simple and requires no more than a screwdriver.”)

Law enforcement: a raid or mass arrest that breaks up a gang or ring, or captures a single wanted lawbreaker. Sometimes simply the literal meaning: tackling or restraining. The expression is probably used more commonly in this context than any other. It came in during the nineties and was common by 2000. That year’s movie about the arrest of fugitive hacker Kevin Mitnick was called “Takedown.”

Computer repair: Also common, but showed up later, after 2000. Nothing complicated here; the expression is used to mean “destruction or neutralizing of malware, spyware, etc.” Though the process is a lot simpler when a wrestler does it, the implication of overwhelming an opponent remains in computerese.

Now, thanks to YouTube and related sites, we have an internese usage: removing a web site or unlicensed content from a site or sites (also after 2000). The web has created fertile fields for copyright infringement, violation, and steamrolling, and the simplest possible noun formulation for the act of countering it does appear to be “takedown,” which is either an echo of the athletese sense or just formed from the verb phrase “take down,” as in what we do to web sites that steal our content. Or both. It’s what you do to a web site, or a wrestler, or a fellow chef?!

As in these charming Brooklyn cook-offs, which are known as “takedowns,” promising vigorous competition from high-end chefs to see who can make the best use of a specified ingredient. The television program Iron Chef had the same idea — was the word takedown ever used on the English version? Could have been. The word has a more general range here, implying no-holds-barred combat, though jokingly. It might be a corruption of “throw-down” or “beatdown.”

“Takedown” is used in financial contexts (where the definition is surprisingly complicated — see Investopedia for details). This sense is not obviously related to the others and probably has an independent origin. It is older than any of the others except possibly the wrestling term from which the others are descended. Presumably its relative opacity prevented it from influencing everyday language with the same pertinacity as its athletic cousin.

Finally, the word seems to have broken out of its assorted ghettos and now has a much wider, figurative sense: thorough or comprehensive defeat that one person (or entity) inflicts on another — the verb we used to use for this sort of thing was “demolish.” More specifically, the act of anatomizing the deficiencies of another, of making a mockery of their principles (or adherence to them), and thereby diminishing or destroying their credibility. It is always a forceful term, suggesting a decisive defeat or injury. This is all part of the great efflorescence “takedown” has enjoyed since 2000, and it likely portends increased frequency in its use. Now politicians throw it around, gossip columnists, talk show hosts. Sportswriters or financial reporters may use it in the figurative sense without thinking twice. It is unquestionably a handy term, one for which it is difficult to think of precise pre-1980 equivalents. Just don’t confuse it with “takeaway.” But do juxtapose it; I call your attention to the efforts of a fellow blogger who is engaged in an ongoing takedown of the takeaway.

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(2000’s | computerese | “precise,” “precisely categorized,” “well-organized,” “detailed,” “distinct”)

The new meaning of this expression has become ingrained (sorry) in our language rather quickly. Twenty years ago it turned up occasionally in computer talk — generally modifying “data” or “information” — now it turns up in all sorts of speech. Like many expressions born of computer jockeys, it is rather vague and indiscriminate, particularly ironic in light of its meaning, and so it has spread to modify lots of things since the dawn of the new millennium. A recent list drawn from LexisNexis: “focus,” “workloads,” “control,” “detail,” “list,” “insight,” “goals,” “analysis,” “stories,” and “urea” (just wanted to see if you were paying attention). And there are times when the equivocator in me wants it to be replaced by “granulated.” Take this clause from 1999: “Because precise capacity planning requires a highly granular collection of network traffic data . . .” It’s not the collection that’s granular; it’s the data. But I like the idea of a “granulated collection,” in which the data is chopped and ground ever more finely, perhaps to the point where we would have to call it “powder(ed).” Excuse me, I have to go powder my data.

There is at least a notional connection between the new meaning and the old, which was firmly literal, describing the consistency of sand or table salt, too coarse to be powder, too fine to be pellets. Useful in the laboratory and the kitchen, it had three fields, broadly speaking: industrial processes, meteorology, where it modified “snow,” and cuisine. “Granular” is about two hundred years old (“granulate” is older still), but only recently has it developed any kind of figurative life. In computerese, it suggests more of a sliding scale than an absolute state; data is stored, organized, and retrieved in more or less granular ways, with more granular understood to be better. Greater granularity implies more than taking a data set and channeling it into new and finer categories; it also implies more reliable access, and perhaps, as a consequence, data made useful in more contexts or fields.

Computerese has taken a number of terms with primarily physical applications and used them to talk about things that have little or no corporeality. The key change undergone by such three-dimensional words drafted into computerese is precisely that surrender of dimension. (Is data one-dimensional? Two? Three? N? Or none?) “Access,” “bug,” “folder,” “handshake,” “packet,” “virus.” “Granular” is an adjective, not a noun, which seems noteworthy. Not all computer terminology comes from existing words, but a lot of it does, and none of the examples adduced above seems to have taken any great semantic twists or turns as they settled into the new dialect. Even “granular” seems a logical enough borrowing, if not quite as right as some of the nouns. As noted above, computer whizzes don’t have much of a way with words, but their comprehension seems solid and straightforward in these instances, at least. Give the geeks their due.

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secret sauce

(1990’s | journalese? | “secret ingredient,” “secret formula,” “magic (trick),” “trade secret”)

Back in the day, only food writers used “secret sauce,” usually in reference to this great chef or that. By the eighties the expression had acquired an association with fast food, probably prompted by the “Colonel’s secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the McDonald’s mantra anyone my age can still rattle off: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” True, that was “special sauce,” not “secret sauce” — which isn’t secret any more; there’s a recipe in Woman’s Day — but some linguistic cross-breeding was inevitable, and over time the expression has acquired the taint of the Golden Arches. Whether concocted by Escoffier or a corporate chemist, your secret sauce enhances the other ingredients and makes the dish unforgettable, so diners keep coming back. It’s what gives you an edge over the competition.

And that’s the figurative meaning, too. It may be a person, or a bit of wisdom won through observation, or just something you know that the others don’t. Whatever form it takes, it’s the catalyst or the solvent; that is, it makes the heterogeneous elements on the job, in the dugout, or in the studio work together toward superior results. A 2014 article in USA Today defined it thus: “that thing that you do that is unique, different, and special.” It is used strikingly often in the negative to remind us there are no shortcuts to success — it’s mostly hard work and trial and error. (In 1990, NBC Television executive Brandon Tartikoff observed, “Once you reach a certain level of success in this job, people start to believe you have a secret sauce. They want to know, why isn’t that sauce spread across the whole [programming] schedule?”)

We started using “secret sauce” figuratively right around 1990, as far as I can tell; there were a few tentative examples before that, but it started to show up in quantity then. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious channel from the literal to the figurative use. Its earliest avatars tended to turn up in entertainment reporting (including sports). Somewhere back there, someone got the idea of taking the old culinary expression, which had already dropped a brow-level or two through persistent association with fast food, and applying it to non-comestible situations. And it stuck, then spread into more and more contexts like a béarnaise slowly smothering your entrée.

A new adjective, “awesomesauce,” has recently come to my attention. It’s still a young person’s word, I think, that sounds strange to older people like myself, though I suppose the built-in rhyme makes it catchier. Also used as an interjection, the word implies a state of felicity beyond mere awesomeness, tending toward exhilaration or delirium. It first showed up in Urban Dictionary in 2005 (they spell it with a space), but those people are early adopters, and I doubt it was in general use that soon. It’s not in general use now, for that matter, but I’ve come across it and I’d guess most alert readers have as well. Can “criss-cross awesomesauce” be far behind?

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comfort food

(1980’s | journalese (gastronomy) | “home cooking,” “favorite dish”)

You could construct a good personality test by asking subjects to define this expression and list examples. Food writers use it confidently, but it has a wide range of meaning, though the gradations can be pretty subtle. The bottom lines that seem to underlie every use of the phrase: it has to be something the diner is already familiar with, and likes. Beyond that, it can go in several directions with equal confidence. Obviously, there is some overlap among the categories below, but I find the taxonomy helpful:

-What you ate when you were a small child, therefore often mushy or liquid, that makes you feel like you’re in Mama’s arms again. In other words, comforting food. Things like macaroni and cheese or tomato soup.

-What lovely Liz from Queens calls “white food.” Also often mushy and associated with childhood, but the point is it’s uncomplicated — bland and starchy as well as pale in color. Mashed potatoes, bananas, vanilla ice cream.

-What people eat in the country. “Comfort food” is sometimes used as a synonym for down-home dishes, and it may have a strong regional tinge. Comfort foods in the South may differ from comfort foods in the Northwest, for example (Moon Pies are not big in Seattle). Burritos in the Southwest, lobster rolls in the Northeast.

-Anything plain and unsurprising. Sometimes “comfort food” refers to things that are simple to prepare as well as eat, perhaps with the implication that it’s for family consumption rather than guests. This covers the first two above and other areas as well. Oatmeal, spaghetti, scrambled eggs.

-Heavy or at least substantial preparations; usually meat, frying, or both are involved. Meat loaf, casseroles, pot roast, burger and fries. Don’t be alarmed if the word “rib-sticking” appears nearby.

-Whatever you happen to enjoy, whatever makes you feel better for having eaten it, or makes up for a bad day. This sense of the term really opens the floodgates; now fancy gourmet concoctions can sit right beside the humblest fare. Sushi or catfish, crème brulée or egg custard, sweetbreads or scrapple. Such broad usage may be an abuse of the term, but you hear it a fair amount.

Notable by its absence from the lists above is the noble vegetable. The more effort it requires to eat, and the less obviously sweet, salty, or fatty it is, the less likely it will qualify as comfort food (except under the last definition, where anything goes).

There are some obvious faults — in the geological sense — in the meaning of “comfort food” that help explain the multiplicity sketched above. The main one: both personal preference and social custom are part of the field covered by this expression, and neither can be disregarded. Each person has their own, to some degree, but there is usually a fairly strong consensus on what most people in the same culture would consider comfort food. If your version of it is a rice cake with a shmear of tofu, that’s your business, but don’t expect your peers to share your tastes. Another fault: Lovers of exotic cuisine may depict “comfort food” with a sneer as unworthy of an adventurous palate, but more often it operates with reverse snobbery, as the lower classes contrast their chow lovingly with the pretentious, fussy gourmet variety. I also note in passing that “comfort food” partakes of nostalgia, real or imagined, especially when it summons our childhood diet or rural eating habits. But once again, the nostalgia may be deeply personal (childhood) or sociocultural (down home). Another point of negative interest: the expression is rarely used metaphorically (e.g., calling a novel “literary comfort food” as a reviewer in the New York Times did in 1987). We have chicken soup for the soul, but comfort food fills only the belly. To round off this sequence of unrelated points, I will suggest that there is no direct connection between the rises of “comfort zone” and “comfort food,” but they occurred at the same time, and it’s quite possible the two expressions helped each other into everyday language.

My brilliant, beautiful girlfriend gave me this expression months ago, and I finally decided to take a bite out of it. Thanks, baby!

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stick a fork in him, he’s done

(2000’s | journalese | “he’s dead in the water,” “his goose is cooked,” “(you can) forget about him” “it’s (all) over”)

One of those top-down terms, like “smartest guy in the room.” It owes its celebrity to the fact that it is used by prominent people about prominent people, so we all have to know what it means even if we seldom use it in our humdrum everyday lives.

From the earliest sightings in the late eighties until now, this phrase has most readily been directed at politicians or athletes. Ann Richards, then governor of Texas, seems to have been responsible for the first widely-noticed use of “stick a fork in him, he’s done” in her dismissal of George Bush’s candidacy in October 1992, a few weeks before the election. (The earliest I found in LexisNexis dated from 1987 in Spin magazine, and it had nothing to do with politics.) Other political figures who felt the lash: Fidel Castro, Bob Dole (1996), Hillary Clinton (2008), and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. The phrase seemed poised to take off in 1996, the second election in a row for which the Republicans put up a lackluster candidate. Like “soccer mom,” it looked ready to jump into the mainstream. Yet LexisNexis coughs up one solitary example between the end of 1996 and 2000. As you might expect, the phrase turns up more often in election years, and sportswriters have grown more fond of it over time, but it has not become as frequently used as many other expressions I have considered.

By definition, the phrase applies to losers. It’s a way to call someone a loser without using the word, one reason politicians like it (see also “humbled,” “unintended consequences” and “Joe Sixpack“). It is used only when it is clear that not only is the target hopelessly behind in the contest, he can’t possibly catch up. Dewey would not have used it against Truman in 1948 because the race never got lopsided enough. Not only does the phrase carry an unmistakable stamp of finality, it crows and gloats as well. It is not at all unusual for the phrase to carry a healthy dose of contempt.

Chronologically, “stick a fork in him” follows two other pithy dismissals (say that five times fast), “he’s history” and “he’s toast.” Actually, both of those expressions feel most comfortable in the second person, but they work in the third (very unusual in the first person, however). “You’re history” came along first; I remember learning it during my freshman year in college from my more sophisticated classmates. “You’re toast” came in a few years later. Like “stick a fork in him,” (and “goose is cooked”), it relies on a culinary vehicle. Because if it’s not dead when you start cooking it, it is by the time you’re done. Both of these vigorous expressions share the note of finality, and the note of extreme prejudice, that we noted above in “stick a fork in him.” Notably, the latter expression cannot be used in the second person, but it can be used in the first and is most commonly used in third person. So in pronominal terms, it complements “you’re history” rather neatly.

The reason you put a fork in a roast is to determine whether it is sufficiently cooked. But a canny politician uses the expression only when he knows his opponent is completely done. You don’t do it to find something out, you do it for spite — not unlike “twist the knife.” Utensils make for treacherous figures of speech.

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