Daily Archives: June 3, 2009

umami

For some people, the heart of this word is the mm its object can produce: that savoury flavour of a rich broth, perhaps a bowl of miso soup. For others, the taste will have them asking “Um, am I tasting monosodium glutamate?” Well, ask your mommy… she probably used to use the stuff, at least in seasoning salt. Many people and products still do. But umami does not require MSG; it can be gotten from quite a few different kinds of food. A good aged Vermont cheddar will give you dose of it, as will nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce). And of course miso paste and soy sauce. The word does come from Japanese, after all, even if it refers to a taste function some say everyone has (the “fifth basic taste” along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). Take umai “delicious” and add mi, a suffix that makes abstract nouns of adjectives (but then write the mi like the mi that means “taste” – how rich is that!), and you have a soft, humming word for deliciousness or savour – a lip-smacker, perhaps, though it does present to the eye something more like the teeth behind the lips, m m. There are echoes of Pop Tops (“Ooh, mamy, mamy blue”) and perhaps Al Jolson, but let that not jar your palate; think instead of Maui and stay mum. This is, after all, a word from the land that gave us Zen, and that means mu, ami. Shut up and enjoy your soup.

bibliography

This word once signified the act of writing books; now it tells you you’ve gotten to the end of a written work. And if you’re the writer, the odds are good that by the time you’re to the end of the bibliography, you’ll be dazed and loopy and halfway to going bibblybibblybibbly too. It may seem all Greek to you, especially with the insistence on including the city of publication (“Honey, let’s go to Harmondsworth, I need to buy some Penguin books”). If it does, well enough; Greek is where this word is from: bibliographía, from biblion, “book” (or “paper” or “papyrus”), and graphé, “writing.” Since the early 19th century we’ve used this word for a list of books for a specific purpose (e.g., a certain topic, or a certain term paper). And this five-syllable Greek word, which sounds rather like a photocopier running off a copy of some reference you need, and which has a taste of Bible (the good “book”) and graphite (the mineral you write with), seems so much more appropriate to a library (bibliotheque) and its scholarly denizens (with their myriad other -ographies) and to antiquarian booksellers, lunettes, foxing and century-old dust than does the businesslike Latinate references or the half-Saxon, half-Latin proletarian works cited (which sounds rather like a way of saying “excited by work”).