Daily Archives: June 22, 2010


Let’s start with what this isn’t: namely, a heavy metal band. Sorry! Does look like it, though, doesn’t it? It’s the umlauts – but they make such a nice effect on the o‘s, too, like a pair of eyes with bushy eyebrows, or perhaps two steaming pots viewed from the side.

Well, you can guess how they’re pronounced: like [e] (as in eh) but rounded – like in schön. Now guess the next thing from that: do you think this word has anything to do with pork?

Well, consider that pork comes from French porc, and ultimately from Latin porcus. Next, consider that rounded front vowels written with umlauts are not something one finds in Romance languages. (It’s not that they don’t have rounded front sounds; it’s that they don’t use the two dots to signify them – those are used for other purposes.) Could a porcus–derived word have been borrowed into another non-Romance language? Oh, it could have. But not in this case.

But it’s no surprise if people think that it does have to do with pork. After all, pörkölt is a meat stew. Mind you, the stew is most commonly made with beef (though it can be made with pork, or rabbit, chicken, road kill, whatever…). This gives rise to a situation just like with hamburger: why ham – and why pörk – with beef?

Well, it’s like this. There’s a verb, pörkölni, which means “roast” or “singe” or, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, “roast the surface to the point of almost burning” (my paraphrase). This word pörkölt comes from that. So is this stew made with meat that has been nearly burned? Well, no. It just happens that in the early 1820s, when paprika was first imported to where this stew was invented, it was discovered that meat rubbed with it before cooking had just that hot-roasted kind of flavour they liked. So the stew – basically meat, onions, and paprika, and maybe some tomatoes – became very popular. In fact, it came to be served often to visitors from other countries. It’s a pretty common dish even in North American cuisine now.

Not heard of it? Well, what we call it is a name that has been transferred from a soup made with the same kind of meat and seasoning but extra liquid and some potatoes. That sort of soup was named “herder’s meat” (or “cowboy meat”), gulyá hás, which shortened to gulyás. But the s in this language is said like English “sh”, while the [s] sound is written sz. So, with the /l/ losing the palatalization, the name we generally use for this kind dish is goulash. And we often stick extra things in the dish, like noodles. When I was a kid, the “Hungarian goulash” we had was ground beef, noodles, onions, tomatoes, paprika, and I’m not sure what-all else.

By the way, if you’ve heard of paprikash (as, for instance, in When Harry Met Sally: “Waiter, there is too much pepper in the paprikash, but I would be pleased to partake of your pecan pie”), or paprikás as it’s spelled in Hungarian, it’s the same as pörkölt but with sour cream. Mmm!

But I like the word pörkölt, and not just because it’s misleading (and looks a bit like a pair of Elton John’s glasses), nor just because it sounds like it could be Turkish, nor because it sounds just a little like a bad word in Finnish (perkele), nor because at any rate it’s not from an Indo-European language – Hungarian is related to Finnish and Estonian (not too closely) but not at all to, for instance, German – but just because of the sound of it. And I don’t mean how it sounds like people who worship that noise cats make (purr cult). It just has a forced kind of feeling, with that second vowel exactly the same as the first, and both leading into liquids, and the word bookended with voiceless stops. Maybe like riding a bike down a couple of steps (a longer set of stairs would be like helter skelter). And it’s abrupt: those vowels are not to be held too long. If they were, the double dots would become double accents – and the word would look very surprised, pőrkőlt, and sound like slamming on the brakes at high speed and skidding to a stop.

I gotta say, though, a good bowl of pörkölt – like a good word – is worth stopping for.


Another week, another class of Introduction to Word Tasting. I began by striding up to the board and writing moist.

I was not disappointed at the response; I had been prepared for it by reports from others.

“That word is offensive to women,” said one of the students before I could even turn around. On turning, I found that it was Kayley. Several other female faces in the classroom wore expressions of mild or severe distaste. None of the guys seemed discomfited, except for Rupert, who seemed ready to flinch – but, then, he usually did.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Well, everyone knows it is.” Some of the other females present nodded.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it?'” I said. “I said, ‘Why?'”

Anna, who is not subject to discomfiture (she’s a carrier), volunteered, “Moist panties!”

“Wait,” said Brian, turning, “do you find wet offensive too?”

“Um, no, it’s not nasty like moist,” said Kayley.

“Uncomfortable moisture,” Anna added. “Feminine products.”

“How about dry?” I asked. “How about muffin? If I say we’re in a tight spot, or a word can be loosely defined, is it offensive? How do we choose which ones are tainted by association? And is this word really tainted? You know, Duncan Hines advertises its cake mixes as ‘So moist. So delicious. And so much more.’ And I really think they’re marketing to women.”

“Duncan,” another one of the females – Jenna – snorted. “Clueless male.”

“Duncan Hines is a brand of Pinnacle Foods,” I said, “which is run by women as well as men. The person named Duncan Hines died more than 60 years ago. And if we’re talking about clues, I’m still looking for evidence that you have a clear sense of why you should be offended by moist.”

“Well, if it’s not obvious to you…” Jenna said, waving her hand.

“That’s a non-answer,” I said. “But not to worry: even if you’re unwilling or unable to articulate it, that’s why we’re here. Words have overtones; words have aesthetics. And people spread ideas about words. If nice words like picnic can be poisoned by false stories, certainly a word like moist can be poisoned by groupthink. Exactly when does a given connotation or collocation or other echo come to dominate a word? Sometimes things just catch on. There are Facebook groups dedicated to hating the word moist.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket. “Not so long ago, the satirical website The Onion posted the following: ‘CORRECTIONS: After receiving fewer e-mail complaints than usual, it occurred to us that we have failed to incorporate the word “moist” into any of our recent articles. The Onion regrets missing the opportunity to offend its fragile readers’ delicate sensibilities. Moist.'”

“It’s come to be an ‘everybody knows’ thing,” Brian observed. “Except that not everybody knows.”

“And, indeed,” I said, “common agreement is what gives words their power. For instance, we can manage to use Latin-derived words for some body parts and functions without giving offense, but the Anglo-Saxon equivalents are considered very vulgar. Connotation undoubtedly involves groupthink. But again, why moist?”

“Well, because of what it goes with,” Kayley said.

I looked at further notes on the paper. “Air, soil, warm, eyes, keep, cool, tender, heat, skin, dark, cake…” I looked up. “Those are top collocations according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.”

Rupert raised his hand. “Toilet.” He almost smiled, remembering how Eleanor, our resident flutterbudget, had been driven into retreat by that word. “It sounds like toilet.”

Oyster!” Anna exclaimed. “Mmmm… moist oyster!” Kayley turned and looked at her with a face that said “You’re creepy.”

“The ois have it,” I said. “Especially when followed by that wet-sounding s. I think it’s a real factor.”

A hand from the side of the classroom. “Yes, Dawn,” I said.

“I don’t find it offensive,” Dawn said.

“Neither does my wife,” I said. “And there we have the other side of it: there may be a groupthink that dogpiles on moist –”

I winced, because I know what Anna was about to shout, and she did not disappoint: “Moist dog piles!”

I continued. “But it’s an in-group thing. Certainly there is some cultural and perhaps physical basis that leads some people to dislike it – probably a prurience about certain bodily features and functions, maybe a recollection of unpleasant sensations. But distaste and offense are different things. I dislike the word onus but I’m not offended by it. Moist is only offensive to those who decide they want to be offended by it. Being offended, of course, gives a person power in our society – control over others. That’s one motivation for this kind of groupthink.”

Dawn’s hand again. “So where does it come from?”

“The groupthink?” I asked.

“No, sorry, the word. The… etymology.”

“Oh!” I said. “I’m glad you asked. It comes most immediately from French, but the trail back from that is unclear, though it certainly goes to Latin. It’s thought that it’s a blend of mustum – ‘unfermented grape juice’ – and mucidus, which gives us the modern English word mucid.”

Brian’s face now took on a tinge of distaste. “Please tell me that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.”

I made a “sorry, but” shake of the head. “It’s an adjective relating to mucus. It can also mean ‘mouldy’ or ‘slimy’.”

Three or four voices declared, “Yuck!”

Anna’s face lit up. But before she could oblige with another interjection, Kayley turned to her, glaring, and said, “Oh, dry up!”