splunge

It’s hot, sticky, humid, sweaty. Time to dive, time to get wet, time to hurl yourself off a pier or quay or jetty or wharf or convenient boulder into a fresh cool lake. Lunge, take the plunge, splash: splunge.

Is that a word, splunge? It is now – but, more to the point, it has been for a couple of centuries. Oxford’s first citation is from 1839, but the quotation treats it as already existing: “Here are two real American words:—‘Sloping’—for slinking away; ‘Splunging’, like a porpoise.” Splunge shows up in various American books of the 1800s, especially works of fiction, and it always means just what it sounds like it means.

Which, by the way, is what? Oxford declares the origin to be “imitative,” but let’s be honest about what it’s imitating. Yes, you can say that splunging into water sounds like “splunge,” but you could as soon say it sounds like “plush” or “kaff” or any of quite a few other onomatopoeics. Splunge has a conventional form shaped by precedent: it imitates not just a sound, but another word – or, really, more than one word. 

It draws on plunge, of course, which has been in English since at least the 1300s, and came from Norman French, which had had it at least a couple of centuries already by then; it probably traced ultimately to the same Latin root (meaning ‘lead’, as in the metal) that gives us plumb. (Lunge, incidentally, didn’t hit English until the 1700s, at first as a fencing term trimmed down from allonge.) But it got that initial s from somewhere too. Splash has been around since the late 1600s, and it was formed by adding s to plash, which has been around since at least the mid-1500s, so we already had a model to follow. Various other spl- words have hit the scene over the centuries, and roughly half of them have to do with something wet and messy; the remainder include some other words with similar expressive aspect, such as split and splendid. It only makes sense that we would take plunge and add an s; really, we were bound to take the leap sooner or later.

So, yes, diving into water – especially deep water – has a certain “splunge!” about it, but in part that’s because we’re used to such a thing being expressed by words of similar sound. Why not splunge where others have splunged before? It wouldn’t be the first time anyone had given in to pier pressure… I mean peer pressure, I’m sure. We could equally say dive or immerse (from Latin mergo, ‘I dive’), or if we wanted to imitate the act and sound we could call it weeooo-froosh or something like that. But, since splunge is available, like a body of deep cool water for leaping into on a hot day, and a suitable spot for jumping in, why not avail ourselves of it?

serendipity

The island is a jewel, and full of delight and discoveries. It was formerly thinly attached to the mainland, but a storm severed that.

We left home late in the day and just made it onto the ferry. The forecast had been for rain and lightning, but, as so often this year, it faded away when squinted at. As we passed a freighter on the nod on the surface of the bay and debarked onto the island, we heard wind, but when we got to the beach it was calm and warm and lovely, and there was almost no one there, like a private resort. We sat looking out at the timeless lake, mind on eternity.

And after our time relaxing on the sand and in the water, we went to the little café spread out across the grass and found – like a mirage come to life – live music and people dancing. It was the first time in nearly two years that there had been live music there, and the next time would be another week and a half. We had just wonderfully chanced on it. And it was calypso… including, at times, Aina’s favourite musical instrument to listen to: an accordion.

Aina had been wishing for moussaka for some time, and lo, it was the daily special. She ordered it. And we learned that the draft taps had been taken over for the week by a favourite local brewery, so we ordered a flight of seven. The server dropped them off at the table without a legend or so much as even one word of description. Here: discover. A perfect cap on an evening of serendipity, like some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.

Serendipity: delightful discovery, or the faculty of making such. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole on the basis of the story “The Three Princes of Serendip” (an English version of “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo” by Michele Tramezzino, of Venice in 1557). As Walpole wrote, the heroes of the story “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The story is said to have been based on an old Persian fairy tale, and a key part of it – ignored by Walpole – gave an important contribution to the detective story genre. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

And where is Serendip? It’s an island in the Indian Ocean. You may have heard of it by other names. Serendip is from Persian Sarandip,* from from Pali Sīhaḷadīpa, from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa, from dvīpa ‘island’ and Siṃhala, which refers to the people of the island – a word that has come to us in English as Sinhala, the name we give to the language of that people. The word Siṃhala passed through several European languages (notably Portuguese, which is the Zelig of etymology throughout the South and East Asian seaboard, showing up again and again where you didn’t expect it) and arrived in English as Ceylon, our old name for the island we now call by the unrelated (though remarkably related-sounding) name Sri Lanka, which means, more or less, ‘holy island’.

OK, but where did Siṃhala come from? I know you were wondering; so was I. The -la part is a suffix; the root is siṃha, which means ‘lion’. The island got the name because, evidently, it was a place where the lions were, in case Bruce Cockburn was wondering at the time. And in its turn, siṃha is related to a large number of other words for ‘lion’, including Punjabi siṅgh, seen very commonly in Sikh names. The Swahili word for ‘lion’, simba, is strikingly similar, but there is nothing I can find to indicate an etymological connection – just a happy coincidence.

Anyway, I’ve heard that Sri Lanka is nice, full of delight and discoveries, but I’ve yet to visit it. An interesting fact is that although it’s off the southeast coast of India, it was for a long time attached by a thin land bridge to the Indian mainland, finally entirely severed by a storm.

And the same is true for Toronto Island, just across the harbour from downtown Toronto: until waves coming through in a storm a century and a half ago, it was a peninsula attached by a sandbar. Many things have changed since then; the island has only gotten more lovely… and serendipitous.

Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me…

*Neither Persian nor Pali nor Sanskrit has a capital–lower case distinction, but I’ve capitalized the word in each transliteration just to indicate it’s a proper noun.

ilk

When is the same kind not the same kind?

There are many words that have meant one thing, have come to be used mainly in one way, and through misgrasping of their common mode of appearance have gained a different common sense. Internecine is one such, a word originally meaning ‘devastating, very destructive, killing many’ but, through misunderstanding of its inter – used in this case as an intensive in Latin – come to be understood as ‘mutually destructive’. Prodigal is another, thanks to the parable of the prodigal son; its original and still occasional use is ‘lavish’ or ‘extravagant’, but now most users think it means ‘wayward’. And of course thou, originally a familiar pronoun applied to individuals of equal or lesser status, has – through persisting only in Biblical and poetic contexts – come to be seen by many as a particularly exalting term of address.

Well, ilk is another of that ilk.

We don’t use ilk often these days, but when we do, it’s nearly always in phrases such as all of his ilk or others of their ilk or with an adjective inserted, such as his ideological ilk or her communist ilk or their libertarian ilk. And nearly always it has a rather dim tone to it, conveying disapproval or even disgust. It’s like kind (as in of that kind) but rather less kind. I’m tempted to suspect that echoes of ill and yuck and perhaps bilk (but, I guess, not milk) have some influence, but I have no data to support that (nor any to negate it either, though).

Knowing that sense, I was just slightly confused when I picked up a book some years ago (U and Non-U Revisited) and saw, as one of its contributors, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk. 

Erm… of which ilk? Was this some kind of in-joke or winking reference to something opaque to me?

In fact, it turned out I had stumbled unawares on the phrase that had been the pivot in the usage of ilk. Historically, ilk did not mean ‘type’ or ‘group’ or ‘family’. It came from Old English ilca, which in turn drew on the same root as gave us like, and it meant ‘same’. And it became standard usage among the Scottish landed gentry that those who shared their name with the place they were from were “of that ilk.” So Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk was Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe. Meaning he was from the family that basically owned the place. Sort of like Lord Revelstoke of Revelstoke Parish.

But people saw of that ilk and took it to mean ‘of that family’ – in other words, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of the Moncreiffe family, you know, the Moncreiffe family, that one. Sort of like if someone were talking about someone named Trudeau and said “Yeah, those Trudeaus.” And from that, by the mid-1800s, ilk had come to be used to mean ‘family’ or ‘class’ or ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ and no longer to mean ‘same’. And somehow – perhaps by sound echoes; perhaps because that as in that one and of that ilk can tend to have a more negative tone than, say, the as in the one and of the ilk due to established usage patterns that I’m not going to try to explore here; perhaps because of attitudes towards the landed gentry; or perhaps for whatever other reasons you may imagine – it came to have a generally (though not quite universally) negative tone.

So ilk has become prodigal – extravagant in having two differing senses, and also wayward – but not internecine. When I said “ilk is another of that ilk,” I meant ‘another of the same’ but you likely read it as meaning ‘another of the kind’; however, it communicated equally well and had the same referent… except not entirely, because you probably saw a negative tone that, in the original sense, it didn’t have (in a way, mirroring the positive tone thou has gained). And thus of that ilk and of that ilk are the same kind… and not the same kind.

scaffold

Socially, language functions in many ways like a scaffold.

I’ll explain. But first I’ll talk briefly about this word scaffold and where it comes from and what it is used to mean now. Because of course I will.

Scaffold has to do with neither folds nor scafs, nor for that matter with holds. It’s yet another word that came to English from French, and came to French from Latin (and Greek), and changed quite a lot en route. The modern French reflex of it is échafaud; both words came from a word that went through quite a few forms, but had the early form escadafaut, which was es- (from Latin ex-, ‘out’) plus cadafaut, which, like modern French catafalque, comes from later Latin catafalcum (‘viewing platform’), which in its turn was probably made from cata-, from Greek κατα- (‘back, against’) and Latin falicum, in turn from fala (‘wooden gallery; siege tower’).

So it started with a siege tower and then became a viewing platform and then became a… oh, yes, I didn’t say: escadafaut generally referred to a platform for viewing a tournament.

But of course that’s not what scaffold (or scaffolding) is usually used for now. It’s that structure of metal supports and wooden platforms you may see in front of a building. Sometimes the building is being built; sometimes it’s being restored or preserved; sometimes it’s just being kept standing. And, less commonly these days, scaffold can also refer to a platform for viewing something, or for a theatrical performance, or for public executions, or, in some cultures, for disposal of dead bodies. (And let us not forget its cousin catafalque, which in modern English usage is a temporary ornamental platform for a coffin to go on in funerary rites.)

OK, then. So how does language function socially like a scaffold?

To start with, we use language to mediate the development and maintenance of social structures and interactions. Language is an essential social tool; our social structures may not be made of it (though some arguably are, but that doesn’t work with the current metaphor, so let it slide), but they are made with it. You want to add a glorious new tower or wing to the edifice of our culture? You scaffold it with language: new words, new ways of using old words, new turns of phrase, sometimes even new grammar.

But we also use language to shore up, maintain, and refresh existing social structures. Turns of phrase, common idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors can embed biases and presuppositions (as just one example, are you familiar with the term Indian giver?). Even basic grammatical details can function this way, as for instance insistence on he as the default pronoun (which it never was, though some people starting in the 1800s tried to claim it was in places where that would mean not having to explicitly recognize women, but somehow not in places where it might entail giving women completely equal rights – see Dennis Baron’s great book What’s Your Pronoun? for extensive details on this). And peeving about “new” usages reinforces an ideology of “old” as better – adherence to “tradition,” which always turns out to be just what the speaker remembers having learned in youth, plus some additions that reinforce their prejudices: the linguistic façade of the social structures and hierarchies that the person has learned and participated in and is quite comfortable with, thank you.

Not that all “old” words are acceptable in such a perspective, of course. Social stratification is maintained through ideas of “good” English (as opposed to the kind that people from the wrong region or socioeconomic level speak – by the way, “good” English is just as weird and arbitrary as many kinds of “bad” English, and in fact some things are “bad” because they’re not quite weird and arbitrary enough: just watch someone correct a kid who says “goed” instead of “went”). It is also maintained through taboos based on ideas of purity and sexual propriety. You display your conformity to these social structures by treating “bad” words as “bad” and at the same time by rejecting changes in usage that try to undo social subordination of certain groups of people. A person may argue “politely” that we needn’t change the names of any sports teams, for example, while at the same time objecting to the “bad English” or “bad words” uttered by people on the other side of the debate who are upset at being treated as stereotypes. 

Well. All good buildings have basements, dears, and they will collapse without them, but we don’t go down into them ourselves, do we? Oh, no, dears, we do not. A nice, tidy scaffold helps maintain decorum. And when we focus on the scaffold, we also don’t necessarily notice the structure that it’s there to maintain. We get stuck on the words and ignore the tilting tower of crumbling bricks behind it.

But the language has its own ostensive value too. With it, as on a scaffold (next sense), we can perform our identities and our attitudes – and we can watch others perform theirs. In fact, that’s a central function of language: words are known by the company they keep. We always use our language to let others know things about ourselves, our attitudes, and where we stand. Some of us, for example, will make sure to use some terms and avoid using others so as not to perpetuate social injustices, while others will make sure it’s understood they don’t brook “woke” “politically correct” “virtue signalling” and will stand for “family values” (which assume very specific kinds of families and exclude families that don’t meet the model).

And, of course, with language, as with scaffolds, we can view the tournaments of our societies, we can conduct – and display – executions, and we can show off the resulting corpses and expose them for the carrion birds. Choices of words and phrasing let you know who’s been cut dead, and they help keep it that way.

But at least, unlike (most) real-life scaffolds, language is here to stay – and it is deserving of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. And is an essential part of culture, not just an accessory. Metaphors have their limits… but language wouldn’t exist without them.

châthole

Doesn’t this word look fancy, with its little ornamental roof on the â? And yet doesn’t it also look a bit, um, well, are you sure you want it?

Let’s start with how to say it. The chât is “shat” as in château – in fact, that’s why the circumflex, because that’s where it comes from, and while you could write it without it, chathole doesn’t suggest its origin and sense as clearly. And the hole is “hole” as in hole – or, to be specifically frank and frankly specific, as in shithole. You know, that colloquialism meaning ‘highly undesirable place’.

So yeah. This word is a blend of château and shithole. It has two available senses: it can be one of those ghastly monster McMansions, wretched hives of kitsch and fugxury; or it can be a luxury accommodation, such as a grand hotel or a castle or château, that has, hmmm, seen better days. You know, it looked great in the ads or on the website, but when you get there the paint is peeling, the stairways are dirty, the tub has stains, and everything looks kind of faded and dingy and sad.

Well, what do you expect from a château, really. They’re all old, and that takes upkeep. And there are a lot of things that might have been functional once but are just decorative now. Just look at that cute roof, for instance: ˆ. Once upon a time, that cute roof on château was an s (as is usually the case for circumflexes in French spelling). But that’s not the only thing that changed with the fashion of the times. That water feature at the end – eau – was once a whole other ell of the edifice – in fact, an ellum, later reduced to an el. And that soft ch there, in the mists of ancient time, was a solid “k” – spelled c. Yes, this château is a faded, fashioned relic of chastel, which in turn is a modification of castellum. So this fancy-looking French château is a gussied-up old cold stone castle.

But we can agree, or at least most of us can, that the word château has been well maintained and is presentable. It is a lamentable fact that the same is not true for all actual châteaux. And it is also a shame to say that many a similarly grand and palatial accommodation – hotel or residence or whatnot – is not what it used to be: it started out inviting but has ended up as a hole – not just a shadow of its former self but a châthole of it. 

But at least it once was something good. Which is more than can be said about many of the suburban disasters that have been turded onto the landscape in recent times…

repechage

In competitions for certain sports, such as rowing, there’s a kind of “second chance” round for competitors who didn’t finish at the top of their first round. Rather than being brutally and finally knocked out after one try, they go on to the… what was that called?

For years, I thought that it was called rapprochage – ‘approaching again’. (I didn’t pause and realize that the French noun from rapprocher is actually rapprochement. If I had looked it up, I would have known, but I was busy watching sports just at the moment, OK?) Finally I became aware that it’s actually repechage.

OK, but, wait… is that from French repêchage, as in re-, like ‘again’, plus pêcher, ‘to fish’? So, like, they’re being fished again, or fished back out, or…?

Yes, that’s right, hook, line, and sinker. If you drop something in the water, you fish it out; si on laisse tomber quelque chose dans l’eau, on le repêche. Ça c’est le repêchage! That doesn’t mean that it’s to give another chance to rowers who fell in the water, though – the English term draws on the common figurative sense in French of ‘rescue’ or ‘do-over’ or ‘de-oops’ or, um, ‘unfumble’. If you muff an exam and get to redo it, that is also repêchage.

But what I really like about the word is the image of fishing in the same pool again to get more fish. That’s not really how it’s used in French, but it gives the other point of view on the effort – not the contestants trying to recover what they let go, but those holding the competition going back and getting a few more.

Because there are plenty of fish in the sea, right? Isn’t that what your mom always told you?* So after every breakup there can be a repechage. Sure, sure, all the people clamoring for your attention who didn’t get it before get another shot, so it’s a repechage in that sense, but from the other perspective, you get to drop your line back into the sea and fish out another. (And perhaps another, and another, and…)**

And of course you can apply it to a wide variety of other life circumstances, too: flubbed job interviews, ruined recipes, cancelled travel plans, and, uh, quite a lot of things since Covid hit, come to think of it.

In fact, since life just keeps on going, we all just get to keep on trying. Every day brings a chance for repechage of things that had gotten out of hand and slipped away. We don’t necessarily get to redo the exact same things that didn’t work out the first time, but, you know, drop one in, fish another out…

*Actually, I’m not sure my mom ever told me that, but that would just be because I didn’t ever lament a breakup to her, which in turn is mainly because you have to be in a relationship before you can have a breakup, and my romantic life before age 30 was a pretty damn empty pond. But never mind. I’m told that normal people get that kind of insight from their mothers as appropriate.

**But let’s remember, this is from pêcher, ‘fish’, not pecher, ‘sin’; tempting as the image may be, repechage is not ‘sinning again’.

Barmecide

You could see it from the road: a dining table set up in the field near a winery,* with chairs, bowls, glasses, bottles… Someone’s dining al fresco!

But no one was there. So, since it was just a short walk from our destination of the hour, I went and had a look. And what did I find? 

Barmecide.

Well, no, technically I didn’t find the Barmecide, though I did find a barmecidal feast of sorts.

But what does that mean? You may not be familiar with the term. Did it feature the bodies of murdered barmen? Was it, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, on the barmy side? Is there some barm- root indicating some pest that it was there to kill?

No, it’s just that, well… have you heard of a Potemkin village? A village that appears in passing to be real but is just façades, like one of those Olde Weste townes at some touriste trappe (though in the case of Potemkin originally referring to a deception of a tsar)? Well, a barmecidal feast is a kind of Potemkin dinner, or, I guess, a Pot-emkin-luck (say, do people still do potlucks?): an illusory feast, or anything similarly illusory. And the person who serves it – perhaps the same person who made the king’s new clothes, but now moved from tailoring to catering – is a Barmecide.

The term comes from a story in the Thousand and One Nights. A beggar is invited into the house of a rich person, one of the Barmecides, a family noted for their prodigality, and is served a feast… but everything is imaginary. The host pretends to enjoy delicious food and wine, and the beggar, for want of a better option, plays along, savouring every imaginary bite, even though he is terribly hungry.

So what’s with this name Barmecide? Does it have anything at all to do with homicide, pesticide, fungicide, or, um, can’t decide? It has served up such a clear morpheme, ready for immediate consumption, so…

It has done so barmecidally.

The Barmecide family was actually the Barmakid family, originally a Buddhist family from Balkh, now in Afghanistan, but subsequently converted to Islam and risen to a position of wealth and influence in the area now known as the Middle East under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. They’re named in a few of the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. At the time, they were a byword for wealth and generosity. Imagine a set of fantastic stories set in the United States in, say, the early 1900s – if someone mentioned Carnegies or Rockefellers or Roosevelts, you’d have an idea right away of what sort of people they were, right? Well, same with the Barmakids.

And the tale that gave them this particular fame – known to English speakers under the needlessly mutated version of the name, Barmecide – did not slander them. It doesn’t end with the illusory feast. After the beggar has played along gamely, the Barmakid laughs and says how happy he is to have found someone of good grace and good humour, and then he has his servants bring out an actual feast, and he invites the beggar to stay in his household. 

So in the original Barmecide feast, the illusion was ultimately only an illusion (how meta!). But in established English usage, since at least 400 years ago, the happy ending is forgotten.

And how did the barmecidal feast in a field I found end? No, no one served real food at that particular table. But we ate and drank quite well nearby. And I got some nice photos. So I can’t complain, you know?


*13th Street Winery, in the Niagara region of Ontario.

fletiferous

Weep, for life is fretful and fleeting.

Weep, for the race goes not always to the fleetest of foot.

Weep, for the finest-fletched arrow may fall short.

Weep, for the felt of the table may be torn.

Weep, for the best are oft left behind.

Weep, for many fine words are known only to lexicons. 

The plight of the forlorn neologism, of the hapless hapax, of the word that is named only when it is defined, would make the very sky weep to the point of pleuvisaud. It is, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, fletiferous: ‘causing weeping’.

Did you know this word, fletiferous? You did not, I think, but you do now. You know the -iferous part, of course, with its Latin -fer- root at heart having to do with bearing or bringing: coniferous, odoriferous, pestiferous, and so many more. The flet- comes from Latin fletus ‘weeping’, from fleo ‘I weep’.

It’s a well-formed word, predictable in construction, and naming a quality that is known to exist. It has every reason to be used. Yes, it’s a four-syllable classically derived word; you’d expect to find it in academic texts and poetry, and probably not in more quotidian (everyday) prose. But its fate does not reach even that. As Oxford tells us, it is “Obsolete. rare. Apparently only attested in dictionaries or glossaries.”

And in a flit and a flutter, it has left… has left us in tears.

bric-a-brac

Propped up on bricks and in brackets, strewn on shelves, or locked away in boxes, the assorted flotsam and jetsam of life decorates – or clutters, depending on whom you ask – the home of anyone who’s lived long enough. Knick-knacks, widgets, tchotch, stuff, junk… bric-a-brac. A bricolage of half-forgotten fancies, lost moments, gifts, souvenirs, lapses of reason: the tritest detritus to treat us to. Old but not antique, antique but not vintage, vintage but not valuable, collected here and there, à bricq et à bracq.

And what does that mean, à bricq et à bracq? Oh, you know… willy-nilly, hither and thither, by hook and by crook. It’s just some bit of made-up fancy that came from somewhere and means something somehow. Seemed cute at the time, know what I mean? Anyway, stuff collected à bricq et à bracq (or, per Littré, de bric et de broc) is what came to be called in French bric-à-brac, and from that we get our English word, bric-a-brac, exactly the same except with the diacritical broken off (maybe it’s in a drawer somewhere) and said as English rather than as French.

This is all the stuff you’re supposed to KonMari out of your life: pick it up, peek for a spark of joy, and chuck it when the battery check of memory fails to give a faint glow. But is it KonMari or Kobayashi Maru? If you chuck it you have deleted a trace of your life, axing your tree at the roots, feeling an instant pang of regret at the inevitability of evanescence, but if you keep it you feel weighed down and trapped by it – and whoever lives with you will surely set phasers to “ablate.” It looks like a no-win: you realize that this is all the sorts of things that in the modern era we bury ourselves with, just as ancients would fill their tombs with bracelets and bangles and glimpses of golden glory. If you let it go, you lose immortality; if you keep it, you are always already in your self-made tomb. 

But wait: reprogram it. If each one brings a spark of joy, then you have a constellation of memory and fascination brightening your space, and each star is a world of its own when you choose to visit it.

But look. I mean listen. I mean both. However imbricated with bric-a-brac our homes may be, like some Kubrickian back-lot prop shop or a cubist still-life by Braque, our language is doubly, triply, quadruply so. The imperial excursions and intercultural contacts that English has had have left it laden with lexis reflecting every encounter; you may have a drawer full of bottle openers, a cupboard full of shotglasses, a cabinet full of souvenir bells, but our language is the ultimate box of bric-a-brac; it has six or eight words for any of many things that could get away with just one. Ah, yes, they all have different tones, different memories, different practicalities, but… is it really so many little sparks of joy, or is it mostly just dust of especially large particle size?

Or does it matter? Our vocabulary, like the night sky, is infinitely capacious. It fills the rooms of our lives without overfilling our living room. (Ignore that stack of dictionaries and style guides behind my armchair.)

gazpacho

For supper tonight, Aina made some delicious gazpacho. It’s always been her dish to make – she’s the soup queen around here – so I’m not perfectly sure of the proportions, but the ingredients that go into the blender are:

  • bread
  • garlic (or garlic scapes)
  • olive oil
  • sherry (or Madeira – or sherry vinegar, but who has that)
  • salt (unless she doesn’t bother)
  • ice cubes
  • watermelon

And once it’s in the bowl, we crumble feta on top of it (which kind of obviates the salt). It’s delicious.

Yes? I see a hand in the back? Yes?

It’s not?

Are you sure?

Well, then, tell me what makes it not gazpacho.

Really. Is that so. Tomatoes.

Gazpacho, as I’m sure you know, is a very old Spanish recipe – in fact, an ancient one; it is thought to have been brought to Spain, in one form or another, by the Romans. Now, tell me: did they have tomatoes in Spain at that time?

Another hand back there? Yes? 

Yes, that’s right. Tomatoes originated in the Americas. They’re popular in European cuisines now, but that’s comparatively recent. Tomatoes were first used in gazpacho in the 1800s. For all those centuries before that, gazpacho was made with many different ingredients – I’ll get to that in a minute – but not tomatoes. And they’re still not essential, though they are common.

Cuisine, folks, is like language. It’s produced by people in cultures constantly interacting and varying. Almost any recipe – and especially any traditional recipe – doesn’t really have a single source or a single correct original version. Ingredients are imported from other countries – do you know why the Spice Route was such a big thing for so many centuries? Have you looked at where the various containers in your kitchen are from? Hot peppers and potatoes, like tomatoes, came from the Americas, but they quickly became so popular in cuisines on the other side of the planet that they are now generally accepted as essential in “authentic” recipes. 

Authentic, like originalpure, and any other word of that sort, when applied to cuisine – as to language – means just that the speaker wants to present one point in time and space as valid and all others as less valid: any history after the version the speaker considers correct is degradation, and any history before it doesn’t exist; any version from another place (or even another kind of person in the same place) is deviant. But the truth is that different people even in the same place do different things, because cooking uses available ingredients, techniques, and implements and follows individual tastes and whims. Of course people have their opinions – recipes such as chili and barbecue inspire very heated discussions – but they’re founded in taste and fantasy. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk meaningfully about a particular named recipe – for instance, it would be obnoxious to put hot dogs in a blender with orange juice and call it gazpacho (or anything else, for that matter) – but we do best to be pragmatic and shy away from absolute pronouncements (except for the sake of trash talk, I guess, since cooking can be very competitive). And we should be wary of terms that imply some pure point of origin: most recipes, like most points of grammar and most words, trace back in their sources into the impenetrable mists of time and may well use elements originally from other places.

Take gazpacho, for instance. The word is of… uncertain origin. It may have come from Arabic. Or it may have come from Latin. The speculated etymons are such as may raise an eyebrow on a historical linguist. But the word is here now, and its spelling and pronunciation are established. (Well, you can argue about the different pronunciations of the z in different varieties of Spanish. I’m not here to do that.) And so, within very broad parameters, is what it names.

Gazpacho is a kind of soup; that much is a given. It’s usually – though not always! – served cold. It comes from an old recipe involving bread, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and water, and those ingredients are standard, though you can apparently get away with leaving out one or more of them if the soup is nonetheless sufficiently gazpacho-like. It has variations throughout Spain and, now, around the globe. It is now commonly, but by no means universally, made with tomatoes. Cucumbers, onions, and peppers are also common ingredients. It was traditionally made using a mortar and pestle, but food processors and blenders are popular today for reasons that should be obvious. It may be thick or it may be thin; you may even drink gazpacho from a glass, but you are unlikely to finish a bowl of gazpacho using just a fork. It may be garnished with boiled eggs, ham, almonds, or various other vegetables. (Or, you know, cheese, if you want.)

In other words, gazpacho is a general kind of idea, like garden salad (which we also had tonight), meatloaf (did not have), ice cream (soon to be served), beer (drinking now), pizza (had for lunch), chili (not today), lasagne (not lately), and really just about any well-established recipe of any real complexity from anywhere on the planet. You can have the same kind of fun arguing about edge cases of gazpacho (or chili, or lasagne, or…) as you can about edge cases of chairs, tables, cups, et cetera. The way your mom made a particular dish (if she did) is naturally important to you, but we don’t all have the same mom. Nobody requires you to like the way everyone else makes it. The number one rule with almost any food is “Enjoy it”; if you can’t follow the number one rule, try finding someone at your table who can and let them have yours.