Wednesday, October 05, 2005

"Debbie Does Salad" update

Last week I discussed a Harper's article by Frederick Kaufman (still not available online UPDATE: here it is) about the Food Network. Since then I've been scanning the horizon for more reactions. Here are two, both fastening on the article's language.

1. Pyramus of Cephalogenic gets snagged on this atrocious passage:
[Camera] two zoomed in on the onion-gilted sirloin beef, now topless and glistening tumescent, the better to penetrate the mind's eye.
The blogger remarks:
"Gilted?" I thought. "'Gilt' is already in the past tense! It's like saying 'silvereded'!"

Or is it? "Gilt", it is true, is one of the two past-tense forms of "gild", "to cover with gold"; the other form is "gilded", as in "gilded age". But over time, "gilt" has mutated into a noun; it's the actual gold layer itself (or a gold substitute), as in the adjective "gilt-edged". And as we like to do in English, we transformed "gilt" the noun" into "gilt" the present-tense verb whose past tense is "gilted".

So the usage in the Harper's article isn't wrong, but I find it strange. I would have written "onion-gilt" or "onion-gilded", if such a phrase had ever occurred to me, but then I'm not a professional writer.
2. Arnold Zwicky of Language Log has a nose for obscure words, but it sniffs something foul in this:
The primeval brain of the involuntary, the abdominal brain, the brain that controls sympathy and revulsion but not ratiocination, that is the brain of the wow.

When it comes to television, the theory becomes practice: Whether on the Hot Network, E! Entertainment Television, or CBS, the splanchnic response, not the lucubrations of the intellect but the primal gut reaction--that's what hauls in the ratings.
Wow, indeed: splanchnic. I'm down with ratiocination and lucubrations (though I find these word choices annoyingly fancy), but splanchnic would have been a total zero out of context. In this context it must mean 'of the gut, visceral', and the dictionaries confirm that it's a (Greek-derived) medical term with this meaning. But why did Kaufman use it? He can't really have expected many of his readers to be familiar with it.

Here's a guess. First, he decided to refer to the gut twice, for emphasis. (I would have counseled sticking to a single contrast to "the lucubrations of the intellect", or however this idea gets formulated, and then he never would have gotten into mining the far reaches of lexicography.) One of these references can just be with gut: "the primal gut reaction" above. To avoid mere repetition, the other one's going to have to be something fancier. The obvious candidate is visceral, but (a) it is, well, obvious, almost clich├ęd, and (b) it could be read as (somewhat) metaphorical, rather than as a literal reference to the viscera (though gut has the very same problem). So Kaufman hauls himself off to a thesaurus, or consults one of the experts on anatomy he interviewed, and unearths the shiny hundred-dollar word splanchnic. (If he had the word to hand already, then he's been doing way too many Expand Your Word Power exercises.) Of course, for most readers it doesn't actually contribute anything to the sentence and just causes them to get hung up in the middle of it. But it certainly does avoid the obvious.
My response to these passages was more indifferent. They come off like someone trying hard to sound smart--not like someone who really is smart--and this annoyed me mildly, not nearly as much as the article's main point. I note as well that both bloggers prefer that punctuation go outside of quotation marks, at least in some instances. Not my style.

(My original post got a link from the porn clearinghouse Fleshbot in its regular sex blog roundup. In case you didn't know, this thing you're reading? A big fat sex blog.)

UPDATE: Kaufman is interviewed in the October 7, 2005 edition of NPR's On The Media. He repeats word-for-word some of his assertions from Harper's but also discusses Food 911 and its host, Tyler Florence, in greater depth than we get in the article. He says that he often imagines Tyler and the housewife he "rescues" going off "for a quickie" after the cameras stop taping. (Or something to that effect.) It seems to me, though, that Tyler not infrequently "rescues" men as well as women, and this made me wonder why Kaufman's porn is always the straight kind. Surely the FN has lots of gay viewers who can take or leave Giada and Ray-Ray but get really hot for Tyler.


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