What’s In A Word?

3 Oct

A coworker recently sent me an article from the LA Times about the use of the word “artisan” to describe food. According to the article, artisan used to refer to specially crafted foods made in small batches. Now, however, “artisan” is being used in names for products from places like Domino’s and Wendy’s. In these cases, artisan is supposed to denote that the product is special- perhaps it has premium ingredients or a more interesting flavor profile than the company’s usual fare. But does the mass use of the word make it lose its true meaning? If anyone can just claim their food is artisanal, does it really signify anything at all to slap that word on a label?

Words tend to get disconnected from their initial meanings as they become trendy and companies/organizations want to cash in on their appeal. Words also get massaged as they become so ingrained in vernacular that we just expect to see them in certain places. For example: “world famous” on a menu- I’m sure you have seen that a ton of times and didn’t really bother to wonder if it was true. Because at some point, we don’t expect all words to be true or justified by concrete evidence. We just accept them as phrases or adjectives that are associated with a specific type of context. Authentic is another good one- I see a lot of menus that claim their food is “authentic” and I have to pause and wonder how one can delineate the boundaries of what makes something authentic or not. I went to an “authentic” restaurant in St. Petersburg that was the size of a department store and included a live dance show on the half hour. Am I really supposed to believe that is where the locals eat? Or, in that case, does “authentic” mean a glimpse at a version of traditional acts? It gets even more fun when quotation marks are placed around the catch word- what on earth does it mean that the salmon at the restaurant by my apartment is “organic,” in quotes? It either is organic or it isn’t!

There is a scene in the movie “Elf” where the main character congratulates a coffee store for having the “world’s best cup of coffee.” The movie’s protagonist is unfamiliar with the fact that restaurants make claims like that all the time without any real support, and congratulates the store owner for having earned such fantastic acclaim, much to the owner’s confusion. Of course, the coffee stinks, and the joke is clear. But take a look around you as you shop for groceries, try on clothes or even read through organizations’ mission statements. Word inflation/massaging/whatever you want to call it is everywhere- will we eventually just lose track of what words really mean?

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