Posted by: Jack Henry | November 20, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Thanksgiving, Richard Lederer-Style

I was keeping my eye open for something related to the upcoming holiday, and then I finally gave up and decided to write an article for you about proofreading. I know, I sure know how to party!

But today, I arrived at work and waiting on my desk was an article by Richard Lederer, the original verbivore. Here is an excerpt from his article “Thanksgiving is a Time When We Truly Eat Our Words.” (Thanks for supplying us with something entertaining, Ron!)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Day is mainly a celebration of the harvest, giving thanks for bountiful crops. Traditionally, a particular meal in 1621 is thought to be the first Thanksgiving. Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians sat down together to an autumn feast of venison and wild fowl.

Many of us decorate our homes with traditional signs of fall, such as the cornucopia, gourds, and autumn leaves. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is a representation of a hollow goat’s horn, overflowing with fruit and other produce.

This is a good time, then, to nibble on a tasty spicy, meaty, juicy honey of a topic that we’re sure to savor and relish. I’m talking about culinary metaphors that are packed like sardines and sandwiched into our everyday conversations. Let’s explore the role of the staples salt, meat and bread in your daily vocabulary to see how every day you eat your words and say a mouthful.

The ancients knew that salt was essential to a good diet, and centuries before artificial refrigeration, it was the only chemical that could preserve meat. Thus, a portion of the wages paid to Roman soldiers was “salt money,” with which to buy salt, derived from the Latin, sal. This stipend came to be called a salarium, from which we acquire the word salary. A loyal and effective soldier was quite literally worth his salt. Please don’t take my explanations with a grain of salt. In other words, you don’t have to sprinkle salt on my etymologies to find them tasty.

We think of carnivals as traveling entertainments with rides, sideshows, games, cotton candy and balloons; but the first carnivals were pre-Lenten celebrations — a last fling before penitence. The Latin word parts are carne, “meat, flesh,” and vale, “farewell,” indicate that the earliest carnivals were seasons of feasting and merrymaking, “a farewell to meat,” just before Lent.

Companion derives from the Latin com, “together,” and panis, “bread.” You and I are companions because together each week we break the bread of language. That wage earners are called breadwinners reminds us of the importance of bread in medieval life. Not surprisingly, both lord and lady are well-bread words. Lord descends from the Old English hlaf, “loaf,” and weard, “keeper,” and lady from hlaf, “loaf,” and dige, “kneader.”

So here’s a toast to all those subtle culinary metaphors that add spice to our English language. Does that use of toast relate etymologically to the familiar slice of heated bread? In a word, yes. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, it was common practice to dip a piece of spiced toast into the bottom of one’s tankard of ale or glass of sack (a bitter sherry) to improve the flavor and remove the impurities. The libation itself thus became “a toast,” as did the gesture of drinking to another’s health.

I offer a toast to you, my wordstruck readers: “Here’s champagne to our real friends, and real pain to our sham friends!” Thank you for being real friends of language.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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