Saturday, June 09, 2007

Biting the hand that types

On the "Good Food" program on KCRW that aired this morning, a correspondent (Laura Avery ) interviewed Kelly Courtney, chef of a restaurant in Encino (apparently called Firefly). The interview was conducted at the farmer's market, so the chef was speaking extemporaneously.

In speaking about a recipe (I missed the beginning of what she was explaining, so I cannot say exactly what it was), she mentioned putting grated slices of a particular type of cheese (I did not catch the name of that either) on top of the finished dish (whatever it was), commenting afterward that the cheese was "ambiguous" with it.

That was the moment I started paying attention (and what prompted me to jot down the names, explaining how I was so specific in the first paragraph), rather than just sort of having the radio on in the background.

I am not an avid listener of "Good Food" (the only reason I heard what I did was because the show came on after "This American Life"), but I seen a reasonable amount of programming on Food Network, so I have at least a passing familiarity with the sort of adjectives that are typically used to describe the way one element of a recipe contributes to the overall taste, which did not (in my experience) include "ambiguous."

Initially, I thought the chef misused "ambiguous" in that context, intending a term more along the lines of "innocuous" (to indicate that the cheese did not draw attention to itself but subtly enhanced the dish). My knee-jerk reaction: Another instance of an ostensibly intelligent person who lazily applies one term when another term that actually connotes the intended meaning is available.

However, reviewing the possible meanings for "ambiguous" it can denote being "indistinct" and that, I imagine one could make a case, was what the chef intended to indicate about the taste. It could seem even poetic, in a way.

Also, the peculiarities of the brain do not always allow one to retrieve the information that is desired at the moment it is needed. I know that sometimes I am trying to think of a word that means exactly what I am trying to say, but my mind gives me nothing more than confirmation that I do, in fact, know the word, but does not give me the word. It may give me a word that is similar in association, but not the word. Thus, it is entirely possible that the chef knew the distinction between "ambiguous" and "innocuous" but at that moment, with the reporter's microphone in her face, focused on the specifics of the recipe, that her brain merely offered her "ambiguous" as an applicable adjective.

I concluded that she did misapply that term, due either to failure to learn better terms or to temporary brain malfunction (so to speak), but to focus on such a faux pas and consider that contributing to the devolution of English is to grant a level of influence to an NPR program that is undoubtedly underserved. If people paid attention in school or otherwise developed a vocabulary that was reinforced in their lives, an off-the-cuff remark from a local radio food show interview is unlikely to make them start misusing those words; if they did not know the distinction in the first place, expecting a show about food (a sensual pleasure, not an intellectual one) to educate them is unrealistic.

Perhaps you were hoping I'd harp on a single mistake as emblematic of a larger problem (in this case, with language), with snarky disdain. However, even as one who invested the time to distinguish the connotation of "ambiguous" from the connotation of "innocuous" (and therefore could feel justified to offer such criticism), that would be complaining about someone using a term in the wrong context by taking that mistake out of context.

While that certainly could be fun (and I've certainly done that in the past), and it would be easy enough for me to present such a criticism and avoid hypocrisy by the implication of self-awareness of using hypocrisy in an ironic way (and those who were paying close attention, pausing to consider what I meant before having a knee-jerk reaction to the ostensible hypocrisy, might think it mildly clever), I am not doing that.

Deconstructing why I might be inclined to that, it seems clear it would merely be something to do to make me feel better about the fact that no one is interviewing me. About that I shouldn't feel bad in the first place, for a rather obvious reason: Were I interviewed, it is almost a certainty my brain would give me a wrong word when I was answering a question, and someone listening would indignantly get offended about how I was destroying English, and likely post a rant about it on his blog.

Like the world needs that.

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