Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wordy

I've been mulling this post over for a few weeks and finally today, with the tree decorated, my work-work finished and Dixon napping, I feel like I have time to possibly do justice to my thinking. Which may actually be overthinking. We'll see.

A few weeks ago, I read a book that was a little outside the norm for me: a biography of Shakespeare. While I enjoy non-fiction and I like Shakespeare, I wouldn't have picked it up, except that it was written by Bill Bryson and I really like his style of writing.

Anyway, I read it and enjoyed it and learned a lot that could one day help me sweep a Jeopardy category called "The Life of the Bard", or something to that effect.

Possibly the most interesting tidbit I picked up, at least partly because its discovery must have been outrageously tedious, is that we only have proof that Shakespeare actually knew about 20,000 words. Twenty-thousand sort of sounds like a lot, but recent research suggests that average English-speaking adults know at least about 38,000, and college graduates have vocabularies in the neighborhood of 60-75,000 (of course, there are all kinds of footnotes attached to these figures, most notably that nobody agrees whether variations of a word count as one or more, etc. etc.)

I can only assume that Shakespeare's vocabulary was still pretty vast for his era, and on top of that, I'd speculate that his linguistic limitations could have encouraged his creativity in phrasing. Right now, we're stuck in a culture of fairly disposable words - w00t and all that. I'd guess that my vocabulary encompasses most, if not all, of Shakespeare's (though some meanings may have evolved). But in 400 years, will vocabularies include all the words in general use today, plus some? I doubt it. Does that matter? What does it mean about our culture? I don't know.

And, I hear you asking, how is this about food?

Well, actually, it is. And because I waited a few weeks before writing about this, I actually came across something explicitly connecting it to food!

Now I feel a little like I'm cheating because yes, I did link to that Bourdain WaPo chat a few weeks ago. But here's why it's newly relevant:
I think that writing about food and describing taste all the time risks sounding like writing porn. There are only so many adjectives before you cheapen the experience. I think that if we SHOW you the food and describe the ingredients well enough--and you see it cooking--and you get a sense of where we are and the surroundings and the context and the smell of the room, then that's enough. That an occasional "awesome!" is fine. You do the rest. How many times can you use the words "crunchY', "unctuous", "minerally" before they lose all meaning--or worse, become too clinical?

Part of me wonders if this is why I just don't write that much about actual food anymore. I mean, in addition to the fact that there are a million food bloggers and at least 750,000 of them are better than I am at photographing food, describing food, and writing recipes. But I could probably improve on those counts. If I were so inclined. Which I'm not.

So now I feel like I have a fantastically, annoyingly, pretentiously intellectual reason to write about theoretical food rather than real food: the writing itself gels with my newly minted worldview on language. Which is: I am against the practice of coining new words because the more words we have, the fattier and lazier our prose will become. The less Shakespeare-like.

The second half of the rationale, the part about food, is that I actually kind of dislike food writing that's rife with metaphors. I think it usually sounds silly and pretentious.

So if I don't want to create new words, and I don't like food metaphors, how could I effectively write about food with the limited language that exists now?

And the answer is: I don't.

2 comments:

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Write with your heart. I think that is the key - if you love food, talk about why. You don't have to describe the food itself - but what it means to you, what it feels like to eat it. I think that is the key.

I love Anthony Bourdain too, but I guess I am not quite as cynical yet.

Oh and welcome to The Foodie Blogroll!

Kit Pollard said...

Thanks, Jenn!

And actually, you may have just succinctly justified my ending every post with "And here's how this is about food...". I love food because of the taste, sure, but I'm drawn to food as a subject because of all the OTHER things about it: the memories, rituals, relationships, symbolism in the arts, etc. So I write what I love.

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