Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big Little Problem

Words expressing size or quality are always relative. How big is big? How ripe is ripe? How quiet is quiet? In determining the applicability of any descriptive term, we must rely on ranges and averages as much as definitions. Room temperature might range from about 30 to about 90 degrees depending on the kind of room (tent? stone? wattle and daub?), the location (desert? rain forest?), and the season (summer? winter? monsoon?). Current standards of heating and cooling might allow us to define average room temperature as 70 degrees, but 200 years ago it was probably closer to 55 degrees, making the maxim that wine should be served at room temperature a conundrum.

So there is leeway in defining terms that express size or quality, and we acknowledge the absurdity of juxtapositions such as jumbo shrimp. But lately I have been noticing absurdities created by an apparent unwillingness to pick just one term.

I recently purchased onions at the supermarket. Putting them away at home, I paused to read the sticker that carried the PLU code and discovered that I had purchased “Large medium yellow onions.” Huh? Are they large, or are they medium? I will not consider the possibility that medium is referring to the shade of yellow. For one thing, there’s no hyphen. Surely the growers of all people ought to be able to establish sensible standards, whether by size or weight, diameter or ounces. Most disturbing, however, was that this sticker was attached to onions that I had chosen as being on the small side, i.e., smaller than average, i.e., neither large nor medium. The bin was labeled “Loose onions,” but my receipt had “Onions yellow sm.” Ah hah!

Is the size classification of yellow onions so exact that we need a subcategory poised between large and medium? I doubt it, especially when the produce in question didn’t belong in either category. If “large medium” is being applied to smaller-than-average specimens, can we look forward to buying onions classified as jumbo, colossal, and gigantic? I fear this is some kind of marketing ploy, although the purpose escapes me.

A second absurdity came from a different sort of aberrant thought process. A television ad for a fast-food place (let’s not dignify it as a restaurant) ballyhooed their sundaes, served with “warm hot fudge.” Huh? Is it warm, or is it hot? Actually, I think I have a handle on this one. The person who committed this was seeing hot fudge as a unit, the specific name of a specific thing, a fudgy sauce, its temperature irrelevant. Either the eatery didn’t plan to keep the stuff really hot (I don’t eat at such places partly because the food is never hot enough to please me), or the writer knew from experience that fudge sauce cools off very quickly once in contact with ice cream. Either way, he didn’t want to misrepresent the dish that customers would receive, and so he opted for warm, apparently not caring that the result was absurd, joined in that indifference by the corporate types who okayed this inane language.

As long as it’s heated above room temperature (vide supra), it’s hot fudge sauce. If you don’t heat it at all, it’s simply fudge sauce, and it won’t be a nice contrast for your ice cream. Likewise, if it’s bigger than medium, it’s large; and if it’s smaller than large, it’s medium. Just pick one, you vacillating (oxy)morons!

P.S. Okay, there is now (six months later) a red onion labeled Jumbo sitting in my onion basket. There were no "Small" or "Medium" red onions to compare it with. It is a good size, but not big enough to justify the hyperbole of jumbo versus simple large for something that tends to be on the big side anyway. The price was a bit more than usual. These are disturbing omens.

This is article 5 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

No onion's are genuine without the greengrocers apostrophe.

Leeway is drifting off course, and needs to be made up.