I am fascinated by words.
We sometimes like to think that language is fixed. There is a proper word for everything and a correct meaning for every word.
The reality is that the English language is constantly changing.
Take my local Waitrose supermarket. Yesterday I noticed that they have a section for “speciality vegetables”. What the heck is a speciality vegetable? Something is either vegetable or it is not a vegetable.
With the honourable exception of tofu, which seems to occupy that grey area between meat and veg. But then tofu is surely an off world technology discovered by disassembling the alien spacecraft they are hiding in area 51, Along with fibre optics, velcro and lava lamps.
But what is a speciality vegetable? Is it perhaps a vegetable that specialises in making only one type of food? Or a vegetable that only specialists will want?
And what do you call a non-speciality vegetable? Carrots, potatoes, tomatoes? Are they utility vegetables, conjuring up unwelcome images of batman’s belt? Ordinary vegetables?
So I did a bit of research. As you do. And it turns out that inside the subset of “speciality vegetables” Waitrose has placed ratatouille, sauerkraut, red cabbage, essential artichoke hearts and heart of palm. Or hearts of palm. Or heart of palms. Whatever the plural of “heart of palm” is. Or are.
Hmm … what do we make of this? Maybe “speciality vegetable” means any foreign veg? It’s a polite way of differentiating between foreign food that we do eat, such as curries and pasta, and foreign food that only foreigners eat, such as sauerkraut.
But how will visitors to these shores know that? Are we expecting them to look at the sign saying “speciality vegetables” and know that is where their food will be? Does someone in their embassy tell them that’s what it means? Is it a secret code that only foreigners know about?
Curiously, Waitrose calls other things “speciality”. They don’t have a speciality fruit section – maybe foreigners don’t eat fruit? But they will cheerfully sell you speciality teas, breads, beers, seedless grapes, raspberries and poultry.
Speciality raspberries. I kid you not. What in the name of all that is holy are speciality raspberries? I’m no expert, but surely it is either a raspberry or it isn’t. Are these really really good raspberries? Raspberries with a black belt in raspberryness?
I have a theory.
I bet there is someone high up in the management food chain who is in charge of decisions like this, let’s call him the Assistant Director of Product Labelling (food). I have an image of this person chairing a thought-showering meeting. You know the sort of meeting – a flip chart with lots of bubbles and arrows, post-its on the walls, voting on those post its with sticky red dots.
And in one of those meetings, they started talking ratatouille. It had to happen eventually.
“We should put it with the tomatoes,” said Bill from the Policy Department, always the logical one. “It’s got tomatoes in it.”
“So has just about everything from Italy,” said Sarah from Audit, finding fault as usual.
“It’s a canned vegetable, so it should be next to the baked beans and tinned peas,” said Michelle, the marketing guru.
“That would be unwise,” said Tom from Accounts. “On a pence per square centimetre basis, the canned vegetable shelves are amongst our most valuable. We should be stocking those shelves with popular lines that will sell in huge numbers. Tins of curried flavour baked beans with cheese burgers in them. Ratatouille doesn’t sell anywhere near enough units.”
“Then maybe we should stop selling ratatouille,” grumped Sarah grumpily.
“We can’t do that,” said Michelle. “Market research shows that we have to sell everything that someone might possibly want. What we really need to do is to make ratatouille sound more sexy.”
“I have got it!” said Philip, Assistant Director of Product Labelling (food). “We’ll invent a new category for weird stuff that not many people buy but that we’ve got to stock in case someone asks for it. We’ll call it the “odds and sods” section.”
Michelle pulled a sour face. “Not the best title, if I may say so, boss. We need to make it sound more appealing. How about speciality vegetables?”
“But they’re not speciality vegetables,” said Sarah. “There is no such thing.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Michelle. “No-one will ever notice.”
“Right, that’s agreed,” said Philip, switching into his serious senior management mode. “Now we need to find another word for ‘cheap’ for the budget products that we sell.”
“Why not call them ‘essential’?” said Michelle, hitting a personal best of two for two.
“That would just be silly,” said Sarah. “How could we sell something as ridiculous as ‘essential artichoke hearts’? In what parallel universe would someone consider artichoke hearts essential? Except when Michel Roux makes artichaux barigoule”
Michelle flashed her a sweet smile. “Not a problem. We’ll put them in the speciality vegetable section.”
“Huh? So we are saying that artichoke hearts are simultaneously essential and speciality?”
“Relax. No-one will ever notice.”