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Let's Look At The Language

May 22, 2011

Go ahead and have a rat on a stick, but please don't call it a lollipop

I recently read that this Tuesday is National Escargot Day. I was unable to find any compelling evidence that this is an official national day for any nation in particular, but it does seem that throughout the U.K. and North America, French restaurants have happily adopted the day as a time to celebrate their garlicky little mollusks.

Not only do the French prepare some of the finest cuisine known to humankind, they speak in a language that makes what is already sublime sound even sublimer -- which is why they think they can con us with the delectable sounding word "escargot." Sorry, all you escargot lovers, but for my money, this is a menu item that's not so much sublime as it is just plain slime. No matter how you "French up" a plate of escargots, it'll never be more than a plate of land snails to me.

The French are hardly the only ones to occasionally serve up disgusting foods with unrevealing names. A visitor to Scotland, for instance, might assume that, because it's the national dish, "haggis" would be quite tasty, until they learn it is made from a sheep's heart, liver and lungs, combined with seasoned suet and oatmeal, and simmered in the sheep's stomach. Oh, yum.

Fond of oysters? You may want to think twice before ordering an appetizer in the western United States and Canada called "Rocky Mountain oysters," which are actually bull testicles. If that makes you want to turn vegetarian, you may be tempted to try some "Vegemite" in Australia -- hope you like a gross dark brown sticky spread for your toast, because that's what this yeasty by-product of beer manufacturing looks like (I don't even want to know what it smells and tastes like -- although singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer gives me a clue with her song "Vegemite (Black Death)").

In Mexico, be sure you know what you're ordering or you might get a serving of "escamoles," a buttery tasting delicacy. Sound good? Well, that depends on how much you enjoy eating ant larvae. (Tip: if you want your escamoles in a taco, mixing them with guacamole will keep them from sliding out of the taco shell. Ah, the versatile avocado.) In Spain, the local specialty of "las orejas" may be only slightly more appealing, as it is a dish of sliced-up pig ears.

It's one thing to be "tricked" by the unfamiliar names of foreign foods, but it seems just wrong to be deceived by our own language, as with those Rocky Mountain oysters, and what about sweetbreads? Shouldn't that be an aromatic selection of warm fresh pastries served at tea time? Somehow, a tray of calf throat and pancreas doesn't have the same charm.

I was certainly deceived as a child when I tried a piece of head cheese. I thought it must be the most important cheese in the store. Imagine my revulsion when I found out it was a gelatinous mass of animal head parts. It was years before I could trust a cheese again.

Thinking about all these unsavory comestibles gives me a great appreciation for such trendy treats as deep-fried Snickers and chocolate-covered bacon, and such rural legends as possum pie and stuffed owl. Wouldn't want to eat a single one of those things, but I do appreciate their honesty. What they're called is what they are, and I applaud their shameless identification. I mean, if you're going to fry up a rat on a stick, go ahead, but please don't call it a lollipop.

With that in mind, I'd like to be the first to wish you all a pleasant National Land Snail in Garlic Butter Day. Bon appétit!

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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