Monday, 30 March 2015

The language of menus (and poetry reviews)

  • "a subtle hint of truffle"
    Why "subtle" rather than "slight" or simply "weak"? The same trick is used in poetry reviews, especially with comic verse written by famous, non-comic poets. "weak" implies a lack (in quality or quantity) of ingredients. "subtle" is more to do with perception than final significance. It describes something that's hard to initially discern, perhaps because there's little worth discerning (i.e. the effect is weak), but it may describe something that though well masked has a strong effect once it's detected (e.g. a sigh that means so much). You need to be an astute observer/taster to notice something subtle - the recipient is being flattered by the writer.
  • "Rutland beef in a white sauce"
    Why not "beef in white sauce"? Detail and particularity are valued in poems. In poetry it won't do to give someone a flower, or see a bird pull at a worm. Use African pansies, and magpies. There might not be significance in the choice of detail - in this menu example the extra "a" adds no information, and there's no reason why Rutland beef should be prized. What matters is the evident attention to detail - a reason for the poetry reader to be optimistic.
  • "with a smooth articulation of aftertastes"
    Beware when a word representing an admired quality in one context is used in quite another. Wine in particular needs to import terms, given the limited range of raw materials at its disposal. As soon as more than one factor is involved in a meal or poem, terms can be used from other domains (often engineering) to indicate successful integration - cogs meshing, etc.
  • "clean-flavoured, relaxed, precise cooking"
    Precision is valued in many disciplines. Poetry precision is harder to define and measure than precision of musical performance or realistic art (look no further than the tolerance granted to line-breaks), and yet poetry reviewers, even good ones, praise exactness without explaining the term. For example, Judy Brown in "Poetry Review V103:4 (Winter 2013)" mentions how the reviewed poems have "engineering exactness", and "how precisely they achieve their friable effects".


  1. This is very amusing. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks. I know that reviews should ideally be worth reading for their own sake, but sometimes I don't understand what the reviewer's saying about the book. It's as if the reviewer had a stock of phrases that they dip into whenever they write a review.

    There's more on