<< back to the archive list

November 5th, 2003

Gourmands and gourmets / reaim and other re- words

by Barbara Wallraff

Joel Blum, of San Francisco, writes, “A recent article in ‘Business Week’ about farmed caviar said ‘gourmands don’t turn up their noses’ at it. As I understand it, ‘gourmands’ are people who eat too much—but there was no mention of them wolfing the caviar down by the bowlful or anything like that. Shouldn’t the writer have said ‘gourmets’?”

I suppose. But “gourmet” has become a sadly devalued word, with “gourmet” entrees in the supermarket freezer case, “gourmet” chocolates on the hotel-room pillow and “gourmet” jelly for sale in the gift shop. Last month the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on “what the company calls ‘the world’s tastiest gourmet dog treats’—hand-cut barrel treats and gourmet candy and lollipops produced at the company’s ‘barkery.’”

A writer trying to describe true gastronomic connoisseurs might be forgiven for wanting to find some other term. And “gourmand” does mean “a lover of good food,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it. The only problem is, the second definition the same dictionary gives is “a gluttonous eater”—just as you thought. When you write “gourmand,” there’s no way to signal that you have in mind the first definition and hope readers will forget about the second one. So the word is best used to describe someone who loves fine food to excess. What word should that “Business Week” writer have used instead, then? “Foodies”? “Epicures”? “Gastronomes”? To me, none of those is an improvement.

Language is a moving target. “Gourmet,” with its positive connotations, is bound to be exploited to gussy up pretentious eaters or pretentious food. Gradually it becomes less positive and more suspect. I would be tempted to go with “food lovers” or another expression so plain that it would never occur to anyone trying for puffery.

David Galvin, of Boston, writes, “After losing a challenge in a game of Scrabble, my sister e-mailed me: ‘Oh, how lame. I can’t believe “reaim” isn’t in the dictionary. It is clearly a word. “Oops, I missed that dang fox. Let me reaim and shoot again.” Fine, whatever, take it off the board!’

“Why isn’t ‘reaim’ a word? Is there a general rule about the usage of ‘re-’?”

“Reaim” is a classic “nonce” word—assembled for the moment out of components so familiar that of course everybody knows what the word means. And “reaim” does occasionally appear in print, my news databases tell me. But dictionaries don’t have room to include every possible coinage that makes sense. That’s why even unabridged ones give entries for all-purpose prefixes like “re-.” This allows them to concentrate on widely used “re-” words and still have space for ones like “reagent” (defined in the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary as “a substance that, because of the reactions it causes, is used in analysis and synthesis”) and “realia” (in education contexts this means “objects, as coins, tools, etc., used by a teacher to illustrate everyday living,” and in philosophical ones “things that are real”), whose meaning we might not be able to guess.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list