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December 5th, 2007

Gourmet / spades is or are? / more about the DiMaggios

by Barbara Wallraff

Paul Scott, of Bayside, Calif., writes: “What’s with the word ‘gourmet’? Chocolates are ‘gourmet,’ jelly is ‘gourmet’ and today I even saw an ad for ‘gourmet peanut butter.’ Is ‘gourmet’ dog food next?”

Dear Paul: I’m afraid “gourmet” dog food is already here -- along with “gourmet” cat food, bird food and hamster food. “Gourmet” has become marketers’ adjective of choice for edibles that are fancier and costlier than average. Some of them, trying to be extra fancy, use “gourmand” instead. But that’s a bad idea, because “gourmand,” in addition to being a synonym for “gourmet,” can mean “glutton” or “overeater.”

Though regular people might use “gourmet” to refer to a person -- as in “He’s a gourmet cook” -- they rarely describe food that way. I mean, when is the last time someone said to you, “I baked some gourmet cookies -- come try one”? “Gourmet” applied to food is 
marketing-speak, which is to say, hype. I’ll bet that’s why it bothers you. If we were talking about, for instance, a terrine of duck with green peppercorn sauce, calling it “gourmet” would be redundant. But since we’re talking about dog food, “gourmet” makes an oxymoron, a self-contradictory phrase.

Peggy Sweeney, of Detroit, writes: “Which is the proper way to say it: ‘Spades ARE trump’ or ‘Spades IS trump’? The reasoning about the latter is that ‘spades’ represents a suit and should be used with a singular verb. Three generations of card players keep this argument going.”

Dear Peggy: There are correct sentences with grammar like “Spades is trump.” An example would be “Two plus two is four.” But suits of cards are more like musical groups. We say “The band is good” but “the Beatles are great”; “Nirvana is popular now, and so are the Eagles.” That is, the number of the verb matches the evident number of the subject, and never mind that the Beatles (plural) might also be called a band or a group. Only when you actually call them that do they become singular.

I’ll admit that both “spades are trump” and “spades is trump” appear in respectable publications -- and also “spades are trumpS.” This last version strikes me as a bit cowardly. It’s fine for the number of a subject, like “spades,” and the number of its complement, like “trump,” to be different, as long as the verb matches the subject. People who know this aren’t afraid to say “Spades are trump.” And that’s what I’d suggest you say.

John Goldfine, of Swanville, Maine, writes: “An aside for the letter writer upset about announcers referring to ‘the DiMaggios, the Mantles, the Aarons, the Ruths’ of baseball: In fact there were three DiMaggios -- Joe, Vince and Dom -- and two Aarons -- Hank and Tommie. Wikipedia remarks, dryly, about Tommie: ‘He hit a total of 13 major league home runs, with 8 of them coming in his first year of 1962, but along with his brother’s record 755, together they hold the major league record for the most career home runs between two brothers (768).’”

Dear John: Thanks. I didn’t know any of that, and I’ll bet it’s news to more than a few readers, too.

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

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