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The Grammar of Top Chef: What’s With 'It Eats Salty'?

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The critic of anything—food, wine, art, film, music—must develop ways to describe an experience that go beyond the usual vocabulary lists. Good, bad, beautiful, ugly and a few hundred other words related to the way things look, sound, and taste, and smell might be sufficient for ordinary description, but the professional opinion-giver has to keep things vivid and fresh. To do this, they might come up with new or unusual words, or uncommon metaphors, but sometimes what’s called for is a new syntactic structure. At least that seems to be the idea behind a linguistic trend making its noticeable way through the judges of Top Chef.

In a recent post on Language Log, Ben Zimmer took a look at this trend after it came to light through Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi’s use of the phrase “it eats salty” to describe a dish made by a contestant. Merlin Mann, cohost of Top Scallops, a podcast about Top Chef, registered his objection to the phrase with a tweet:

In response, Daniel Tse pointed out that this type of construction isn’t as unusual as it might seem. It’s similar to the grammatical “middle voice” (or “mediopassive voice”) which is somewhere between active and passive. It’s what allows us to say “the orange peels easily” (Who’s doing the peeling? Not the orange) or “the book is selling well” (Who’s doing the selling? Not the book).

However, the usual examples of middle voice have an adverb (easily, well) rather than an adjective (salty), so there does seem to be something new about this Top Chef construction. And, as discussed in the post, “it eats salty” is not the only example. Judges have also said “it eats sweet,” “it ate very savory” and “it didn’t eat that way.” Zimmer sees the construction as a hybrid between middle voice syntax and the grammar of verbs of perception like taste, smell, sound, feel, and look which do take adjectives. We say “it tastes salty,” not “it tastes saltily.” There is a blending where a middle voice take on the verb eat is under influence from the concept of “taste.” As Zimmer says, “We could call it gastro-syntactic fusion cuisine.”

So where is this coming from, and why don’t the judges just say “it tastes salty” if that’s what they mean? A quick look around at restaurant reviews shows that it’s not just the judges of Top Chef who find this construction useful, and the middle voice eats is not quite the same thing as taste.

Sometimes its meaning is close to taste:

“It eats dry.” [D Magazine]

“It eats like a lobster” [ny.eater.com]

But more often it stands in for a wider range of eating-related sensation than taste: texture, chewiness, mouthfeel, or even the physical strategy for eating:

“Cut like a pizza, it eats like a Korean frittata.” [columbusalive.com] 

“The flesh is resoundingly rich, as short ribs always are, but it eats more like a tender steak than a piece of stew meat.” [newyork.seriouseats.com]

“If that sounds a little like a candy bar, it eats like one, too.” [New York Times]

“Swai is a Thai catfish, but it eats like bluegill, which I love.” [Slug Magazine]

“Not that red curry with catfish, though. It eats like a rocket. If you're sensitive to heat, avoid this dish completely.” [Dallas Observer]

“A pool of aioli so thick and lemony it eats like savory lemon curd.” [Village Voice]  

And much of the time it doesn’t even necessarily relate to food-related sensation in particular but to the whole surrounding experience of dining:

“The dishes are so well coordinated that it eats as a continuous meal.” [adrainsrestaurantreviews.com]

“It looks like a pub, it eats like a gourmet restaurant.” [tripadvisor.com]

“A menu that sometimes reads better than it eats.” [Denver Post]

“Rubicon is bar-centric but it eats like a great restaurant.” [pennlive.com]

“It is probably better to order in the dead middle of winter, but it eats just fine in July as well.” [glutenfreedetectiveagency.com]

“Treacle-baked ribs (above) sounds like an English dish; it eats like something from the American deep south.” [eyeslikeplates.com]

Thirty years ago, when Campbell's Chunky Soup introduced its slogan "The soup that eats like a meal," it didn't mean that the soup tasted like a meal, but that it was substantial like a meal, filled you up like a meal, was acceptable to serve on its own as a meal. It referenced the larger general experience of eating, beyond just taste. It wasn't the active "you eat this soup as you would a meal" nor the passive "this soup gets eaten like a meal" but something in between, the middle voice, the mediopassive, not foregrounding the soup's characteristics, or your actions upon the soup, but the quality of the soup-eating experience itself, the gestalt of a food-based experience, if you will. In our current atmosphere of foodie culture, where people read about food, watch TV shows about food, and obsess about food in a way that doesn't necessarily entail that they will actually be tasting that food, it's probably a handy thing to have a compact way to express "here's what the experience of eating this is like." If it reads a bit strange, so be it.

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
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Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
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Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
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Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
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Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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News
From Camreigh to Kayzleigh: Parents Invented More Than 1000 New Baby Names Last Year
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Look out Mercedes, Bentley, and Royce—there's a new car-inspired name in town. The name Camreigh was recorded for the first time in the U.S. last year, according to Quartz’s take on data released by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The name was given to 91 babies in 2017, making it the most popular of the 1100 brand-new names that cropped up last year. However, the Social Security Administration only listed names that had been given to at least five babies in 2017, so it's possible that some of the names had been invented before 2017.

An alternate spelling, Kamreigh, also appeared for the first time last year, as did Brexleigh, Kayzleigh, Addleigh, Iveigh, Lakeleigh, and Riverleigh. Swapping out “-y” and “-ey” for “-eigh” at the end of a name has been a growing trend in recent years, and in 20 years or so, the workforce will be filled with Ryleighs, Everleighs, and Charleighs—names that all appeared on a list of the 500 most popular names in 2017.

Following Camreigh, the second most popular new name, appearing 58 times, was Asahd. Meaning “lion” in Arabic, Asahd was popularized in 2016 when DJ Khaled gave his son the name. The American DJ is now attempting to trademark the moniker, which is an alternate spelling of Asad and Assad.

Other names that were introduced for the first time include Iretomiwa (of Nigerian origin) and Tewodros (Ethiopian). The name Arjunreddy (given 12 times) possibly stems from the 2017 release of the Indian, Telugu-language film Arjun Reddy, whose title character is a surgeon who spirals out of control when he turns to alcohol and drugs.

Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the fact that 11 babies were named Cersei in 2017, or, as Quartz puts it, "11 fresh-faced, sinless babies were named after the manipulative, power-hungry, incestuous, helicopter parent-y, backstabbing character from Game of Thrones."

Below are the top 20 most popular new names in 2017.

1. Camreigh
2. Asahd
3. Taishmara
4. Kashdon
5. Teylie
6. Kassian
7. Kior
8. Aaleiya
9. Kamreigh
10. Draxler
11. Ikeni
12. Noctis
13. Sayyora
14. Mohana
15. Dakston
16. Knoxlee
17. Amunra
18. Arjunreddy
19. Irtaza
20. Ledgen

[h/t Quartz]

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