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The Word

Fillet or Filet?

The strange, edible landscape of food words

By Jan Freeman
May 22, 2011

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The faithful readers of published recipes aren’t as picky as they might be about commas and capitalization and such. It’s the slip-ups in recipes that make them nuts: the missing mushrooms, the unused lemon zest, the half-cup of cream quadrupled by a typo to a ruinous 2 cups.

For copy editors, though, the food beat is more than recipes; it’s a stew of language leftovers, dense with foreign words, obscure traditions, and quirky stylings. Now, in (belated) recognition of the challenges they present, the 2011 Associated Press Stylebook — arbiter of usage for English-language publications around the globe — has finally given food words a section of their own: 16 pages of guidance on comestibles from vichyssoise to hazelnuts.

And guidance is needed. The vocabulary of food is filled with proper names and foreign words, some more assimilated than others. Editors on deadline don’t have time to debate whether Gorgonzola is capitalized or not; they just need a rule to apply.

And logic is useless. Food words arrive in English in different centuries, from different languages, and they’re assimilated at different speeds. (A la mode is now all-American; à la grecque, with or without the accent, still feels French.) Some keep their proper names while others are genericized. All style guides must make arbitrary decisions, but the food section seems especially dense with them.

For instance, Associated Press subscribers are supposed to capitalize Monterey Jack cheese (named for its California source and, perhaps, for one of the Jacks who popularized it). But pepper jack — the same cheese, studded with hot peppers — is lower-case; so is cheddar, named for an English village.

Whiskey (with an e) and scotch are the usual styles, but Scotch whisky gets special treatment; yet bourbon is lower-case, even though it springs from Bourbon County, Kentucky. The Reuben sandwich (for which dueling Reubens claim credit) keeps its capital letter, but the bloody mary, named for Mary I (or possibly Mary Pickford), is lower-case. Waldorf salad, after the hotel, is capped; graham cracker, for Sylvester Graham, is not.

Fillet and filet are another traditional bone of contention. Though they’re variant spellings of the same word, some editors have chosen to use fillet for fish and filet for meat. But not the AP: Here it’s fillet (“a boneless cut”) either way, except in filet mignon and, of course, Filet-O-Fish.

If you’re editing AP style, you can forget those foreign languages you studied so diligently. You’ll be having canapes, a country pate, a sauteed entree, and creme brulee — without their native accents. In America, tamale (not tamal) is the singular of tamales, and cannoli is both singular and plural.

The rest of the entries include things everyone needs to remember (barbecue, espresso, doughnut, Jell-O) and things you may not have known (Broccolini is a trademark, says the AP, and so is the ham in Smithfield Ham). There are surprising inclusions: not just Marshmallow Fluff but Fluffernutter, too. There are dubious assertions: that fettuccine is “often confused with linguine,” or that gourmand still means “glutton.” (I can’t remember the last time I saw gourmand used pejoratively.) Local editors, however, are free to edit the stylebook, adding their own reminders (johnnycake) and dissents (Bloody Mary!).

You may think (with some justice) that such concerns are trivial compared to a recipe blunder that collapses your cake. But try to be generous; your food editors have a lot on their plate.

. . .

THE FIRST RUMBLINGS OF the end times were due yesterday at dinnertime, according to the warnings broadcast in recent weeks by Harold Camping of Family Radio. (He should have checked his horoscope instead: It says he’s having a super-romantic weekend.) Anyway, if the ground didn’t open under your feet, think of it as a reprieve: There’s still time to mend your ways and learn to spell the millennium words.

We should all have mastered these a decade ago, at the turn of the millennium, but there were countervailing forces at play — evil influences tempting us to try getting away with just one n. One was Elizabeth Arden, whose Millenium face creams are still on the market; another was Mazda, which sold a midsize sedan called the Millenia from 1995 through 2002.

Pay no attention to those apostates; millennium, derived from Latin mille “thousand” and annus “year,” needs that double n, as do both its plurals, millenniums and millennia. But here’s the devilish part: The adjective millenarian has just a single n. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that’s because millennium comes from classical Latin, while millenarian comes from a later Latin word, the one-n millenarius. (You could always go with the Greek-derived chiliastic instead, but it’s no easier, and it looks like a description on a Taco Bell menu.)

The millennial words echo, coincidentally, the name of the Millerites, followers of Pittsfield-born William Miller who prepared to meet their maker in the 1840s. That famous millenarian, however, got his name from the mill that grinds grain into flour, from the Latin mola– a word related to meal, and to your biggest teeth, but not to the apocalypse.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).