"WHILE SURFING AROUND for holiday gifts, I found a British site which offered 'Cheddar with a Slosh of Port,'" a reader e-mailed recently.
At first, he said, he took slosh to be a synonym for splash. But as he pondered the port-infused cheese, he decided that a slosh was probably "a copious amount, since small measures do not slosh" -- at any rate, more than a splash. "Is this something that sober minds have taken the measure of?" he asks.
Sober minds have now given it a shot, though it's not clear that sobriety is an advantage in this quest.
English speakers everywhere know the drinkable splash -- "a dash of soda-water or tonic, etc., added to spirits," says the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes "Ulysses" (1922): "Buy yourself a gin and splash."
Slosh is also familiar in various senses -- as verb and noun meaning slog ("a three-mile slosh through the marsh") and the root of a slang adjective ("he was sloshed at the party"), among others.
But slosh as a liquid measure, while hardly obscure, does not show up in most American dictionaries. Occasionally a US recipe will call for that offhand slosh of wine or olive oil, but it's a much more common measure in British cooking.
Not, however, a more precise one. A few weeks ago, The Times of London -- in a story with the ambiguous headline "Do you drink much more than you think?" -- wrote of parents having "a slosh of red once the kids are in bed." That slosh might be any amount that fits into a wineglass (or a beer stein, depending on what those kids are like).
And a fall menu in the Daily Telegraph specified a slosh of olive oil in one recipe and a glug in the next. The slosh, it seems, has always been a matter of interpretation: The Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as "a quantity of some liquid," though the earliest citation -- "corn-cake washed down with a generous slosh of whisky," from 1888 -- gives a rough idea of a single-serving slosh.
Seeking foreign aid, I e-mailed Lynne Murphy, an American-born linguist now teaching at the University of Sussex in England. As the keeper of a blog on British-American linguistic differences, Separated by a Common Language, she seemed ideally placed to help sort out the size of a slosh.
Murphy agreed that a slosh was, so to speak, "a very 'fluid' measurement." In some British recipes she checked, it looked as if a one-ounce slosh would do, but the slosh of liquor required to soak a kilo of dried fruit would have to be more generous.
However, she said, it's no mystery that we all hear a slosh as bigger than a splash. Both words are onomatopoetic, she notes -- imitative of sound -- and the fatter vowel of slosh, phonetics research says, suggests a larger amount. "The a [of splash] being a more fronted, higher frequency vowel, it 'sounds smaller' than the back, lower frequency o. When you say slosh your mouth has a bigger hollow place for the liquor to slosh around in."
So it's larger than splash, probably smaller than a pint, but the slosh can't be pinned down. No matter; if 19th-century cooks could succeed with measurements like "tumbler" and "dessert spoon," surely we can adjust our sloshes to suit our culinary circumstances. With common sense and phonetics to guide us, who needs a measuring cup?
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THE MOST LOYAL FELLA: Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the Dec. 3 Ideas section, described Tony Blair as "Washington's loyalest supporter." That prompted an objection from a reader who thought the adjective was a goof: It should have been "most loyal."
Loyalest sounds odd to me, too -- probably because my brain, like my spellchecker, wonders if it should be loyalist -- but it's not a mistake. Google Book Search turns up examples in Milton (" his loyalest affection"), Emerson ("the loyalest of men"), and others, and the word is usual, if not abundant, in journalism.
It's true, the stylebooks agree, that two-syllable adjectives generally form the superlative with most: Most adroit, most frantic, most loyal. But the exceptions are abundant -- littlest, gentlest, narrowest, sometimes friendliest, and so on.
More important, these forms are also a matter of fashion. H.W. Fowler, in the 1926 Modern English Usage, mentions brutalest, joyfullest, and, yes, loyalest as ordinary superlatives. He did draw the line at Carlyle-style whimsies like beautifuller and delectablest; "the trick has grown tiresome," he writes. But tiresome isn't the same as wrong.