Names: Beer, Food, Literature â€” â€œI don’t particularly give a damn about that sort of contradictionâ€[Joel Patton / May 8th, 2012 / Logophily / Tags: beer]
Two weeks ago, I talked about beer names. This week, I’ll talk about beer names . Also food names and literature names. But first, names:
Names are supposed to let us know what we’re talking about, in one sense or another. I claimed  a couple of weeks ago that disputes seem to hinge on four qualities: adequacy of names, accuracy of names, origin of names, and intent of names.
Let’s talk about black IPAs. Just trying to get to the argument I want to talk about is going to take some parsing: a pale ale is an ale brewed from pale malt. An India pale ale was (historically) that sort of beer, but high in alcohol and heavily hopped, bound for British colonial India. An American IPA is sort of that sort of beer, but not produced for export to India, typically .
Beer geeks  seem largely cool with all of the above, down to the last term above. There’s been more recent squabbling over what to call that sort of beer but made in America and made with a darker malt, so that the beer turns out darker, quod erat demonstrato, sort of.
Black IPA tells drinkers exactly what’s up, but there’s a logical problem in calling a beer black and pale. I don’t particularly give a damn about that sort of contradiction , and it seems odd that the argument arises here, rather than earlier. When one objects that Bugs Bunny can’t inflate a balloon with his breath and then have it float, one objects too late.
But there’s a difference in the intent and origin between the invention of American IPAs and the invention of black IPAs: the whole bit, IPA, refers to a historical style, even if the tweaked style is made in the US and isn’t pale or intended for export to thirsty British officers. The history is the most important element, but the way that history is retained in the term black IPA bumps up against a sort of mathematical linguistic sense . Other terms have been suggested. (I’ll spare the reader .) But this term seems to be prevailing for now, since it makes things so clear, even as it muddies the literal sense.
The food term I’ll discuss â€“ molecular gastronomy â€“ arises not from a desire to make things clear, but a desire to if not obfuscate, then swankify . My ethos is stronger here, because I’m borrowing it entirely, by just trotting out the objections Harold McGee raised in a recent column : it’s not molecular. Molecular was the term picked to make it sound sciencey. The term gastronomy, McGee argues, is good enough on its own. He objects on all four counts: it’s inadequate and inaccurate, it arises from an odd exigence, with a nefarious intent.
Names are tough. Because they stand in for the things or people or ideas they name, people react more viscerally to names than to other words. On the one hand, they’re arbitrary. My name means â€œGrace-of-God Rock Man-at-Arms.â€ A less accurate and representative set of names would be tough to assemble. And my parents weren’t thinking about those earlier meanings when they named me.
I lied again above. I’m not going to talk about literature, since I’m  even shorter on ethos here than I am in the above and previous sections. I’ll cheat in a way that the internet allows and encourages and is: go read Daniel Nester’s bit on the lyric essay. It’s here: http://wewhoareabouttodie.com/2012/03/08/50-notes-lyric-essays/
Names can be important, too, and it’s important to think about what we call what. But I suspect that all of the above will get settled by an ignorant (in the classical sense; not the insulting one: unknowing) consensus. Usage trumps all else. And that’s fine.
1. I repeat my explicatory footnote: my primary audience consists of writers, and writers typically or stereotypically like beer, because beer contains ethyl alcohol. But just go read that piece first, maybe.
2. On rather thin ethos, mind you.
3. If the reader doesn’t know what some of these unparsed terms mean, it’s fine. There’s no reason you should. Just plug things into Google. It’s like we’ve all got the Brittanica, these days (if the Brittanica’s authors had a sometimes-literal boner for all things Sonic the Hedgehog).
4. I don’t even know whom I’m talking about, here.
5. A red rat snake is orange, you know?
6. I won’t say that applying math logic to language doesn’t never work, but it doesn’t always.
7. Only on this one point, though. You’ll probably have to suffer otherwise to make it through this thing.
8. This footnote follows the instance of the greatest degree to which in my life thus far I have split an infinitive.
9. McSweeney’s puts out a food magazine, called Lucky Peach. It’s fantastic. There’s cussin’.
10. Oddly, given my background and schoolin’ and some of the things I nominally taught students for some years.