This month’s unpalatable portmanteau

Surely not new this month, but it got to me (via Victor Steinbok) this month: shmeat ‘animal protein produced in vitro’, in particular in protein sheets in a lab. Sheet + meat.

There’s a Shmeat website, with this information:

In the quest to create meat without actually harming animals, scientists (who fondly refer to themselves as “tissue engineers”) are diligently working so that one day in the not so distance future, you can have a serving of shmeat on your dinner plate.

Shmeat (also known as cultured meat, hydroponic meat, test-tube meat, vat-grown meat, victimless meat and [in] vitro meat [and lab meat]) is the nickname given to lab created meat grown from a cell culture of animal tissue. The process is pretty straight forward and the process is similar to how scientists already grow patches of human skin.

Cells are harvested from a live animal, such as a chicken, pig or cow. The cells are then placed in a special solution of nutrients which mimics the qualities of blood. This nutrient solution will help the cells to multiply where they can then be secured to a spongy sheet which has been soaked with nutrient solution. The sheet is then stretched to increase cell size and protein content. It’s from the combination of this “sheet meat” that shmeat derives its name.

/ʃm/ is not an auspicious word onset: think s(c)hmuck and s(c)hmo, and other Yiddish-derived words that are derogatory or comic, plus German names in Schm-, like Schmidt. More important, it suggests the second element of dismissive Shm- Reduplication (here): “Table, shmable, just give me a place to work”; “Linguist, shminguist, what does he know about earning money?”

Or, in this case: “Meat, shmeat, who cares as long as it’s animal protein?” The problem is the dismissive, even derogatory, component of shm-, something no marketer would want to hook into.

Reactions to the stuff itself — which is unlikely to appear on the market anytime soon, and might well be expensive then — are mixed. For many people, there’s a strong ick factor (having to do with the “unnatural” and “engineered” character of shmeat), but it’s heralded by some, for instance the PETA people, who value it as an alternative to slaughtering animals.

However the economic, ethical, sociocultural, and commercial aspects of the matter shake out, I’d recommend an alternative to shmeat (with dismissive shm- and potentially suggestive meat combined) as the name. (Of course, sometimes advertising triumphs over naming. But it’s a trudge uphill.)

5 Responses to “This month’s unpalatable portmanteau”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Google+, Victor Steinbok and I started a discussion about whether shmeat is kosher. Victor’s latest:

    This actually raises all sorts of issues–is it meat at all? Presumably, every rabbinate would say YES, but can we be sure? And, if it’s meat, is it the same kind of meat as the animal it was derived from? If YES, then there are no concerns (other than checking the chemicals used along the way and avoiding things like gelatin). But the answer may well be NO. It’s not the same kind animal–come to think of it, it’s not animal at all! In this case, there would be a serious problem–“meat” has to come from animals and the Kashrut laws that apply to animal product might not apply to this one. If it’s not meat, then it would have to be Parve and I’m sure no one would go for that. So it would have to be meat, but then it’s meat that does not come from kosher animals. Then none of it would be kosher, no matter what animal it originates from. There is a good chance that the respective powers would try to straddle the line by declaring it meat and not kosher. The argument could go something like this–well, it came from a part of a cow, even though it was grown in a lab. But it’s a NEW kind of cow–one that does not chew cud (or have cloven hoof, for that matter). So even though it’s a cow, it’s not a Kosher cow. QED

    I’m sure everyone is just thrilled to see this kind of neo-Talmudism in a linguistics post 😉

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    And John Lawler in response:

    But suppose it was cultured in the lab not from cells that actually came from an animal, but from combinations of genes for various characteristics that were put together molecule by molecule. This is not possible today, afaik, but may well be soon enough.

    So, supposing all this, the food doesn’t come from any animal — or plant — at all. What comes from the animal is the information in the genes. Can information in itself be kosher or non-kosher or parve? Are food laws applicable to genetics? What if the genes for cloven hooves and cud-chewing are included but not activated?

    (Oh, and parenthetically, as Arnold will attest, the study of syntax is great training in pilpul).

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    And then Victor:

    Genes are irrelevant to Kashrut laws–the determination is evidentiary. If we consider this to be a new species of animal–how else would it have the potential for having cloven hooves and chewing cud–if it does not actually exhibit these properties than it’s not Kosher. As we all know, the pig shows its hooves while wallowing in the dirt–as the rabbis tell ups, to confuse us–but it does not chew cud. I doubt anyone has done any research on whether the pig has any potential to chew cud, but, even if it did, rabbinical courts are unlikely to change the Kashrut status of pork.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And then John:

    Ruminants that chew a cud have a multi-pass digestive system that allows the digestion of cellulose. Pigs would have to be totally re-engineered to display that ability. Unless the mere chewing of the cud is all that’s required; that would be much simpler, though not of any digestive benefit for the pig without the multiple stomachs to pass it through.

    In any event, there appears to be more genetic pilpul in the future of Kashrut.

  5. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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