Choosing your words

Two recent items on word choice: a One Big Happy with a set of synonyms; and a NYT Magazine piece on children’s breakfasts around the world, with a reference to Japanese natto as “putrid”.

The OBH:


Ruthie hears three terms strung together, none of them familiar to her, and assumes that each has a distinct referent. The first two are nouns in -er, which she takes to be names of occupations, so she assumes the third is as well.

But what grandma Rose is doing is stringing together three negatively tinged nouns, which in this case are near-synonyms, as a way of emphatically condemning Ponzi Larkin; she’s piling on the disses, though strictly speaking one would have done. (In other cases, people pile on positive descriptors to praise someone extravagantly.) Brevity — omitting needless words, in this case — however, is not the only goal in using language, and it often conflicts with other expressive goals.

From NOAD2 on the relevant items, which are very close indeed in meaning:

freeloader informal a person who takes advantage of others’ generosity without giving anything in return. [from the verb freeload]

mooch verb informal [with obj.] ask for or obtain (something) without paying for it: a bunch of your friends will show up, mooching food | [no obj.] I‘m mooching off you all the time.
noun (also moocher) a beggar or scrounger: the mooch who got everything from his dad. Synonyms for BEGGAR: informal bum, scrounger, sponger, cadger, freeloader, moocher.

sponge informal a person who lives at someone else’s expense. Synonyms for SCROUNGE OFF/FROM: be a parasite on, beg from; live off; informal freeload on, cadge from, bum off, mooch off.

Natto for breakfast. From the NYT Magazine on the 12th, in “Rise and Shine: What kids around the world eat for breakfast” (photographs by Hannah Whitaker, text by Malia Wollan):

Americans tend to lack imagination when it comes to breakfast. The vast majority of us, surveys say, start our days with cold cereal — and those of us with children are more likely to buy the kinds with the most sugar. Children all over the world eat cornflakes and drink chocolate milk, of course, but in many places they also eat things that would strike the average American palate as strange, or worse.

Breakfast for a child in Burkina Faso, for example, might well include millet-seed porridge; in Japan, rice and a putrid soybean goop known as natto; in Jamaica, a mush of plantains or peanuts or cornmeal; in New Zealand, toast covered with Vegemite, a salty paste made of brewer’s yeast; and in China, jook, a rice gruel topped with pickled tofu, strings of dried meat or egg.

I was taken aback by putrid, which struck me as much too negative in the context. Eventually we get a photo of a Japanese kid (Saki Suzuki, 2 ¾ years old, in Tokyo) with a typical breakfast, including a bowl of natto (which she will eat on rice, also depicted):


The caption, which has the factual fermented, rather than the extravagant putrid:

The first time Saki ate the fermented soybean dish called natto, she was 7 months old. She promptly vomited. Her mother, Asaka, thinks that perhaps this was because of the smell, which is vaguely suggestive of canned cat food. But in time, the gooey beans became Saki’s favorite food and a constant part of her traditional Japanese breakfasts. Also on the menu are white rice, miso soup, kabocha squash simmered in soy sauce and sweet sake (kabocha no nimono), pickled cucumber (Saki’s least favorite dish), rolled egg omelet (tamagoyaki) and grilled salmon.

Earlier posting on breakfasts around the world, here, and one on traditional Japanese breakfasts at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, here, with this quote from Wikipedia in it (my added comments in square brackets):

The normative Japanese breakfast consists of steamed white rice, a bowl of miso soup, and Japanese styled pickles (like takuan [daikon radish pickle] or umeboshi [pickled sour plum]). A raw egg and nori are often served; the raw egg is beaten in a small bowl and poured on the hot rice to make golden colored tamago kake gohan, whilst the nori (sheets of dried seaweed) is used to wrap rice. Grilled fish [for instance, salty salmon at the high end] and Japanese (green) tea is often served as well. [nattō (soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis) is another frequent ingredient; many people find its strong smell and its rather slimy texture off-putting, but I’m fond of it]

And from Wikipedia specifically on natto:

Nattō … is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto. Some eat it as a breakfast food. Nattō may be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture.

… The first thing one notices after opening a pack of nattō is its distinctive smell, somewhat akin to a pungent cheese. Stirring the nattō produces lots of sticky strings.

Nattō is occasionally used in other foods, such as nattō sushi, nattō toast, in miso soup, tamagoyaki, salad, as an ingredient in okonomiyaki, or even with spaghetti.

… Many non-Japanese find the taste unpleasant and smelly, while others relish it as a delicacy.

Now back to the adjective putrid. The NOAD2 entry gives a good sense of just how negative it is:

(of organic matter) decaying or rotting and emitting a fetid smell.

  • of or characteristic of rotting matter: the putrid smells from the slaughterhouses.
  • informal very unpleasant; repulsive: the cocktail is a putrid pink color.

ORIGIN: from Latin putridus, from putrere ‘to rot’. Other synonyms for DECOMPOSING: decaying, rotting, rotten, bad, off, putrefied, putrescent, rancid, moldy; foul, fetid, rank.

One Response to “Choosing your words”

  1. Stephen Anderson Says:

    I don’t know whether you’ve ever eaten (or tried to eat) natto, Arnold, but in my opinion ‘putrid’ is precisely descriptive. Note that the little kid in the story had the same impression the first time around, although as the sources you cite note, natto is something for which you can (and many, though not all, Japanese do) acquire a taste. Just as it’s possible to acquire a taste for Icelandic Hákarl (rotten shark meat), for which ‘putrid’ is also an entirely appropriate description.

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