Bread play

From Ann Burlingham, this Scott Hilburn cartoon from 2012, with a pun avalanche, or punvalanche for short, of bread-related vocabulary: breadwinner, the verb loaf, (slice of) toast, Melba (toast), sourdough.


Some highlights follow.

The verb loaf. This has absolutely nothing to do with the noun loaf (OE hlāf, going back to earlier Germanic). So the pun is not only phonologically perfect, but beautiful in another way: the homophony is between lexical items that are totally unrelated etymologically, so is truly accidental.

The noun breadwinner. This has an old (early 19th century) use of metaphorical bread meaning ‘money’ — a use that was reinvented in 20th century slang (Green’s Dictionary has a first cite in 1938, and documents a spread through jazz musicians and beatniks).

The noun toast. The cartoon character Melba in #1 is in fact a slice of toast, Melba toast to be specific.

Toast strikes many people as funny. I posted two Jack Ziegler toast cartoons here on 10/28/12, and there’s Bob and Ray’s absurd shop The House of Toast, which I posted about on 8/12/10. Then there are possibilities for plays on various nouns toast: the breadstuff; in the slang idiom be toast (discussed here on 7/29/13 and on 1/10/15); in the  noun toast ‘a call to drink in honor of someone’, which turns out, remarkably, to be related to the breadstuff sense (see this posting).

Instead, Milburn takes the play up one level, from individual lexical items to the figure not the only X in the world, conveying diminished significance for some particular X. So Sourdough Slice is saying that Melba is not all that special.

On to Melba toast, where there is a play on an individual word in #1: Melba as the name of the character and the Melba of Melba toast, where for most people the Melba is just the first element of a N + N compound, an element whose contribution to the meaning of the whole is merely to distinguish this kind of toast from other kinds. Of course, there’s a history here, but no one needs to know the history to recognize what Melba toast is. From Wikipedia

Melba toast is a dry, crisp and thinly sliced toast, often served with soup and salad or topped with either melted cheese or pâté. It is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the stage name of Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell. Its name is thought to date from 1897, when the singer was very ill and it became a staple of her diet. The toast was created for her by chef and fan Auguste Escoffier, who also created the Peach Melba dessert for her. The hotel proprietor César Ritz supposedly named it in a conversation with Escoffier.

Melba toast is made by lightly toasting slices of bread under a grill, on both sides. The resulting toast is then sliced laterally. The thin slices are then returned to the grill with the untoasted sides towards the heat source, resulting in toast half the normal thickness. Thus, it can be described as a twice-baked food

Or you can buy commercially made Melba toast:


In case you were wondering, March 23rd is National Melba Toast Day (in the US). Mark your calendars.

The noun sourdough. Start with the foodstuff, which has a fascinating history, compacted here from the Wikipedia article:

Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally-occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Sourdough bread has a mildly sour taste not present in most breads made with baker’s yeast, due to the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli. Sourdough bread has better inherent keeping qualities than other breads due to the lactic acid bacteria it contains.

… Traditional San Francisco sourdough is a Type I sourdough. Type I sourdoughs are generally firm doughs, have a pH range of 3.8 to 4.5, and are fermented in a temperature range of 20 to 30 °C (68 to 86 °F). Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis was named for its discovery in San Francisco sourdough starters,

… In Type II sourdoughs, baker’s yeast or Saccharomyces cerevisiae is added to leaven the dough

… Type III sourdoughs are Type II sourdoughs subjected to a drying process

… Writing in the Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology M.G. Gaenzle writes “The origins of bread-making are so ancient that everything said about them must be pure speculation. One of the oldest sourdough breads dates from 3700 BC and was excavated in Switzerland, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier…

… French bakers brought sourdough techniques to Northern California during the California Gold Rush, and it remains a part of the culture of San Francisco today. The nickname remains in “Sourdough Sam”, the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers.

A yummy loaf of sourdough bread:


(National Sourdough Bread Day is April 1. Why April Fool’s Day, I don’t know.)

Now an important fact about the noun sourdough: it’s a M (mass) noun, on two grounds: because it refers to stuff, rather than things; and because it’s a composite N with a M head, dough. But, as I’ve noted several times (see the C/M Page), there are systematic schemes of M > C conversion, in particular conversion to a noun denoting a variety or type (as in many wines ‘many varietities of wine’ and several breads ‘several types of bread’). This sort of conversion is illustrated in the Wikipedia sourdough article, when it says things like “San Francisco sourdough is a Type I sourdough” and “Type III sourdoughs are Type II sourdoughs subjected to a drying process”.

But in #1 we have a different sort of M > C conversion, in a Sourdough, with sourdough functioning like a family or clan name — not a sort of example I’ve discussed before. It’s set up here by the fact that the characters are also slices of stuff, one a slice of Melba toast, the other a slice of sourdough bread. It’s also possible that that what Melba’s saying is a sourdough, with a C common noun created on the pattern of sourpuss, hotshot, deadbeat, etc.

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