Not until you’ve fried it

Caught on a local tv station, an ad for Spam:


An easy pun — fried for tried — on a formulaic expression, Don’t knock it until / ’til / till you’ve tried it. In service of an exhortation to enjoy Spam by frying it just like ham.

First, on the ad campaign. Then, on the expression.

The ads. From Adweek’s “How Spam Used the Super Bowl to Kick Off Its Sizzling New Message: From out of the cupboard and into the frying pan” by Robert Klara on February 9th:

Did you know that right now, as you read this, the pantries of one-third of American homes contain Spam? (We mean the precooked pork product, not the junk mail.) Using 2016’s tally of 125.82 million households in America, that comes to nearly 43 million homes with a can of Spam on the shelf.

That’s a lot of Spam, but parent company Hormel would, naturally enough, like to see more. Which is why the famed convenience meat has quietly lifted the lid on a new marketing campaign this week.


Actually, it wasn’t so quiet. Not only did Spam air its new ads in select markets during the Super Bowl, its new campaign is all about noise — specifically, the sizzling sound a slice of Spam makes when it hits a hot frying pan.

You can watch the commercial here.

The formulaic expression. The idea — that you can’t really appreciate something until you’ve experienced it, and then you’ll probably like it (Try it, you’ll like it, in the catchphrase from an old Alka-Seltzer ad campaign) — is an old one, and has been formulated in many ways as an encouragement to engage in some novel experience (from foods to sexual acts). One formulation partly crystallized into a family of admonishing expressions involving the verb knock (NOAD2: informal talk disparagingly about; criticize) under negation in the main clause and the verb try in a subordinate clause. Some variants:

Don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it (at least once). Don’t knock it if you haven’t (ever) tried it. Don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it. Never knock it if you haven’t tried it. 

plus variants with specific NPs instead of itDon’t knock Spam unless you’ve tried it — and variants with the subordinate clause first — If you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it — and variants with main-clause declaratives instead of imperatves — You shouldn’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

But my impression is that one formulation is by far the most frequent:

Don’t knock it until / ’til / till you’ve tried it.

(until rather than unless or if tilts things towards the expectation that you will indeed try it). That is, this version is in some sense the canonical version of the catchphrase (one that in fact appears in some idiom dictionaries), which can then be varied in a number of ways.

This is in fact a common configuration for idioms. As Susanne Riehemann noted in ch. 3 of her 2001 Stanford PhD dissertation,  though an idiom generally has a canonical form (which dominates the data statistically, is reflected in the way dictionaries and speakers refer to the idiom, and serves as the seed for learning), some have more than one. For example, a search for the idiom in which someone is placed at the mercy of the meat-eaters yields the canonical throw to the wolves (39 exx.), plus lions (11 exx.), and 1 ex. each of tigers, sharks, dogs.

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