The pumpkin spice cartoon meme

From my 10/20/17 posting “A processed flavor”, this Kaamran Hafeez cartoon:

(#1) pumpkin spice ‘top of the line, top-grade, high-end’

The Hafeez is at the end of a series of mocking Pumpkin Spice cartoon memes, ranging from the most concrete (on pumpkin spice lattes, especially as a sign of the fall), through pumpkin spice more generally as a flavor (especially in foods that wouldn’t normally have such a flavor), and then just a scent (especially in non-food products), to the fully abstract sense in #1.

Note that though premium, or high-octane, usually names the top grade of gasoline in the US, in #1 pumpkin spice is used to name an extra-premium grade, a grade above even premium. This is what we might call grade expansion, a recurrent strategy in naming grades of products for the purposes of advertisement: if grande (lit. ‘large’) is used to name the largest size of coffee available, then, pretty predictably, new, even larger, sizes will be invented to go beyond grande — at Starbucks, first venti (lit. ’20’), then trenta (lit. ’30’). Gold or golden level, once the top of the line (above silver and bronze), will be out-done by even more excellent or desirable platinum, then maybe by still-better diamond.

Top-grade premium spice. Hafeez wasn’t the first to use this idea in a cartoon. Bill Amend’s FoxTrot strip for 10/16/16:


And then today’s Bizarro (which is what brought me back to the pumpkin spice world), where it’s not grades of gasoline, but levels of medical attention:


(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

This cartoon suggests a link from the more concrete to the fully abstract sense of pumpkin spice seen in #1 and #2: because pumpkin spice is used seasonally, only around Halloween and Thanksgiving, it’s special, contrasted to the ordinary spicing of food. The expression then comes to be seen as conveying ‘special, unusual, extraordinary’, and this sense then specializes as referring to the high end of some scale (as has happened with extraordinary used for great size or amount, great ability, etc.).

Grade expansion. Modifying expressions denoting the high end of some scale or the top grade in some domain are always available for semantic shifts of various kinds, in particular to a weakening in which they are understood as referring merely to a very high degree, opening the way for them to be used with comparatives (more complete) and to be superseded in grade expansion, in which new terms denote even high degrees (A++ for a grade better than A+).

As far as I know, in grammar, superlative is still the top of the scale in grades of adjectives (above comparative); in grades of beef, prime is still the top (above choice); and, despite the cartoons in #1 and #2, in grades of gasoline, premium is still the top (above mid and regular). But I could have missed some things.

pumpkin spice as flavoring, pumpkin spice as scent. Back to relatively concrete uses of pumpkin spice, as seen in the comics. There are tons of cartoons about pumpkin spice lattes, which is where all this silliness began. But then there are still cartoons about pumpkin spice as a flavoring, and about pumpkin spice as a scent or aroma. A few examples.

On the flavor front, this Sally Forth, from 10/6/15:

(#4) Pumpkin spice chicken

And beyond food, to medicine, in this Jon Carter cartoon on the Diabetes Mine site:


Then to the 10/13/15 The Duplex strip by Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy, where pumpkin spice deployed for scent works as flavor for a dog:


Then to scent, period, in a commercial product:

(#7) Kranky Kitty by Amy Hartl Sherman, on 10/7/15

And, finally, just the scent:

(#7) F Minus cartoon by Tony Carrillo, 10/3/13

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