« You really ought to give Iowa a try | Main | My Year In Books 2011 »

It's the phantom second syllable that does it.

So. Do y’all know about the OED Word of the Day? It’s a free sign-up thing, and while it’s perhaps not as amusing as A.W.A.D., it does have the full OED etymology and corpus. Today, for instance, I got to read a quote from 1656, in which a three-headed orc (or Orke) is thrice decapitated in one mighty blow. Score for the OED, yes?

Anyway, yesterday’s word was pabulum, which it turns out has a very interesting history. It’s from the Latin, and at one point simply meant food or more metaphorically fuel. It appears to have a connotation of food for animals, rather than for people, and is used also to denote plant food, as in a 1733 quote about the roots needing to search out all the pabulum to fetch back to the body of the plant. It is used metaphorically as food for thought or the kernel from which an idea might grow, and then in the fabulous nineteenth century it becomes a scientific term for anything that provides sustenance to another thing, whether that thing is a plant, an animal, an idea, blood, fire, combustion, or what. I wouldn’t claim it has a positive connotation, but rather than a negative connotation, I would say (from the quotes I am seeing) that it has a strenuously neutral connotation, as well as a metaphoric connection to Science! by the turn of the twentieth century.

Which, presumably, is why the baby-food people in the early thirties chose to call their mush Pablum, as science-osity was a selling point in baby-rearing (it alternates with down-home-commen-sense-osity, which has been clinically proven to improve the immune system by 17%, just like Mom used to), and this two-syllable brand name became the generic term for baby mush. Which, then, became a byword for anything that was metaphorically without taste or texture, and which was a metaphorical food of last resort for those without metaphorical teeth or a working metaphoric digestive system. Pablum was something that worked and was unobjectionable, but wasn’t interesting. A baby could grow strong on a diet of Pablum—that was, in point of fact, the entire selling point of Pablum brand baby food—but once you can choke down a burger, you ain’t going back.

Alas, the metaphor took over, as metaphors tend to do. If a school was teaching pablum, the curriculum was not only without taste or texture but without any mental pabulum, that is, without anything for the mind to grow strong on. Come to think on it, it’s probably the contrast between pablum and red meat: whether it is clinically proven or not, people in this country just feel that a beefsteak has damn’ well got to make a fellow stronger than gruel. So there it is: pablum (as opposed to Pablum Brand Baby Mush) is empty food, devoid not only of taste and texture but of nutritive value. Which has to account for Heinz not bothering to use the name on their boxes, despite (according to Wikipedia) Heinz ownership of the Pablum brand.

Your Humble Blogger is going on about this because (a) I am out of practice blogging, and (2) it’s an interesting combination of the fairly rare case of a brand name becoming a general pejoritive (Off the top of my head there’s the Edsel and perhaps New Coke) and a word becoming its opposite. Because of course in the absence of Pablum brand, the non-word pablum reverted back to the word pabulum. Most uses of the word pabulum now (according to COCA) specifically refer to something without (metaphoric) nutritive value, as a reference to jury speeches, full of legal pabulum but containing little hard reasoning in the Atlantic Monthly.

COCA also came up with the following, which I absolutely love: Brand-name recognition is the pabulum of the electronic age, feeding the culture of perpetual adolescents as if they were perpetual infants. Of course pabulum isn’t baby food, Pablum is—only Steve Gennaro doesn’t achieve that brand-name recognition. And he shouldn’t, because the word really had switched. In 1805, if you were to say that X is the pabulum of Y, you would mean that X is good for Y. In 1905, if you were to say that X is the pabulum of Y, you would mean that X is good for Y. In 2005, when Steve Gennaro says that X is the pabulum of Y, he means that X is terrible for Y. And he is using the word correctly, that is, he is communicating to his readers exactly what he intends to.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.