My Junior Senator, Chris Murphy, tweeted this morning about the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings:

As it happens, the word pablum and the older word pabulum have an interesting history, which I wrote about in Another Place several years ago, and I figured I may as well update that note here.

The one with the u is the earlier word. It’s from the Latin, and 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. That metaphor extends (as metaphors do) to cover 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 whatever. At this point, it doesn’t seem to have a negative connotation but a neutral one—I might call it strenuously neutral or Scientifically Objective. Not that the connotation of Scientific Objectivity is actually neutral, but I mean that describing as pabulum isn’t deprecating it or praising it.

Then how does pabulum, a Scientifically Objective word for a provider of sustenance, become the pablum that makes a Senator gag?

Well, in the early thirties, a maker of baby food decided to associate their mush with Science! by calling it Pablum. Science! was a selling point in baby-rearing in the early thirties, as it is from time to time (alternating with Common Sense! ). The two-syllable brand name was so successful that it 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. And so pablum became, in essence, the opposite of 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 pablum became the opposite of pabulum. Which may be why Heinz no longer uses that brand name. And after a while, nobody thinks of it as a brand at all.

And in then comes the really wonderful part—when pablum became the opposite of pabulum, people started using pabulum to mean pablum. I think that’s partly because at least for a while people retained a dim sense that pablum wasn’t a word (which in some sense it wasn’t) and pabulum was, and they “corrected” the non-word version to the one that is indeed a word, but that meant the opposite of what they thought. And then, of course, the word began to mean what people used it to mean; most uses of the word pabulum now (according to COCA) specifically refer to something without (metaphoric) nutritive value.

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 marvelous?

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