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Friday's xkcd:

The mouseover title:

"It's not an influenza, but the onset has notes of the '09 H1N1 strain."
"Ah yes, that was a good year for H1N1."

Some past posts on food-talk:

"The legal treatment of quantifiers", 1/11/2004
"Just a trace of the obligatory rubber", 4/9/2004
"Editor impresses", 5/4/2004
"Ritual verbal enthusiasm for food", 5/11/2004
"Modification as social anxiety", 5/16/2004
"More winetalk imports into coffee lingo", 5/24/2004
"Apologia pro risu suo", 6/2/2004
"Grand Cru smackdown", 6/2/2004
"More on winetalk culture", 6/2/2004
"Apologia pro risu suo", 6/2/2004
"What do wine tasting notes communicate?", 6/5/2004
"Two brews", 2/7/2010
"X forward", 3/12/2010
"…with just a hint of Naive Bayes in the nose", 2/23/2011
"Evaluative words for wines", 4/7/2012
"Leesy", 4/12/2012
"The quality of quantity", 2/24/2012
"Cherry wine", 7/18/2013
"Dinosaur wine tasting", 9/16/2021

I believe that this xkcd comic is the first clear case that I've seen of wine-talk generalized to the sensory experience of something that's not a food or beverage. The description of sounds —  violins, singers, guitars , electronics — can be similarly obsessive, but I don't recall seeing a similar multidimensional description of the sensory time course of a specific acoustic experience.

Another obvious possibility is weather — but storm-chasing lingo seems qualitatively different.



  1. Brett said,

    November 1, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    It’s Friday’s xkcd, actually. Randall usually posts the new Monday, Wednesday, and Friday comics pretty late in the day.

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 1, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

    The TV Tropes page on Sommelier Speak is a good resource for parodies of wine talk. A few examples:

    In one Peanuts strip, when Charlie Brown is going out to buy Sally an ice-cream cone, she asks for chocolate and vanilla, with chocolate on the top.
    Charlie Brown: What difference does that make?
    Sally: It makes all the difference in the world. If the vanilla is on the bottom it leaves a better aftertaste.
    Charlie Brown: Little did I know that in our own home we had a connoisseur of ice-cream cones.

    Ralphy in A Christmas Story is the kind of boy who regularly gets his mouth washed out with soap, and briefly talks like this when describing how a specific brand tastes.
    "I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant, after-dinner flavor. Heady, but with a touch of mellow smoothness. Lifebuoy, on the other hand…"

    The Sommelier in John Wick: Chapter 2 describes the guns he sells exactly the same way he would describe wines.
    "I know of your past fondness for the German varietals, but I can wholeheartedly endorse the new breed of Austrians: Glock 34 and 26."

  3. Viseguy said,

    November 1, 2021 @ 6:54 pm

    Parfumiers boast a comparably rich, and perhaps even more extensive, lexicon, but have been spared the pop-cultural parody that's attached itself to wine-speak. Art connoisseurs, less so, but my impression is that they're still mocked less frequently than are connoisseurs of wine. Which speaks, I guess, to the relative popularity of wine over art and perfumes.

  4. Stephen Goranson said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 5:46 am

    Maybe cheesy language.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 6:35 am

    Every time that I look at the cartoon, I am struck by the ?odd? response in frame 2 — "See, I wonder!". It doesn't feel idiomatic to me. Does it feel idiomatic to others ?

  6. David W said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 7:37 am

    Not quite idiomatic, but it makes sense as "Yes! You understand! Those are the things I wonder about!"

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 8:52 am

    FWIW, the "See, I wonder!" also strikes me as unidiomatic, at least without another word or two. And my native variety of English is almost certainly closer to the cartoonist's than is Philip Taylor's. Although the cartoonist is almost 20 years younger than me so I guess I can't rule out the possibility of it being a Today's Young People Talk Funny idiom?

  8. MattF said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 10:18 am

    @Stephen Goranson
    Cheese-talk has to deal with cheeses that have unpleasant odors. The odor of one well-known stinky cheese (Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk) is described as ‘the smelly feet of the gods’.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 8:10 pm

    "See, I wonder!" sounds OK to me as the kind of stream of consciousness talk that happens in excited conversations, though it looks weird "on paper." I think I would say "Right?" or maybe "I know right?" instead though.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 6:53 am

    Rod, I can't see how speaker 2 could respond with a question immediately after speaker 1's two questions "How distinct are they ? Could you tell them apart ?". It seems to me that speaker 2 would need to at least address those questions before going on to ask a question of his own, even if in addressing them he merely says "I don't know" or "I'm not sure".

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 8:56 am

    Not that different from foods and beverages, but there's also marijuana.

    "Buzz Bomb is a rare sativa dominant hybrid strain (80% sativa/20% indica) created through crossing the classic Bomb #1 X an unknown sativa-dominant hybrid strain. The true heritage of this bud is kept a closely guarded secret by its breeders, and for good reason. With its explosive heady high and long-lasting effects, Buzz Bomb is truly one of the best sativas out there. The onset of the Buzz Bomb high comes on fast and hard with a tingly effect felt in the back of the head and neck. This quickly launches through your entire cerebral state, infusing you with a sense of energy and focus as well as an increase in sociability. As your mind lifts higher and higher into motivating happiness, your body will remain anchored with a lightly relaxing physical high. Thanks to these effects and its high 15-20% average THC level, Buzz Bomb is said to be perfect for treating conditions such as chronic stress or anxiety, depression, headaches or migraines, and ADD or ADHD. This bud has a spicy earthy flavor with a lightly sweet fruity exhale that turns minty as you continue to toke. The aroma is of minty earth with a sharp kick of spicy herbs and hash. Buzz Bomb buds have long tapered minty green nugs with bright red hairs, purple undertones and a thick coating of chunky white crystal trichomes."

    Justin Schmidt gives fanciful descriptions of insect stings, but few include a time sequence. Here are two, maybe the only two, exceptions:

    Red paper wasp – Polistes canadensis: "Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut."

    Artistic wasp – Parachartergus fraternus: “Pure, then messy, then corrosive. Love and marriage followed by divorce.”

  12. DMcCunney said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 11:09 am

    Not a wine connoisseur, but I see similar verbiage in tasting notes for single malt whiskys.They can get intentionally hilarious when describing poor drams, like Loch Dhu, generally considered the worst single malt ever bottled. I host occasional fine spirits parties at literary SF conventions, and the Loch Dhu was on the table wrapped in yellow caution tape. Attendees were challenged to sample it, and reactions were priceless.

    But it's one of those things where experience is important. If you have a developed malt whiskey palate, you'll be appalled. If you're new to malt whisky, you may not understand why others think it's gag worthy. Similar comments apply to wines.

  13. chh said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 12:13 pm

    This kind of reminds me of descriptions of regional dialects, where as people try to get more descriptive, they're getting more removed from describing measurable, repeatable observations.

    I would think people converge on descriptions of speech like 'broad' or 'lilting' because the important acoustic signatures aren't accessible to them, because they integrate to cue contrasts. People don't hear or talk about 'lowered f2 on high back vowels' just like they don't taste or talk about high concentrations of 6-O-β-d-apiofuranosyl-βd-glucopyranosides.

    What we need is for experts in language to take a cue from experts in wine, because I'd much rather read Labov's work if he described English on Martha's Vineyard as combining the billowing maritime brogue of Northeast Massachusetts with the sonorous, liquid-forward patois of southwestern England and Wales.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 12:27 pm

    "combining the billowing maritime brogue of Northeast Massachusetts with the sonorous, liquid-forward patois of southwestern England and Wales" — Priceless. Truly ROTFL.

  15. wanda said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 5:54 pm

    @Viseguy: Well, yes. But the purpose of perfume is to smell nice, and the purpose of art is to look a certain way. Thus, the language of connoisseurs is specialized, but it serves the purpose of the thing it's describing. Wine talk is hilarious because the flavor of a wine is completely superfluous to its purpose: to cause intoxication. I understand why people want to taste certain flavors while the ethanol works on their NMDA and GABA receptors and makes them feel certain ways. But to make a whole jargon of it is like developing a jargon to appraise the smell of new cars.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 9:55 pm


    Today we'll look at two varieties from the U.S.A. Standard American English has a robust SVO structure with two well-balanced tenses and an array of auxiliary-verb constructions that always offer more to discover. A lack of grammatical gender and a barely detectable case system lend astringency that contrasts with a fruity hint of subjunctive and an electrifying negative-polarity system. Try it in academic, literary, and business contexts or just to show off your cellar.

    African American Vernacular English has recently attracted a good deal of attention. Its conjugations, even flintier than SAE's, contrast with foxy notes of negative concord and the honey-like mouthfeel of its be-aspect. Uninflected possessives and very limited copular overtones give a distinctive flavor–could it be Creole? Traditionally paired with informal situations. The variety has a wide appeal to listeners, but we recommend serving it with great restraint unless you're familiar with its subtleties.

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 6:38 am

    @ Wanda – I'm sorry, but you are just wrong. If the only purpose of drinking alcoholic beverages was to get drunk, everybody would just drink cheap vodka (or similar highly alcoholic, minimally flavoured beverages).

    I'm a beer* rather than a wine connoisseur, which probably sounds pretentious to you. I mix with (many) others of a similar bent, sample new beers as well as choosing between old favourites out of the hundreds available at any one time, have taken tasting courses to help me tease out the many possible taste characteristics of good beers as well as those of beers brewed or kept less than optimally, can recognise by taste and name (some) different varieties of hops in single varietal or multi-hopped beers, am familiar with the different characteristics of different grains (barley, wheat, rye etc.), understand how the range of malting techniques make huge differences to the characters of different beer's styles, have preferences based on different breweries' base 'liquor' (water), actively appreciate a beer's nose (fragrance before and during drinking), mouthfeel, tongue flavours, and 'finish' (aftertaste) in the mouth and throat (one can't properly experience the latter without swallowing), and go on organised and individual trips to foreign countries to sample their very different beers. Discussing all this requires a specialised vocabulary every bit as large as (and often overlapping with) that of wine tasting.
    *I am of course talking about 'Real Ales' (aka 'Craft Beers'), not mass produced, filtered and pasteurised industrial products.

    Getting (too) drunk is actually an active hindrance to the above, which places a limit on how many different beers I can enjoy at, say, Beer Festivals (which for legal reasons cannot serve less than 1/3 of a pint at a time, and often serve only in halves and pints for administrative reasons).

    Your statement is akin to saying that it's superfluous to discuss van Gogh's use of colour because it doesn't add to the knowledge that he's painted some flowers in a vase. However, art appreciation is a thing.

  18. Terpomo said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 2:16 pm

    It reminds me of this earlier xkcd.

  19. Viseguy said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 11:01 pm

    @wanda: Wait! Wait… You mean, In vino veritas non est?! Nolo, just nolo! (To summarize @Terry Hunt in Latin.)

  20. Viseguy said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 11:34 pm

    PS: I appreciate that @wanda and @Terry Hunt are each making serious points, and intended no disrespect for either. I must, however, side with @Terry Hunt, although my primary experiences are with scotch and sherry. There is indeed a legitimate place for specialized vocabularies to describe the sensory experience of imbibing these beverages, which is, I maintain, distinguishable from the ensuing intoxication. In other words, there is a certain veritas to be discerned in vino sese that's different from the uppercase Veritas that may eventually emerge subjectively. And I do believe that wine connoisseurs are mocked unfairly, even if I'm unable myself to pair a sensory experience with every one of their colorful descriptors.

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