Shaken, Not Stirred

I was surprised to see a recent reference in The Economist (December 1, 2012, Page 98) to a meticulous man who prepared “a shaken-but-not-stirred martini every night at 6 p.m. on the dot.” I wonder if you can see why I was surprised.

It’s true that the phrase shaken but not stirred gets over a million Google hits, but it is not a phrase James Bond ever uttered, and most of the hits that I looked at were using the phrase in extended or metaphorical ways that had nothing to do with martinis.

Bond’s signature vodka martini was ordered “shaken, not stirred.” That shorter phrase gets more than two million hits, huge numbers of them about Bond. The phrase that The Economist uses is subtly wrong for a martini. The word but is the problem. Let me explain.

The coordinator but makes an intriguing meaning contribution. On the one hand, the truth conditions of P, but Q appear to be identical to those of P and Q: If one is true, the other is, and any circumstance falsifying one falsifies the other, so they are equivalent. On the other hand, there is a clear meaning difference, carried by what is generally known as a conventional implicature. What but contributes has to do with the impression given about what the utterer is expecting the addressee to assume, and how the utterer wants to modify those assumptions.

P, but Q says something like: “P; and given that I’ve said that, you’re probably thinking that Q does not hold; well get rid of that assumption, because in fact Q does hold.”

That is why “It was a woman student, and she was very good at mathematics” is neutral, but “It was a woman student, but she was very good at mathematics” is outrageous (how dare you suggest that I would assume that being a woman would mean not being good at math).

So, to order a martini “shaken, but not stirred” would suggest that (1) if a martini were shaken one might expect it also to be stirred, and (2) in this case a request was being made for said stirring not to be done. That would be ridiculous. I won’t go through all the chemistry and physics of shaking as opposed to stirring cocktails, and the details of gin-bruising and ice-chipping and breaking down of hydrogen peroxide that you can read in the insanely detailed Wikipedia article on the phrase shaken, not stirred, but obviously stirring is a much less vigorous act of mixing than shaking.

For various reasons, stirring vodka and vermouth together with ice, rather than shaking the same ingredients together in a shaker, produces a different result both visually and (to a connoisseur) in terms of taste. But if a martini has been shaken, stirring it afterward is pointless because it would cause no detectable change. And if a previously stirred martini is subsequently poured into a shaker and shaken, no one can tell that it had once been stirred. So neither way could the stirring possibly matter to Bond. He wants a shaken martini, that’s all.

(Actually, when exhausted he doesn’t care so much: After a night of losing millions to the evil Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig responds to the “shaken or stirred?” question by saying, “Do I look like I give damn?” In Skyfall however, although the famous phrase is never uttered, the bartender who shakes Bond’s martini gets the nod of approval: “Perfect,” says Bond. He doesn’t ask whether any stirring had been done earlier.)

The special element of conventionally implied meaning in the word but, taken together with the physics of stirring and shaking as just summarized, makes it clear that shaken but not stirred is a thoughtless misquotation. It isn’t the right phrase for anyone’s martini. Bond’s point is that he wants it not merely stirred but instead vigorously shaken; and that is quite different.

A small point; but then as Otto Jespersen (the greatest of all 20th-century grammarians) remarked in his retirement address in 1925: “To anyone who finds that linguistic study is a worthless finicking with trifles, I would reply that life consists of little things; the important matter is to see them largely.”

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