Truth in Adjectivizing

As sure as students return to campus in autumn, this is the time of year when  Starbucks releases its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a beverage that seems to have a particularly vocal following. I’ve ordered  it myself. It’s sweet and scented and, unless you hold the cream, very rich.

Recently I’ve noticed a pushback, though, and not from health-conscious types. People are complaining about the absence of pumpkin in pumpkin spice latte, as if this were the coffee drinkers’ equivalent of a WikiLeak.

Recipes are popping up on the Internet for real  pumpkin spice latte. This apparently involves starting with pumpkin puree, an ingredient I can say I’ve never hungered for in fancy coffee.

Starbucks has hailed the return of the beverage with big signs for “PSL.” Is the abbreviation an initialism or an acronym? Are we meant to pronounce each letter or make a word from their consecutive sounds?

As an acronym, PSL would become  pissl, or even pizzle, which just sounds rude. As an intialism, on the other hand, PSL feels clinical, as if it might be a medical condition.

Marketing is harder than it looks.

The issue that has bothered some coffee fans  is really about grammar and usage, not cuisine. What obligation does the phrase pumpkin spice shoulder?

We’ve long been used to food names with adjectives that point us to a parallel deployment rather than to the meaning of the adjective itself.

Anyone who has puzzled through a Chinese takeout menu is familiar with shrimp with lobster sauce, a dish famous for having no lobster in it. Lobster sauce is a sauce for  lobster, here being slathered on unsuspecting shrimp.

Duck sauce is sauce for duck, not sauce composed of duck bits. If you’ve ever been fooled into looking for either lobster or duck morsels,  you’ve got plenty of company.

The spice shelf of the supermarket offers tins of something called apple pie spice and probably something else called pumpkin pie spice. There are no apples in the first, no pumpkins in the second. These are, of course, mixtures of spices one uses to flavor those fruits when consigning them to their respective pies.

So why the over-caffeinated fuss about Starbucks’s seasonal menu? Is it really a surprise that there’s no pumpkin slush in the bottom of your cup? Like gas masks (masks made for but not of gas),  the Starbucks beverage is flavored with a spice made for but not of pumpkin. The modifier, Starbucks fans, is the phrase pumpkin spice. It’s about the latte,  not about the botanical Cucurbita pepo. 

Attributive adjectives—ones preceding nouns—are supposed to give us some sort of information about the noun, but the nature of that information may—and probably always must—involve some sort of decoding. Modifiers can play tricks.

Take the phrase arms control, a term usually meant to indicate the control of arms, in the sense of reducing the number of dangerous weapons. One might, however, consider that arms control could describe one nation’s occupation of another, in which the control of the occupied land is ensured by means of  weapons. (A punster might point out that  arms control could be something the Rockettes excel at in their precision routines.)

The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Problem, however, isn’t about an intentional ambiguity,  though readers of  Lingua Franca—many of whom are ironists by profession—know that sometimes we deliberately throw curve balls and enjoy the mayhem that results.

Joe Orton did this famously and wickedly in Loot, in which we learn of Truscott, the detective who tracked down the limbless girl killer. The killer turns out to be a girl without limbs, and a savage creature she apparently was, proving if nothing else that modifiers aren’t easy and neither is black comedy.

Angry consumers of the beverage under discussion—not to mention echt linguists—may wish to vent (or venti) their further thoughts on the function of caffeine in the grammar of everyday life.

My inner barista, however,  proposes that Starbucks announce the return of its seasonal treat with a small print disclaimer: “No pumpkins were harmed in the production of your beverage.”


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano



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