Verbal Energy: Meatballs and some other revelations

A look at the spiritual experiences of our food and film critics.

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It's a word I've been tracking out of the corner of my eye for a while. But when it jumped out at me from the pages of a recent issue of The New Yorker I was catching up with at the gym the other day, I knew its arc had peaked.

It was in a cartoon by William Hamilton, who's been making me chuckle since I was in high school.

The cartoon showed a woman being helped into her coat by her husband (presumably) after dinner in a restaurant and telling another man – the maitre d' or, more likely, the owner, "Revelatory, Michael – such airy meatballs."

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Let's savor for just a moment the comic irony of airy meatballs. Is there a food on the planet that sounds more earthbound than meatballs? The word even has the same two-beat rhythm as earthbound.

But what really caught my attention was the first word of the punch line – "revelatory." Why does the secular culture so often turn nowadays to metaphors of "revelation" to bestow high praise? After all, isn't revelation more associated with religious believers?

It may be too much to impute political thinking to the figures in New Yorker cartoons. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that if the woman in this Hamilton cartoon were a real person, she would not have voted for Mike Huckabee.

And yet "revelatory" seems to be a fairly common adjective in, for instance, food writing, particularly restaurant blogs.

Thus a Chowhound.com writer in the Washington area exults, "Finally, a revelatory dish" at a local Chinese restaurant – "noodles with ground pork and bean paste sauce," for the record.

Further up the editorial food chain, a piece in The Independent on the power of restaurant reviews referred to the scene in the recent Disney flick, "Ratatouille," in which the much-feared critic has a "revelatory meal."

My favorite example, though, is a reference to "a ground-breaking, revelatory Pan-Sautéed Calf Brain." What ground does anyone expect calf brains, pan-sautéed or otherwise, to break?

I suppose the underlying idea here is something along the lines of, "I had no idea food could be like this." Hmm. I'm still not sure.

"Revelation" seems to be the form of the R-word that pops up in film reviews, particularly to describe performances that show one actor able to hold his or her own among some other cinematic heavyweights.

Thus The New Yorker, after commenting on the strong cast of "The Hours," went on, "The revelation is Nicole Kidman as [Virginia] Woolf: tall, pale, severely beautiful, eyes cast down...."

The Trades, an entertainment industry website, likewise called Casey Affleck's performance in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" a "revelation."

If you think you see something that looks like veil in reveal, you're absolutely right. Reveal comes into English from Latin, and means, most concretely, "to unveil."

Some revelations are of bad things, though, and there, the slightly different metaphor of pulling back the curtain on something may be the right one. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," as the Wizard of Oz thundered.

Reveal, the verb, gets nouned as "the reveal," auto industry parlance for the annual unveiling of new car models in Detroit.

Why the short form, reveal instead of revelation? Well, for punchiness, two syllables beat four. Besides, in the quadrasyllable, the stress is on the boring suffix "ation," which it shares with approximately a bazillion other English words, mostly abstract nouns.

The two-syllable reveal puts the stress on the syllable that begins with "v," which may make for better sound symbolism. Vital, vivacious "v" is deemed by some experts the most vivid sound in English, full of "vim and vigor," as they used to say during the Kennedy administration.

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