Language notes on the back of my grocery list

There's a useful German word I wish I could bring with me to the supermarket in Boston: knapp. It means "scant," not quite, a little on the light side. "Knapp ein Kilo" at the meat counter means "not quite a kilo." It's a great way to exercise portion control at the source.

Maybe I'm being cynical. But come on. They sell Black Forest ham and corned beef and prosciutto by the slice all day long, week in, week out. Am I supposed to believe they couldn't get it right to the gram if they wanted to? A little bit here, a little bit there, and by the end of the day they've sold the equivalent of a whole extra cow that no one was really in the market for. "OK if it's a little over?" Well, no, not if I've asked for "knapp ein

Kilo." When I lived in Bonn, the German butcherfolk seemed to get this point. But their counterparts in North America seem not to. "A scant pound? Hunh?" Moral of the story: It's not enough for a word to be in the dictionary. It's got to be installed on the hard drive between the ears.

Supermarket soundscapes

The large North American supermarket has a distinctive soundscape of its own. One of its very characteristic features is the public address announcement. It typically breaks into the supermarket music (like elevator music, only adapted to a larger space) that one hasn't noticed one was paying attention to, and consists of a sort of bark, or occasionally a kind of plea, along the lines of "Steve Jones to produce," or maybe "Bob Smith to Aisle 13 for customer assistance." These Steves and Bobs and their brethren and sistren keep the supermarkets of the nation on track.

The variation on this theme that I heard the other week was, "Muhammad, price check, Register 5."

Not Steve or Bob. Not even Julio or Antonio, or, typical of my neighborhood, Sergei or Vladimir. No, Muhammad. If there has been any single moment over the past several years that has crystallized my awareness of Muslims in America, present and part of the community, this was it: hearing that cashier call out for help from somebody named Muhammad.

Shopping in two languages

Canada has long been officially bilingual. That means, among other things, equal opportunity labeling, French and English, on all manner of packaged grocery items - even in overwhelmingly Anglophone Toronto. When I lived there I was sometimes tempted to buy things I really didn't need just because I was charmed by their French names. Thus the rather grand batonnets au fromage for cheese doodles.

And what about croustilles? It's a great word for potato chips. With the hard "c" and the uvular "r," it's definitely crunchier than its English counterpart. It was almost enough to get me to start buying them again. Bilingual labeling has forced companies to translate a North American lifestyle into French, and the French are collectively horrified at the way (North) Americans eat - which makes the elegant-sounding names all the more amusing.

The most glorious example of supermarket labels that read better in French, though, has to be free-range eggs. The labels refer to free-range chickens - in French - as "poules en liberté." Does that not sound grand? ("Liberated chickens," on the other hand, sounds like a contradiction in terms.) And if en liberté, why not egalité et fraternité while we're at it? Can't you just picture the flock of hens, each wrapped in a little tricolor, strutting around the barnyard to the strains of "La Marseillaise"?

"Allons poulets de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé."

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