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Richard Nordquist

Dunkin' Donuts Accused of Verbicide

By May 7, 2012

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According to a report at TODAY.com, Marc Fintz, the director of business development at Davidovich Bakery in Queens, N.Y., has filed a complaint against Dunkin' Donuts for its abuse of the word artisan.

Dunkin's Artisan Bagels, says Fintz, aren't even remotely artisanal. To label a food item artisan "creates the perception that your products are produced by hand, using traditional methods in small quantities. This is not the case."

In its response to the complaint, Dunkin' Brands invoked the sentiments of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, who said, "When I use a word, . . . it means just what I choose it to mean":

The word "artisan," which has been used by numerous other retailers in the food and restaurant industry, is a common term used to describe quality food and authentic, traditional ingredients and taste. We therefore believe it is a fair and appropriate word to describe the line of bagels featuring our new bagel recipe. As the number one retailer of bagels in America, we also believe that the word "artisan" underscores our long heritage of bagel innovation and leadership.
So it appears that the noun artisan has evolved into a vague commercial adjective meaning, "a good thing worth buying." (Similar to the way that iconic has come to mean, "someone or something that you've probably heard of.") Indeed, Forbes magazine reports that over the past five years "more than 800 new food products were bestowed the moniker artisan."

In his book Studies in Words, novelist C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia Chronicles) called such shenanigans verbicide:

"Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for "very," tremendous for "great," sadism for "cruelty," and unthinkable for "undesirable" were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its "selling quality." . . .

[T] he greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up being purely evaluative--useless synonyms for good or for bad.
(C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1967)

But is it really worth filing a complaint against Dunkin' Donuts--or Nabisco or Tostitos or Domino's or any other manufacturer of a dubiously labeled "artisan" product? After all, semantic change is pretty much unstoppable. (Keep in mind that the word manufacture itself once referred to the process of making a product by hand.)

What seems clear is that the word artisan, like the purr words natural and gourmet, is well on its way to being emptied of meaning. The best we can do, Lewis suggests, is refuse to participate in the crime:

It may not . . . be entirely useless to resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide. . . . I am tempted to adapt the couplet we see in some parks--
Let no one say, and say it to your shame,
That there was meaning here before you came.

More About Soft Language:

Image: Studies in Words, 2nd ed., by C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1967; reprinted 1996)


May 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm
(1) Megan Romer - World Music says:

I think I might prefer “artisan” used wantonly than the verbicide that I saw recently at a fancy restaurant. After dinner, one might choose from several sweet desserts or, if you so desired, an “Artesian Cheese Plate.” The cheese came from a well in Artres? Sounds delightful! Sign me up!

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