The waiter looked at me with a puzzled expression. It was at that moment, some twenty-fi ve years
ago, that I began a mental collection of the verbal gaffs, spoonerisms, misspellings, malapropisms
and assorted linguistic sand traps I encountered in the wonderful world of food and drink.
Some of these abuses are so widespread that they have almost become part of the language.
“Restauranteur” is one of those. I have heard people who should defi nitely know better (some of
them actual restaurateurs) use this non-existent word. The correct word is “restaurateur”—no
“n”—which derives from the French word restaurer (to restore). The fi rst restaurants were stops
along the way where weary travelers watered their horses and restored themselves with a leg of
mutton and a pint of ale. The people who ran these places were called restaurateurs—restorers.
Another of these common corruptions is “vinegar-ette,” an egregious mispronunciation of the
French word vinaigrette, a classic salad dressing. Whenever I hear this one, I always envision a
salad bar that features a line of dancers—slightly sour but comely—kicking in unison to “Green
Dolphin Street.” What a rush!
French seems to get the worst treatment at the hands of the gourmet Malaprops. For example,
“au jus sauce”—usually horribly mispronounced as “awe-jew sauce” —simultaneously violates
French grammar, pronunciation and gastronomy. If you prepare a dish au jus (oh-zhew) you are
opting not to serve a sauce, but merely the meat’s own juices.
And while we’re on the topic, I’d love to see American restaurants stop using the word “entrée”
to mean the main course. In French, the entrée is the starter course, the “entrance” to the
meal. I’m probably fi ghting a losing battle on this one, but I’ve gotten tired of explaining this peculiar
Americanism to French visitors. It would certainly make things a lot clearer if restaurants
could drop the faux French and just call starters “starters” and mains “mains.”
But French is not the only victim; Italian comes in for its abuses as well. The many
brutalizations of prosciutto are proof of that. Proscuto? Proshooto? Another one that
is slowly, insidiously creeping into common usage is “marscapone,” mistakenly
(and hilariously) pronounced as if it’s a second cousin of Al Capone. The “r”
seems to have migrated to the fi rst syllable of this word for a kind of cheese
made from heavy cream. The correct word is “mascarpone.”
Italian pronunciation is always a problem. “Ch” is pronounced “k” and
“ci” is pronounced “ch.” Bruschetta is pronounced “bru-SKET-a” not
“bru-SHET-a.” The “g” in words like tagliatelle is silent (the word is pronounced
“TAL-ya-tell-ay” not “TAG-lee-ya-telly”).
About now you’re saying “Who cares? What difference does
it make?” Well, call me crazy, but when the waiter butchers the
specials by mispronouncing them, it says to me, “This may appear
to be an Italian restaurant, but they’re just faking it.” A serious restaurateur,
who cares about the product he is offering to the public,
takes the time to instruct his staff on the nuances of pronunciation.
It just takes a minute, and it makes a big difference.
My most recent favorite appeared on a caterer’s menu—“fi llet of beef in Arman
Yak sauce.” Is that a Mongolian dish?