Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Language Notes on the Back of My Grocery List

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Language Notes on the Back of My Grocery List

Article excerpt

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. …

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