8 December 2012

Rip-Off Food, Rip-Off Meaning

Rip-Off was a word that I learned when I started working at Millies Cookies.

“It’s one cookie for eighty-nine p and five for two ninety-nine.” I’d say to each customer when they asked me “how much it cost”.

“It’s a rip-off!” The younger customers would often utter, stressing the word rip-off.

Though the price of the cookies at Millie’s was a bit salty, I knew it was worth its cost. Alas, some foods aren’t worth even the meaning of their own label. This is what I learned by watching Rip Off Food (BBC ONE, aired 29 Oct 2012).

This is a matter of linguistic strangeness because while the label of a can (or package) defines a meaning regulated by law, the content of the can may not be what is actually defined in the label. In practical terms this is what happens…

How much chicken should a soup have to be labelled Chicken Soup? Rip Off Food shows that 0.5% of chicken powder is enough. It’s also show in the programme a Pastan Sauce Chicken & Mushroom that contains 1% of mushroom and 0% of chicken – the word chicken is justified in the product because is has chicken flavour. Flavour is a word that attributes different meanings to a product.
Under the regulations, a label that shows Chicken Flavour doesn’t have to contain any trace of chicken in it. In this sense the word flavour actually has a literal meaning – chicken flavour, is just flavour, but no chicken.
But if the suffix ed is added to the word flavour, then a label showing flavoured means that the product is derived from the real thing.
Now, if you think that cream in ice cream always means milk fat, think again. Rip Off Food shows that there are foods that don’t contain any of the main ingredients they’re commonly known for. That’s how ice cream may not contain any cream whatsoever. Ice cream may contain vegetable oil, whey protein, sugar, emulsifiers, flavouring, and not a drop of cream in it, and still be legally labelled ice cream.
Still, other products like creamed potatoes, cream crackers, and butter beans, describe a dairy characteristic, even though there’s no dairy product in them.

“Neat-picky” you may say.

Indeed. Not even in formal dictionaries words and their meanings always seem to correspond logically. Bad, for example, means good, excellent, and such meaning is recognised in the Concise OED. Again the examples presented in Rip Off Food are evidence that the language we come across ordinarily is indeed – like David Crystal hypothesised – strange (see post 1).

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