It May Cause an Allergic Reaction
Over the years, we’ve sometimes explored in these blog entries various forms of language abuse. In fact, it’s a common theme for The Weekly Curmudgeon. But to my thinking, none of my previous posts have adequately prepared you for what’s to come in this week’s rant. Venture now with me, brave readers, into a labyrinth of illogic so twisted and winding from which—I give you fair warning—there is scarcely a prayer of returning unchanged.
For some time now, food purveyors have been thoughtfully adjusting their offerings to accommodate those with various dietary needs. Many have added vegan and vegetarian options, as well as gluten-free options for those with a gluten intolerance (whether real or trendily self-diagnosed). And as they’ve done so, they’ve also added appropriate corresponding indicators to their labels and menus.
Now, if you think this week’s complaint is going to be aimed at this recent surge in dietetic specificity, well . . . that would be an excellent guess on your part. But no, this isn’t the problem—at least, not yet. (Between those who reject, respectively, meat, fish, gluten, dairy products, peanuts, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and foods that are purple, creating enough options to account for all possible dietary needs will eventually become an untenable endeavor. But that’s a topic for another time.)
By now, many of us are accustomed to sensible descriptors like “gluten-free,” “vegan,” “non-dairy,” even “GF” and “V.” But then I spotted it. I saw it with my own eyes: a food item that was labeled (and I pray to God you’re sitting for this) “gluten friendly.”
Gluten . . . friendly.
Upon first seeing those two words presented in tandem, I was forced to take to my bed for several days. The experience left me nearly incapacitated as I struggled, again and again, to wrench meaning from this insane, nonsensical combination of ideas. It echoed mercilessly through the caverns of my mind, each repetition making less sense than the one before. Was the item in question friendly to gluten? Why would it be? Or was it perhaps friendly to those who crave gluten? Did it contain extra gluten . . . or less gluten? And can a dish even be described as “friendly”? What would that mean, exactly? Was the term “gluten friendly” meant to indicate a state of being somewhat glutinous? And if so, for whose benefit was this dish so rendered? And could gluten-free foods be deemed “gluten-unfriendly”?
The horror and confusion set off by this two-word mind maze—and the resultant haunting—was worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. (This, once again, is the danger of using words without thinking about the words we’re using; among other things, such carelessness may likely traumatize people like the Curmudgeon who still believe that words have specific meanings.)
The term “user-friendly” makes sense. It was coined to describe things that were designed with the user in mind, hence easier to use, hence friendly toward the user. I first heard it in reference to Apple computers, which were said to be easier to learn to operate, making them popular amongst those with just an average level of computer expertise.
When I travel with my cat, I seek out hotels that are labeled “pet-friendly,” because that sensible pairing of words lets me know that the establishment welcomes—is friendly toward—pets. Similarly, I can easily comprehend that “kid-friendly” restaurants are prepared to welcome families with children . . . and that I ought to avoid such establishments.
But “gluten-friendly” (a term recognized by neither the FDA nor people who speak actual English) is naught but gobbledygook. Whatever restaurateurs and makers of food products may be attempting to communicate, they are failing. The phrase is equivalent to calling something “sodium-friendly,” “cholesterol-friendly,” or “meat-friendly.” Reading it leaves one more confused than one was before reading it.
The Curmudgeon is fortunate enough to be able to tolerate gluten (particularly fortunate given the great number of things that I cannot tolerate). But when presented with terms that make no sense whatsoever, I would label myself as decidedly unfriendly.