Friday, March 29, 2013

If 20 was 24, plus a question about linguistic hucksterism

I had a post lined up about Hugo Hamilton's affecting 1997 Dublin crime novel Headbanger and another on Max Allan Collins' Quarry in the Middle, which forced me to re-examine what I look for and enjoy in a crime novel.

Then I dropped into a local Starbucks and found that its venti (the Italian word for twenty) drinks now contain twenty-four ounces. The same Starbucks has added a trenta, which, naturally, contains thirty-one ounces even though trenta is the Italian word for thirty. 

This means I can no longer simply ask for a small, medium, or large rather than the Starbucks equivalents of tall, grande, and venti. (I got around the problem this time by ordering a 24-ounce drink and asking the counter clerk if the drink whose name means twenty really contains twenty-four ounces. Her reply? "Would you like whipped cream with that?”)

But this is a watershed in American fast-food retailing: The stuff-your-face supersize McDonalds mentality meets the semantic snobbery that has “baristas” mispronouncing doppio macchiato all over America. It is also not the first time Starbucks has altered a word's meaning for its own purposes.

What examples of semantic hucksterism language change drive you nuts?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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20 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Starbucks is more sinned against than sinning. Living in a country without a Starbucks (Starbucks was driven out by Australian anti-Starbucks coffee snobbery)I can tell you that its not pleasant. You can't get good drip coffee anywhere in this land which means that every visit to a coffee shop involves a ghastly interaction with a barista and then a long wait for shitty black coffee (they add hot water to espresso to make black coffee here).

Starbucks famously provides health care to its part-time workers and is increasingly sourcing fair trade coffee and for the six years that the ethical companies list has been running, Starbucks has appeared on it six times in a row. More details here:

http://www.ethisphere.com/wme/

Especially if you're a Brit or an Australian or a NYC based leftie coffee snob (I appreciate of course that you are not any of these things) its just too easy to take pot shots at Starbucks.

Their use of language is silly, they throw newspapers away instead of leaving them for new customers, their foods and drinks are too high calorie and too expensive, but for the reasons I mention above I wont be joining your jihad today...

March 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, it's a nuanced jihad. Starbucks will serve a good, hot cup of regular coffee (even if they give it a silly name), and I know you've lamented the impossibility of finding such a thing in Australia. I've also heard that it's a good company to work for.

But before I knew that, I had my oft-related weird experience of visiting a Manhattan Starbucks with a sentimental girlfriend who wanted to take pictures of the places we'd visited together before she had to return to her native Brazil, only to have the "barista" run out from behind the counter and tell her that photos were forbidden in Starbucks.

I muttered something stupid about Nazis, and the twitted barista simpered and said: "Our owner is a Jewish man [you see? He was such a politically correct little wuss that he couldn't even say "Jewish." He was definitely the kind who would say "gender" rather than "sex."], and he would find that very offensive."

Some time afterward, I related that story to the manager of another Starbucks, who told me he'd once threatened to throw two men out of his store who were taking photographs until, after much prodding, they finally admitted they were from Starbucks corporate.

But just to show that I'm a good sport, here's that ethical-companies list in handy one-click form.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think, in other words, that Starbucks could operate just as ethically if it sold its coffee small, medium, and large and called a twenty-ounce drink what it is.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Absolutely. My relationship (if one can have a relationship with a corporate entity, which I doubt) is very much one of love-hate.

I err on the side of love because so many British and Aussie hipster wankers love to hate Starbucks as they worship at the shrine of Apple.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I have nothing against Starbucks, except that I actually don't like their coffee as well as say, Peet's, or some other local operations, but that's just a taste thing, not ot a political thing.
And right, I live in California, not Australia.

There's another jihad kind of thing going on in my realm though, and I'd be curious what others think about it. The Indie book world among other places is aghast today that Amazon has bought Goodreads. Some of my friends have already bailed. I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to do. On the one hand, it still seems like one of the better venues to promote books I like that need a push. On the other, it does kind of irk me that people have put so much time into goodreads in terms of reviews, etc., only to have Amazon exploit their info. For free, of course. It is a little different to me than when you voluntarily put up a review on Amazon itself. There's an aspect to this that has not been one of full consent.

March 30, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Starbucks burns their cheap, bought-in-bulk coffee beans and the stuff is practically undrinkable. So they came up with a less-burnt version they call Blonde (sic) Roast. Starbucks is really in the business of sellng milk, which most people add to their coffee in order to make it palatable. If that makes me a leftie coffee snob, OK.

Reverse snobbism is in evidence here in Los Angeles, where the in-crowd drinks McDonald's coffee--any size for a Washington.

I'm mostly a tea drinker these days, anyway.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

1. Unless you live in the tropics all coffee is "bought in bulk".

2. All coffee is relatively cheap on world commodity prices. The more expensive coffee that you seem to prefer is just the mark up at source that your provider gives you. The quality of the coffee is not different at all. I'm amazed how many people fall for this. It is snobbery and its also pretty ignorant. (The situation with tea is completely different because tea isn't shipped as a bean but can be sold as powder which is virtually tasteless or as orange pekoe high quality leaves.)

3. I used to hear the "they burn their coffee thing" all the time from coffee snobs in America. Its a common trope but again its more of an urban myth as its practically impossible to over roast coffee in the machines that Starbucks use.

Yes, you should probably stick to tea, you clearly don't know much about coffee.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yes everyone on Good Reads thought they were part of a community but they were really just suckers providing free content to the owners so they could sell it all to Amazon.

Huffington Post did the same trick.

It reminds me a lot of the point that Adam Curtis made in his documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace:

Its in one of the 3 episodes, can't remember which one though.

Probably this one:

http://vimeo.com/47419821

Of course when I'm doing right now is providing free content for Google.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I err on the side of love because so many British and Aussie hipster wankers love to hate Starbucks as they worship at the shrine of Apple.

Adrian, I'm with you there. I have an Apple laptop computer because it had two features I needed in a computer. It made a good product, in other words, but Steve Jobs was not God, and he wasn't a visionary, and he did not die for our sins. I always shake my head at the local cafes when I see the tables filled with hipsters, artists, and students pecking away at their Apples.

Those cafes are strictly local operations, by the way--no Starbucks here in this traditionally Italian but recently gentriying neighborhood.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Coffees do taste different, though, and some are better than others.

As someone pointed out in some article I was reading yesterday, it's not like Goodreads was pure, and Amazon in some dastardly way took advantage of them. It was always for sale, just hadn't been bought.

Yes, though it will be interesting to see how many 'friends' I have left on Goodreads, I don't really see the point of bailing. I may as well just use it to my own ends, and hope that it all balances out somehow. It's funny that one of the more interesting discussions seems to be going on in a NYRB imprint group I'm in--at Goodreads.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: On the one hand, I have posted on Amazon reviews of books I like written by authors I know. I regard this supplying Amazon with a content as lesser evil than abandoning authors to the void created by the increasing irrelevance of newspapers in the matter of books.

On the other hand, when I get those automatic e-mails from Amazon asking me to review a book I've bought, I'll occasionally reply by asking how much Amazon pays for its reviews. I have yet to receive an answer, but I bet those replies are part of my permanent record.

As for Goodreads' content-providers constituting a "community," well, there's only two letters' difference between "community" and "commodity."

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I actually don't hate Starbucks coffee. In my current work location, Starbucks' main attraction is actually its several upholseted chairs, far more comfortable than the chairs in the local food court or deli/convenience store.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I agree with the lesser of two evils idea on this, and I have to say that I get a bit annoyed by the purist mentality that the bookstore I work in seems to expect. If I don't particularly like being used by any of these websites, I really don't like being expected to conform to store expectations outside the workplace. Or to be used in its marketing strategies. One person was asking another at the store how many people had dropped out of Goodreads because she was going to tell some rep, and I thought, Jesus, this is really none of your goddamn business.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana (and others), I always had the idea that crappy coffee was the result of over-dilution with water at the point of purchase.

"I may as well just use it to my own ends..."

You and Candide. A few years ago, someone commented on the irony of anti-globalization protest spreading repidly via the Internet, the most powerful instrument of globalization in human history.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Actually, even Peet's has made that mistake recently a few times, which is kind of surprising.

I thought Candide just decided to grow a garden.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it appears that you may be surrounded by ayatollahs of community in your part of the world. Maybe they can start an anti-Goodreads groundswell -- on their Facebook pages, naturally.

As for evil corporations, Starbucks allowed its logo to appear atop the evil genius' headquarters in one of the Austin Powers, which shows how seriously the company takes the criticism, and perhaps how seriously it ought to be taken,

Candide says something like: "And now let us tend out garden"--let's pay attention to our own thing, in other words. I suppose that's a more benevolent version ot "Let's use the big corporations for our own small ends."

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Comments on linguistic hucksterism from Statrbucks or anyone else are still welcome.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I’m not making this up. When I signed off after the exchange of comments earlier today, I found a stapled pile of papers next to my computer that contained a story I’d started to write in 2006. Here's the beginning of that story:

A barista cracked the espresso strainer against the sink’s edge and jolted me three quarters of the way back to wakefulness. This was no hour for a meeting, but the client knows best. The town was new to me, so she'd chosen the most prominent, most anonymous spot she knew. I’d arrived twenty minutes early, intending to browse and read, but the vast array of book-related products gave me a headache. I dragged myself to the mezzanine and ordered a large cup of coffee that I insisted on calling a large. I was too tired to deliver lectures on correct Italian pronunciation.

A lumpy blue ceramic jar stood next to the cash register with a hand-drawn sign in cute, fat little cartoon letters that said “TIPS.” I flipped an old Italian 100-lira coin into the jar and said, “Thanks for the
VEHN-ti, sweetheart.”

Maybe I should pick this thing up again.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Sounds like a nudge from the Muse to me, Peter.

March 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, what are the odds that should come percolating to the surface of all the scraps and chunks that litter the house?

The part immediately following that excerpt, where the narrator meets the client, is also salvageable, though the remainder is shite. Still, there may be enough for a new beginning. I'm wiser now, after all, and I've drunk lots of coffee since I wrote that bit.

March 30, 2013  

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