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Chili and essentialism

The Baltimore Sun

Today’s Taste section in The Baltimore Sun features an article on the Maryland State Chili Championship Cookoff. A wide variety of meats and spices will be employed by the competitors, but “the official rules of chili cookoffs sanctioned by the International Chili Society forbid the use of beans and pasta.”

This is an essentialist position. To be chili, it must have meat and spices; if it has pasta or beans, it is not chili. This is why many chili enthusiasts, who tend to be essentialists, scorn Cincinnati chili, an admirable dish,* because it does not partake of that essence of chili. If the Greeks who invented it nearly a century ago had called it something other than chili, the essentialists would be able to enjoy it.

Essentialism can be fun to play with, as I did in the video joke “The Brewmasters’ Conference,” but it can lead to limitation and rigidity, as when we see essentialists talk about language.

Sticklers/purists/peevers, call them what you will, while conceding in mere lip service that language changes, tend to insist on fixed, rigid, unchanging essential meanings. These are the people—and there are still some—who insist that decimate can only mean “to reduce by a tenth,” because that is what it meant in the original Latin. You can hear their authentic voice in a comment on an Economist article on “The etymological fallacy”:

“I will never, ever accept the use of ‘decimate’ as a mere synonym for ‘devastate’ or ‘destroy’. There are a great many words which may be used to give that meaning, but decimate is useful and worthy precisely because it denotes destruction of a significant and discreet minority of a given population. Mindful of the background of the word in military punishment, I like to think that by using ‘decimate’ in the sense of ‘reduce by 1/10th’, while preserving the connotation of terrible loss, the word draws attention to the value of human life; to lose 10% of a crop or a stock is bad, but to lose 10% of a battalion, fathers, brothers and sons, and at the hands of other thinking men, merits a special word.

“Every surrender of a discreet meaning to the ignorant fog of rough synonymy robs us of the power to express ideas, and brings us one step closer to babbling fools.”

The all-or-nothing tone of the final sentence is characteristic: Once we surrender any particular essentialist position, it’s just a matter of time until we degenerate into gibbering hominids.

Words do not have essences; they have baggage. Etymology is part of that baggage. So are social and cultural and historical associations. Egregious once meant “excellent.” Now it means “flagrant.” Niggardly comes from a Scandinavian word meaning “stingy,” but its sound resembles a racial slur, which has turned it into what Bryan Garner calls a “skunked term” that is risky to use.

I’ve said before that English is not some Platonic ideal that exists independently of the people who speak and write it. Words mean whatever we collectively make them mean over time, and the judgment of the writer and editor is not to determine what their essence is, but to decide what sense and register are appropriate for the writer, the occasion, the publication, the reader.

So enjoy the chili. Whatever kind you like.

 

 

*I have written more than once about the virtues of this most perfect of fast foods, including a recipe. You can see its merits for yourself.

 

 

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