Monthly Archives: February 2011

Serving Suggestion

Great suggestion! Thanks, guys.

Have you ever taken the time to read a can of chili or a bag of potato chips?  When you’re hungry, you probably don’t bother to study the carefully worded text on the packaging, but sometime when you’re full (and bored), have a look.

There’s not much of a plot on a box of cereal, and the heat-‘n’-serve meals are weak on character development, but they all have a lot to say about themselves, and not just their weight and sodium content, either.  A jar of Planters peanuts, for instance, struggles with guilt feelings as it admits to being “manufactured on equipment that processes sunflower seed, tree nuts,” and that peanuts are a choking hazard.

On the other hand, some packages are virtual cheerleaders, praising you for choosing to consume the product they contain because it is “heart healthy”, or because it has trace amounts of actual fruit mixed in with all the chemical compounds.

While reading the text on your processed foods, don’t forget to look at the artwork, which usually comes with the caption “Serving Suggestion”.  A box of Bisquick has a photo of pancakes with butter, syrup, and fruit; that’s the serving suggestion, and I think it’s a good one.  I’d rather have Bisquick served that way than straight out of the box in its powder form.

Some bacon might be a nice accompaniment to those pancakes, and I found that Oscar Mayer shows cooked bacon strips on the front of the package, with the subtle comment that this is merely a serving suggestion.  Again, that hint has real merit, I think, since raw bacon strips don’t appeal to me.

Sometimes a serving suggestion is as minimal as an added sprig of parsley, but the rule seems to be that if you’re showing anything on the package that isn’t in the package, the picture has to be labeled “serving suggestion”.  As the United Kingdom’s Food Labelling [sic] Regulations 1996 define it, a serving suggestion is “a picture of the food shown with other foods with which it might be consumed.”  That’s reasonable, but suspicious minds — like yours and mine — wonder if the manufacturer is required by law to carry that statement on the package.

It turns out that the U.S. has no such law.  I couldn’t find one, anyway, and I slogged through a lot of government regulations to try to find a “serving suggestion” requirement.  Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (Food and Drug Administration) sets labeling standards concerning fat content and processing methods and, oh — using diced onions in onion rings and stuff like that.  But there was nothing specifically requiring the use of the words “serving suggestion” on the PDP.  That stands for Principal Display Panel — what we consumers might call “the front of the package”.

Now, section 403 (a)(1) of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act says that a food product is misbranded “if its labeling is false or misleading in any particular.”  Apparently that means that you, the consumer, might be victimized if you bought a packet of Lipton Cup-A-Soup and discovered that there wasn’t a cup inside.

It seems that using the term “serving suggestion” keeps the companies from getting served with lawsuits.  It’s a way for them to tell us “What’s in the package doesn’t necessarily look like this pretty picture, but at least it’s edible!  (See back of package for warnings.)”

Mysteries of Terminal S Revealed

Done to Perfection (the sign and the sandwich)

It strikes fear into the hearts of English-speaking people because it is shrouded in secrecy.  “I know there are some sort of rules about it, but I don’t know what they are,” thinks the person writing a thank-you note, or making signs for a garage sale. 

Yes, they’re right — there is a correct way to use the letter “s” at the end of a word.  Experts don’t want the secrets to fall into the wrong hands, but I believe the people have a right to know the truth.  That’s why I intend to openly declare the facts about the final “s” and its frequent companion, the apostrophe.

Some words end with an “s”, or even a double “s”, just because they do.  Words in this category include lens, thermos, glass, octopus.  Most people don’t have trouble with those words until it comes time to form their plurals.  When there is more than one (plural), you usually add “es”, as in lenses or glasses.  Octopus is sometimes pluralized as octopi, but octopuses is acceptable.

For most words, form the plural by simply adding “s”.  Bathtub, boy, shore, painting:  if there is more than one of those, all you need is an “s”.  It’s just bathtubs and paintings — no apostrophe is required.

While we’re at it, let’s shatter a couple of myths about the apostrophe by saying what it is not.  It isn’t a warning announcement, as in “Look out, here comes an ‘s’!”  My wife and I sometimes receive mail addressed to “The Reeder’s”.  We have driven past fruit stands that advertise “AVOCADO’S”.  As noted above, “s” is plenty, and it speaks for itself.

The apostrophe is not a decoration.  Some people throw them randomly into words, usually in the vicinity of an “s”.  This may be because the letter and the punctuation mark are believed to accessorize each other, like a handbag and shoes.  That is presumably why a certain clothing company calls itself Lands’ End.  They had the general idea about needing an apostrophe, but they put it on the wrong side of the “s”.

Basically, the apostrophe serves two functions.  It indicates missing letters in a contraction; for example, it stands for the missing “n” and “o” when “can not” is shortened to “can’t”.  The other function of the apostrophe is to indicate a possessive.

That’s when it sometimes gets tricky, but all possessive means is, whose ________ is it?  The apostrophe helps us understand that it is Arthur’s sword, or my daughter’s parka, or the People’s Republic.

Among the anxiety-inducing uncertainties, though, is this one:  What if the possessor is a noun that already ends in “s”?  Do you still add apostrophe-“s”?  Or isn’t there something about just using an apostrophe, with no additional “s”?  Well, yes — there is some difference of opinion among experts on this issue, in fact.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage has a good common-sense rule:  For modern names ending in “s”, use apostrophe-“s”.  So we’d give our friend a copy of David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever, and it would then become Les’s book (assuming our friend’s name is Les.)

On the other hand, for ancient names ending in “s”, add the apostrophe alone.  When we’re writing that term paper, then, we’d speak of Moses’ law or Achilles’ heel.

The terminal “s” has other rules and it seems like every rule has exceptions.  I don’t have room for all of them in this post, but if you want to explore this topic further, feel free to send me your comment’s.  Oh, sorry — I meant “comments”, of course.

You’re Not Easy to Love, Valentine

See what you started?

First of all, who are you?  I mean, sometimes I feel like I don’t know you — and it turns out that no one else does, either.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are at least three Saint Valentines; other sources list more than a dozen.  You could possibly be a Roman priest and physician martyred in the third century during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, or maybe you were the bishop of Terni, Italy, also martyred around the same time.  Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “It is possible they are different developments of the same original account and refer only to one person.”

There’s a Saint Valentine of Genoa whose feast day is May 2, not February 14, which is yours; there are also Saint Valentines I tracked down whose feast days are observed on November 3 and January 7.

As long as we’re having this conversation, do you mind me asking why you’re even associated with romantic love, Valentine?  Oh, I know there are lots of legends:  Supposedly Emperor Claudius thought single men were better soldiers than married men.  He needed troops, so allegedly he outlawed marriage for younger guys.  The story is that you continued to secretly perform marriages for young couples, and when Claudius found out, he had you executed.  Forgive me for pointing out that there’s no more historical evidence to support that than there is for Cupid having wings.

It was a couple of hundred years later when Pope Gelasius I established February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day in AD 496.  Maybe it’s unkind of me to mention that you were deleted from the Catholic Calendar of saint days in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, but, hey — by then your reputation was secure.

Geoffrey Chaucer had mentioned you in his Parlement of Foules back in 1382:  “For this was sent on Seynt Valentine’s day/When every foul cometh there to chese his mate.”  Chaucer was a terrible speller, but his poem associates you with the mating season of birds (foul = fowl). 

An alternative explanation for your day being a lovers’ celebration — also without strong basis in fact — is that it originated as a Christian alternative to the Roman fertility festival of the Lupercalia, observed on the ides of February (2/15). 

Whatever.  For someone with a shadowy past, Valentine, you certainly have a lot of fans.  I discovered that you are not only the Patron Saint of love, young people, and happy marriages, you also hold that honor for bee keepers, epilepsy, and plague.  The Church didn’t grant you the title, but as far as I’m concerned, you should also be the Patron Saint of florists, candy makers, and greeting cards.  A recent visit to the website of the Greeting Card Association turned up their estimate that “approximately 160 million greeting cards will be purchased for Valentine’s Day this year.”

By the way, one of those came in to the International Headquarters of Tom Reeder’s Blog the other day.  There was a handwritten inscription on it, wishing us, “happy V.D.”  I’m hoping the sender meant “Valentine’s Day”.  The other meaning isn’t nearly as romantic.

The Circle of Willis

Bottom View of Brain (not its best angle, frankly)

“Thomas?”  The nurse stood in the doorway of the doctor’s waiting room and indicated that my turn had finally come.  I put down the issue of National Geographic I’d been browsing — one of the first that was published in color, I believe — and attempted to follow the nurse.  That proved to be difficult; since I had been sitting in the same position for such a long time, my foot was asleep.

She led me to an examining room, took my blood pressure and pulse, jotted a few notes on my chart and then swept out of the room with a frosty, “The doctor will be right with you.”  Of course, she meant “right with you” in the same ironic sense that others in the medical profession say, “This might hurt a little.”

There were no magazines in the examining room; for a while I bided my time by feeling my whiskers grow.  At one point I found myself hoping that the doctor would want a urine specimen, because I was sure I could comply.  To take my mind off that discomfort, I looked at the decorations in the room, which consisted of extruded plastic illustrations of the human anatomy, rendered in great detail.  That’s when I made the discovery that I — we — have a body part that until that  moment, I didn’t know existed.

It’s called the Circle of Willis.  Be honest — you didn’t know you had one, right?

We’re accustomed to organs and appendages with names that are Latin or Greek.  You’ve got your scapula, your larynx, your pancreas and so on.  But the Circle of Willis — what the heck is that?

The first thing I thought of was an old television show called Diff’rent Strokes, which was memorable because at least once per episode, child actor Gary Coleman would utter his signature line, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”  For a moment I imagined the Circle of Willis being that character’s council of advisors and confidants.

Nope.  It turns out that the Circle of Willis is part of the brain, and a very important part at that.  It’s a circular connection of arteries on the bottom side of the brain; all the main arteries that supply blood to the hemispheres of our brain branch off from the Circle of Willis.  Because of that design, if one of the main arteries becomes occluded (blocked), other smaller arteries in the loop can sometimes come to the rescue, possibly averting a stroke.  In other words, there is some redundancy built into the Circle of Willis to maintain maximum brain efficiency.  That’s what Willis is talkin’ ’bout.

So who was Willis?  Thomas Willis was a 17th century English physician who did a lot of research on the brain and nervous system.  Some of his dissections were performed on the victims of public executions, and in one instance, a recently hanged woman named Anne Green began to stir and came back to life, just as Willis was beginning his dissection.  Surprise!

After the miraculous recovery of Anne Green in 1651, his services were in great demand.  There is no record of how long Thomas Willis kept his patients waiting.