[Update. I’m giving the update its own post because it considerably changes the situation reported below, and it’s only fair to make it prominent considering the hyperbolic outrage of the initial post. I hereby retract the excessive frothing and accusations below, though I continue to regret the low value the Times places on linguistic accuracy as compared to making sure they have the exact words of whatever celebrity they’re quoting.]
Every time I think I’m inured to the idiocies of the press, even what are allegedly its finest representatives, something comes along to get me frothing in rage again. The latest comes via Bill Poser at Language Log, who writes:

The New York times contains a brief article entitled One Pot describing the Spanish dish known variously as cocido or olla podrida literally “rotten pot” According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, podrida may have an admiring connotation, similar to the use of “filthy rich” in English. Curiously, instead of the correct olla podrida, the article gives the name of the dish as olla poderida, which it explains as a derivative of poder “strength”, because it gives you strength.
Reader Jim Gordon wondered about this and emailed the author of the article. Her response: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology. It seems clear that they were not trying to deceive anyone with evil intent, but I am still taken aback that a respectable newspaper would make up a fake name and etymology.

“Curiously”? “Taken aback”? I guess I admire Bill’s sangfroid and charity, but I’m not going to mince words: I think this is a complete dereliction of the first duty of a newspaper, which is to tell the truth. What’s next, not reporting on vote fraud or covering up a slaughter in the Congo because “some readers might be put off”? Furthermore, they’re not just making it up themselves, they’re putting their lie in someone else’s mouth:

“Olla means pot, and the original name was olla poderida, which comes from poder, which means strength,” said Alexandra Raij, an owner of Tía Pol, the tiny Spanish restaurant on 10th Avenue in Chelsea.

I presume Ms. Raij (a Spanish equivalent of Reich, apparently) said no such thing; if I were her, I’d put the fear of a lawsuit into the paper for knowingly making her look like an ignoramus.
How on earth do you justify making things up and putting them in “the newspaper of record” with such a ridiculous excuse? I think the reporter and every editor who approved this should be fired and a memo sent out to all employees of the Times that conscious deception of the readership will not be tolerated.
And don’t tell me “it’s only language.” Language is how we communicate and how we understand the world. If you’re capable of lying to me about words and etymology to spare my supposed feelings, you’re capable of lying about anything, because you don’t understand the value of truth. Our world is made of words, and the Times is degrading it. Shame on them.

[As I say, the above outrage is inoperative now that more information is available.]


  1. Of course, it may be that they did quote Ms. Riaj accurately, their fact checkers missed it, and they are making up this story of a made-up etymology in order to cover up their previous lapse.
    Once you start, it’s hard to know where to stop.

  2. I sent the article author, and Bill Poser, a short email adding “potpourri” to this mixture, but then I did some further reading: both Spanist and English Wikipedia say that the dish was called “olla poderida” in the Middle Ages, and became “podrida” only later:
    The Diccionario de la Real Academia doesn’t help here.
    The OED’s March 2004 draft does not mention “poderida”, and says that “it is not known why olla podrida was so called in Spanish.” I can’t tell whether they have determined that this story is false or not.
    I think the journalist answered the question in a way that makes the situation worse: she probably thinks we’re complaining that she didn’t mention a third alternate name for the recipe that they’re calling “Cocida”. If she had said that many Spanish sources claim that it was “poderida” first (which is Riaj’s assertion as well) we could be engaged in a more productive pursuit, of investigating whether this commonly-stated origin is correct or not.
    Aha: on preview/further hunting: at Pedro Menoyo Bárcena concludes that “poderida” is “una invención pseudoetimológica de cocineros”. That helps. But my difficulty in finding that may help excuse the Times’s sloppiness here.

  3. Ah, that’s interesting. In that case they’re just passing on a folk etymology, which still annoys the hell out of me but would cause me to dial back the frothing. I await developments!

  4. “All the News that’s Fit to Print”–no more with its new editorial team.

  5. michael farris says

    IIRC ‘podrido’ is a far nastier word in Spanish than ‘rotten’ would imply, and is borderline or completely obscene, at least in some dialects.
    Perhaps that’s why Ms. Raij preferred to give the press a sanitized etymology?

  6. michael farris says

    Excuse me, I meant the author, not Ms. Raij

  7. What I think happens is we forget how offensive some of what we say every day actually is.
    In Australia, bugger is used a lot in a friendly way, so much so that its direct reference to sodomy is not pre-reflectively noticed.
    If foreigners, however, were to get a shallow appraisal of Australian English, much like what has happened in the Times, they’d think all of us down here were unremittingly vulgar and obsessed with anal penetration!

  8. Michael Farris says

    you’re not?

  9. To me “podrida” is like an intensive of “ripe” — a lot of “ripe” foods are fermented or aged.
    Whatever olla podrida really is, I think of it as a stew or soup that’s been stewing for a good long while, and maybe sitting out some. Sort of like “pease porridge in the pot, nine days old”.
    And yes, I do leave pea soup out, and it does get more tangy after a day or two (“tangier” being a city in Morocco .)

  10. Well I did read once upon a time of a humorous mistranslation involving buggery.
    Apparently, Bob Hawke, a former prime minister of Australia, was conducting trade negotiations with representatives from Japan and said something like: “you have to stop playing funny buggers with tariffs”.
    Although Bob Hawke is an Oxford scholar, he is quite fond of the colloquial, so such an utterance in a high-level trade negotiation does not go against type. Humorously though, the poor interpreter translated that as something akin to: “you have to stop being laughing homosexuals with tariffs”.

  11. Anyone who’s just clueing in now that the NY Times lies and misrepresents the truth all the time is, well, behind the times.

  12. I’m no linguist, but I would think the etymology of ‘olla podrida’ would be transparent even without the French parallel in potpourri. A rotten pot would be ‘olla putrida’ in Latin: wouldn’t the standard vowel and consonant changes make Latin ‘putrida’ into Spanish ‘podrida’?

  13. I’d kind of like to see the writer’s whole response to the query (given that making things up and attributing them to real people _are_ things that the Times has been known to sack people for). No knock on the Log or its fans, but I wonder if “we knew there was a competing(better) explanation, but we went with the source anyway” is closer to the mark.
    A writer admitting to a gross violation of craft standards in order to cover up an editor-induced error? I have trouble imagining that.

  14. Raij is a Catalan name. Castilian etymology might not be her strong point.

  15. I’m no linguist, but I would think the etymology of ‘olla podrida’ would be transparent even without the French parallel in potpourri. A rotten pot would be ‘olla putrida’ in Latin: wouldn’t the standard vowel and consonant changes make Latin ‘putrida’ into Spanish ‘podrida’?
    Sure, and there’s no question of the actual etymology—it’s just that the Times apparently (if the Log is to be believed) replaced it with one they knew to be fake in order to spare their readers the inconvenient truth.
    A writer admitting to a gross violation of craft standards in order to cover up an editor-induced error? I have trouble imagining that.
    Yeah, I thought it was strange too; I hope you’re right that it’s the Log’s mistake rather than the reporter’s proud dereliction of duty.
    Raij is a Catalan name.
    I’m going to have to ask for some backup for that, because googling around I’m not seeing any evidence for it, and it certainly would be the Spanish way to spell the German-Jewish name Reich. In any case, I don’t think Castilian etymology is the strong point of restaurateurs of any ethnicity.

  16. Jean-Pierre Metereau says

    Thank you, indignant spirit. A colleague defended the horripilating folk etymology of “faggot” that I found in the Feminist Dictionary, published ca. 1985, on the grounds that gays had suffered greatly and it was okay to exaggerate. I’m not any moral paragon, but that struck me as wrong, somehow. Not the folk etymology, but the defense of it by someone who knows better. Violence breeds violence, and lies breed lies.

  17. No one seems to have pointed out, perhaps because it’s too obvious, that ‘poderida’ couldn’t possible come from ‘poder’ by any known morphology or diminutive. It’s unlikely that Mrs Raij said what she is quoted as saying; it would have ‘felt wrong’.

  18. But we don’t really have any information about the restaurateur’s language competencies (let alone the reporter’s). And don’t first-language English-speakers make their share of bizarre etymological assertions?
    I’m still stuck on the improbability of telling an outsider that you’ve committed a firing offense (and to the extent there’s a “new editorial team” at the NYT, it’s one put in place in response to the Blair fabrications). It seems more likely that something got misread or misunderstood between the lines somewhere. I find the whole thing genuinely baffling and really do hope there’s more to be found out.

  19. Under a regime that will not acknowledge half-drowning as a form of torture, and too “conflicted” to acknowledge that it does such torture (and worse), we can expect smaller dissimulations in the newspapers as a matter of course. If it’s the truth, if you have your reasons, say it. That’s all right! I had not thought such obvious principles needed stating. But such are the times.
    Same in coy Hollywood films that will not use the verb die. According to Walk the Line, Johnny Cash “passed” in 2003. Same in Australia, where we hardly ever admit that we have a history of slavery, speaking instead of “indentured labour”.

  20. According to Walk the Line, Johnny Cash “passed” in 2003.
    That’s not Hollywood coyness, that’s normal Southern usage. It’s felt as politeness, not euphemism.

  21. It’s felt as politeness, not euphemism.

    The two are surely not mutually exclusive!

  22. I said “felt.” It is in origin, I suppose, a euphemism, but in use it is simply a polite way of speaking, like addressing people with “ma’am” and “sir.” As someone with Southern roots, I am frequently irritated by presumptions on the part of those with insufficient knowledge of the region. It is similarly irritating when non-Americans mock “bathroom” as a euphemism. No, it’s the standard word for the room in question; in other regions they may call it something else, but that’s completely irrelevant.

  23. David Marjanović says

    What’s next, not reporting on vote fraud […] because “some readers might be put off”?

    What is this talk about “next”?

  24. Heh.

  25. Tangential, but I can’t resist:
    ‘Bathroom’ is a euphemism, since we use it of any room with toilets, even those that have no shower or tub. But so are just about all the synonyms: ‘Restroom’? I’m told women’s restrooms often have couches, but resting is not the primary purpose of the room. ‘Washroom’ or Latinate ‘lavatory’? Neither is washing. ‘Powder room’ or ‘toilet’? Neither is beautification. ‘Water closet’? It is a closet (small room with few or no windows) with running water, but that doesn’t name the purpose. ‘Outhouse’? That could just as easily be a detached garage or toolshed. ‘Men’s room’? That could just as easily be a room for smoking cigars and talking about professional sports, and so mutatis mutandis for ‘women’s room’ and ‘ladies’ room’.
    Other than the vulgar and uncommon word ‘shithouse’, I can’t think of an English word for ‘bathroom’ that does refer to (one half of) its primary function. Other languages may be blunter, e.g. French ‘pissoir’.

  26. As someone with Southern roots, I am frequently irritated by presumptions on the part of those with insufficient knowledge of the region.
    The film I referred to is a Hollywood production for consumption throughout the US, and therefore, as an afterthought, the Rest of the World. We in the Rest of the World are frequently irritated by features of American English, dialectal or otherwise. I understand that when Australian English is presented on the big screen or the small screen in the US it is often dubbed or subtitled so that it will be more comprehensible or more palatable. (Sometimes carefully selected instead, perhaps.) On the copious evidence available here (since we see a great deal of raw American material), so is virtually any non-American variety of English, if there is the slightest risk that it will strike the audience “back home” as unfamiliar. There is, however, a tacit assumption that the Rest of the World should accept and absorb American varieties of English without complaint.
    Some euphemisms and some politenesses are “felt as” absurdities or worse. Often they strike us as strangely over-delicate, for the gun-toting hyperviolent society that is characteristically represented in American film.
    I wonder how most in the US would respond, if they had to endure a similar imposition. Perhaps it is not a matter of rational objection, but of taste and familiarity. Some people here say pass on instead of die, though this is not done in standard formal contexts, but where sensitivity through personal involvement is an issue.
    For myself, the greater difficulty is the fashionable indistinctness that rules in some kinds of American film. A very specifically dialectal utterance, mumbled fast and surrounded by over-the-top sound effects, may be chic. But if it delivers a key element in the story it is a confounded nuisance.

  27. Well, I just saw a BBC production of Jane Austen that was nearly ruined by similar too-loud sound effects and music over the dialogue, so it’s not just an American problem.

  28. Perhaps that is not just American. Was the speech itself mumbled or idiosyncratic, or was it only a matter of signal-to-wretched-noise ratio?
    There is a small paradox here. High-cachet British speech is often hastened and clipped, with syllables dropped that I have not heard dropped in American speech. How true it is I don’t know: but in Melvyn Bragg’s television series The Adventure of English we are told that there grew an American pedagogical tradition of syllable-by-syllable recitation of words, with emphasis on “purity” and clarity. If this is so, it would seem to account for the difference I mention, as Bragg claims it does.
    So I wonder about that mumbling tendency in American film. A reactionary coloration? There was a period of insisting that a key character, giving out essential information to orient the hapless audience, must speak through mouthfuls of pastrami and slurps of coffee. Never worked for me, anyway.

Speak Your Mind