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Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday 4/9

Burnt Sugar

Something undeniably and divinely delicious happens when you melt sugar and boil it to around 240® F.  A sweet, rapturous aroma is released.  The sugar turns to a perfectly creamy, light beige.  You might have second thoughts about what was originally planned for that caramel.  Maybe you’ll just eat it all yourself and cook up a replacement batch.  Good thing there’s a kitchen towel nearby to wipe the drool from the corner of your mouth.  I’ve met very few (if any) people who don’t enjoy the gift of caramel.  One thing is certain: caramel is a well-loved treat.  One thing, however, is far less certain about the concoction.  That is, how to say it.  So that begs the question.  What is it: Carmel or caramel? 

Well that’s kind of a trick question.  (Actually, if you weren’t tricked at all, then it was a dumb question.)  Carmel and caramel are not the same things, not by a long shot, but it was the easiest way for me to express, in writing, the two different ways to pronounce it.  So let’s rule out Carmel.  Carmel is: a city in Indiana, a community in Louisiana, a town in Maine, a town in New York, a mountain in Israel, an ancient town in Judea, a river in California, and a town in California, just to name a few.  Carmel is anything but candy.  Caramel, on the other hand, is basically burnt sugar.  (Burnt, ooey, gooey, yummy sugar).  So I suppose a better question would be: is it cäramel or cāramel?

You see, Carmel (the non-food) has two syllables and sounds like what you drive down the street (like “car”).  Caramel (the food) has three syllables and sounds like when you have strong feelings about something (like “care”).  Arguably, (but not originally) caramel (the food) could also be pronounced like “car” (vroom, vroom).  So which one is right? 

Unfortunately, they’re both right.  Look in any dictionary.  Well, caramel quite possibly originated in France (at least, some people speculate) which would make the original word have three syllables.  Typically, with foreign food words assimilated into English, the pronunciation goes relatively unchanged.  We don’t shorten burrito to burto.  Likewise, escargot doesn’t become esgot and manicotti doesn’t become mancotti.  But caramel slips through the cracks.  So how to pronunciation disputes get settled?

Easy, dictionaries publish them both.  It’s like compromise, but no losing for either side.  And it doesn’t really solve the debate.  Just know that words usually start out with just one way to say them.  Judge the facts for yourself.  So choose sides: potato, tomato, pecan, vacuum, envelope, caramel, whatever.  I recommend you check the facts yourself.  Who knows?  You might have been saying it wrong all along.

By: S. Cole Garrett 


Thomas Wayne said...

It also depends on where you live. Word pronunciation is different in the South than in the North or the West (in America).

On a related note, talking about dictionaries -- if a word in there was misspelled or had the incorrect definition or pronunciation, how would anyone know? :)

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