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Mind your language

A bitter struggle with the dictionary

The OED’s contradictory entries on taste words reflect changing scientific attitudes

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ is one of husband’s stock phrases — jokes he would think them — in this case trotted out if anyone says, of the weather, ‘Bitter’. (The joke must come from Colonel Chinstrap in ITMA, even though my husband wasn’t born then.)

Mr Verdant Green, notionally at Oxford in the mid 19th-century, called drinking bitter beer ‘doing bitters’, a bit of slang he picked up from Mr Bouncer. We don’t say that any more, but we still enjoy bitter beer, despite the Oxford English Dictionary defining the adjective as ‘causing “the proper pain of taste” (Bain)’.


By ‘Bain’ it means Alexander Bain (1818–1903), as if that were obvious. Perhaps it was so in 1887 when the entry was written. Bain was a psychologist at Aberdeen, one of whose better acts was to defeat Randolph Churchill for the rectorship.

The OED calls bitter the opposite of sweet, which is not how I think of it. To me, sour is the opposite of sweet, since sugar remedies it. The dictionary does concede that sweet is ‘often opposed to bitter or sour’. But when it comes to salt or salty it does not count them as ‘one of the primary sensations of taste’, like sweet. Things had changed by the time it admitted an entry for umami ‘sometimes described as a fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, salt, and bitter’. But that was only in 2006, with examples of English usage dating back only to 1963, with reference to Japanese notions. Umami is to do with free glutamates, the dictionary helpfully explains, as in mature cheese, soy sauce, and, according to a quotation from the New Scientist, broth, meat, tuna and seaweed.

Changing scientific attitudes to taste, reflected in the dictionary’s inconsistent entries, hardly matter. As used figuratively, taste words such as bitter depend far more on the connotations they have picked up from languages to which we have been hospitable, such as Latin and French.

Bitter is historically related to bite, and perhaps vestiges of the connection remain. A 14th-century text speaks of ‘God’s passion, bitter as gall’. Death was often called bitter, as were battle, fate, cruelty, hostile speech, sin and the wind, which is where we came in.

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