Archive for April 28th, 2009

When I was a child, we drank a lot of Ribena, a blackcurrant cordial, or “squash”. It’s funny, perhaps a marker of social change, or of a gradual drift across class markers, I’m not sure exactly – perhaps no more than the flow of fashions in parenting – but I never give my children squash. Or even very much juice. In that I may be more unusual, but it feels as though all my little half-human/half-fruit-bat morphs don’t need it for the vitamins, and why give them a vehicle of sugars and acid with all the fiber stripped out. Sugar in a rush? Not my idea of ideal child fodder, but as I said, perhaps I’m odd about that.

However, when we were little, we had Ribena (which, incidentally, I loved, and my parents were most amused that my stab at the word was, “beer”). From very early on in my reading life, I remember reading the label and being mystified by the instruction, “dilute to taste”. Being a good manipulator of language and meaning, even then, I eventually came up with a gloss for this along the lines: “it is so concentrated that unless diluted, it is impossible to comprehend the flavor due to its intensity. Dilution is necessary to produce a concentration level at which the human taste buds are able to adapt and process the information meaningfully.” I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but that’s what I thought it meant. I thought that for years. It may only have been as an adult, reading an equivalent French label that I had the shocking realization that it had always meant “according to” rather than “in order to” taste. I still like my explanation, but I’m astonished at how much more complex it is than the correct reading. How perfectly I was suited to my literature degree, where I found practical criticism -the ability to conjure elaborate layers of meaning from any ‘text’  – was my especial strength.

But English has always been blessed by its grammar with a richness of double-meanings. Yesterday, as I corralled the little ones and the girl next door along the road, I was struck by another one, in the jeweler’s window: “Watch batteries changed while you wait”. If I hadn’t had so many children to keep from running into the road I’d have gone in and protested. I’ve been in there several times, and I’ve never been given a battery-changing show to keep me occupied and amused while I wait. Hell, even when I go in with a watch battery, they take it into the back room to minister to it.

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