Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Food feud

A proud PR man from Buffalo persuaded People magazine to cap the B in buffalo wings, reports the Buffalo News. He sent editors a note:
Unless your copy editors are like Jessica Simpson and think Buffalo wings come from buffalo the animal and not Buffalo the city, you need to tighten up your editing.
People responded that the dictionary says the B can be down, but that wasn't enough for Bill Collins. He wrote back: "Why on earth would you reduce the name of a prominent city to lower case? Is it new york strip steak? Or maine lobster or texas red hots or boston baked beans?"

And People relented:
"A review of recent evidence in our files ... shows that current styling favors a capitalized B by a margin of close to 2 to 1," an editor told Collins. "I've left a note in our files that summarizes the evidence I've surveyed and recommends that the first element be changed from "buffalo' to "Buffalo."
(Let's leave alone the "margin" mistake there and assume this person knows what she's talking about.) So what would you do?

I dislike the "check the library to see what we've done the most" solution. That's an easy way to repeat mistakes. Instead, I'd check the stylebook.

But I think the AP stylebook's entry on food is sticky:
Most food names are lowercase: apples, cheese, peanut butter.
Capitalize brand names and trademarks: Roquefort cheese, Tabasco sauce.

Most proper nouns or adjectives are capitalized when they occur in a food name: Boston brown bread, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, Waldorf salad.

Lowercase is used, however, when the food does not depend on the proper noun or adjective for its meaning: french fries, graham crackers, manhattan cocktail.

If a question arises, check the separate entries in this book. If there is no entry, follow Webster?s New World. Use lowercase if the dictionary lists it as an acceptable form for the sense in which the word is used.

The same principles apply to foreign names for foods: mousse de saumon (salmon mousse), pomme de terre (literally, "apple of the earth" ? for potato), salade Russe (Russian salad).
What confuses me is the capitalization part. How does one determine if the food depends on the proper noun or adjective for its meaning?

French fries aren't really French, so that makes sense. I've never seen graham crackers capped, although it comes from graham flour, which was named after dietary reformer Sylvester Graham. But why is manhattan cocktail down? The dictionary gives the etymology as "Manhattan, borough of New York City."

I have no problem just following AP and then the dictionary. That's fine. But I wish I could figure out AP's reasoning. Can anyone else?


At 12:45 AM, February 10, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

The "Buffalo" in "Buffalo wings" has to be up, unless you're Jessica Simpson.

At 1:16 AM, February 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It definitely ought to be Buffalo wings, I think -- why would you lowercase a city? (And for that matter, how does Boston get to be capped in a food, but not Manhattan (not a city, but still a geographic name) or Buffalo, especially when, at least around here, "brown bread" would be totally understandable?)

At 3:44 PM, February 10, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Lowercasing manhattan makes sense to me because it has become a stand-alone noun -- people don't say "a Manhattan cocktail"; they simply say "a manhattan." Sparkling wine from Champagne is simply champagne. But any attempt to build a logic test for this issue is doomed to failure. At some point, what is, is.

And even if the "rule" somehow resulted in everything of this sort being lowercased (new york strip steak?), an argument could be made that Buffalo wings merit an exception. (Similarly, if somebody in Istanbul came up with a recipe for chicken legs and called them Turkey legs, it would be silly to lowercase the T.)

At 8:59 PM, February 10, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Wow. I'm loving the new comment feature here. I'm less and less likely to switch to Movable Type.

In any case: Bill, I'm not sure I follow your argument that Buffalo wings would merit an exception. Is it to differentiate between the lowercase buffalo? Could the two really be confused?

(As I typed that, I thought back to Jessica Simpson. Bless her.)

At 2:34 AM, February 11, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

In a word, yes. :-)

At 1:15 AM, February 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former Buffalo resident, I tried to persuade the style mavens at my paper to use the upper-case B on Buffalo wings but was rebuffed with the response that our dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate) favors the lower-case. So, being the pain in the ass that I am, I wrote to the Merriam-Webster people to complain. Much to my surprise, I received a response to the effect that they had reviewed their files and Lexis/Nexis and found that the upper-case B beat the lower-case B by a sufficient ratio that they would consider making a change for their next edition. That was some time ago, so I don't know where things stand with the Merriam people, but I'm looking forward to the next edition.


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