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WOTY 1908 - umami
Posted: 03 December 2008 05:12 AM   [ Ignore ]
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According to a piece in The Guardian today, it’s 100 years this year since a Japanese scientist, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University, identified what is now called the “fifth taste” (in addition to bitter, sweet, salt and sour"). Ikeda called this “savoury” taste (which is caused by the presence of glutamates, and is particularly strong in foods such as Parmesan, anchovies and Japanese seaweed-based stock) “umami”. It wasn’t until 2000, though, that anyone identified the tastebuds on the tongue that are sensitive to umami flavours.

The OED says of the etymology of umami:

< Japanese umami deliciousness (1721 or earlier) < uma-, stem of umai delicious + -mi, suffix forming abstract nouns from adjectives (but commonly written as if from -mi taste)

It strikes me that “umai” is echoed in the English expression “yum!”, “An exclamation of pleasurable anticipation, with implication of sensual or gustatory satisfaction” (OED). Is this a reflexion of a universal human habit of smacking our lips together and making sounds as if we were swallowing something when talking about delicious foods ("nom-nom" in lolspeak, for example), or just coincidence?

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Posted: 03 December 2008 06:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The French for “yum-yum” is miam-miam. What other languages have an equivalent?

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Posted: 03 December 2008 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thank you, zythophile!  One learns something new just about every day, on wordorigins.org. I had never heard of “umami” before—i was brought up with the “four tastes” notion, which I now know is 100 years out of date.

It seems to me that “yum-yum” and “miaoum-miaoum” are elaborations on the “m-m-m-m-m” sound, which I think transcends language barriers, and is universally understood to express gustatory (perhaps also olfactory) delight --- possibly any purely sensory pleasure*. “M-m-m-m”, appropriately modulated, is wholly understandable in any language i’ve ever heard used. Correct me if I’m wrong (a quite unnecessary exhortation --- someone’s bound to do that, on this site, if they think they possibly can ;-)

*(remember the old chestnut: Q: “How does a bride spell groom?” A: “Gee - aah - oh - ooh!!! - m-m-m-m")

Edit: that blogger’s got it wrong - glutamate is not an acid --- the word means a salt of the dicarboxylic amino-acid glutamic acid. Monosodium glutamate is the active agent in soy sauce. The pure crystals were (IIRC) once marketed under the name “A-ji-no-mo-to”.

[ Edited: 03 December 2008 11:36 AM by lionello ]
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Posted: 03 December 2008 12:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Perhaps surprisingly, both mm! and yum! seem to be of very recent vintage in English.

First cites in OED:

1911 E. FERBER Dawn O’Hara 185 Mm! What’s that smells so good, old girl?

1878 Burlington Hawkeye in Irish Monthly VI. 688 How we would like to get hold of the man… Alone. In the woods, with a revolver in our hip-pocket. Revenge is sweet; yum, yum, yum. 1899 KIPLING Stalky 239 Pretty lips..Seem to say{em}Come away. Kissy! come, come!.. Yummy-yum-yum! 1922 JOYCE Ulysses 173 Kissed her mouth. Yum.

Etymologies given are, respectively, imitative and echoic.

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Posted: 03 December 2008 01:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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that blogger’s got it wrong - glutamate is not an acid --- the word means a salt of the dicarboxylic amino-acid glutamic acid.

Not sure what blogger you’re referring to.  If you’re talking about one of the posters at the Guardian site who referred to it as an amino acid, his usage is consistent with how chemists, biologists, and biochemists use the term.  Technically, glutamate is the ionized form of glutamic acid, but at physiological pH the acid will be ionized essentially completely, so when discussing its role in biological systems, calling it “glutamate” is the normal modern practice.

[ Edited: 03 December 2008 01:40 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 03 December 2008 05:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Really, when the etymology note says “imitative”, what does it tell us?

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Posted: 04 December 2008 12:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thank you, Dr. Techie. “Glutamate” it is.

My grasp of the subtleties (and of the crudities) of Internet jargon is, I fear, shaky at best. I realize that there is a world of difference between a “poster” and a “blogger” (I even know, vaguely, what it is, being myelf one and not the other). Though my first dinosaurian impulse was to mutter defensively, like Archie Bunker, “whatever”, from now on a “poster” a “poster”, and a “blogger” a “blogger”, shall be.

(Afterthought) I’d rather post than blog. “Blog” is a cacophonous word, with echoes of “bog” (rightpondian demotic name for a W.C., or for the act of defecation*), “boggart”, “bogger”, etc.

* (rightpondian riddle: Q. Who was the most constipated man in the Bible?  A. Og, king of Bashan, because he required a bee to make him bog.  There are actually several other candidates for the title of Most Constipated Man: Cain, Moses, et al.)

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Posted: 04 December 2008 01:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Does anyone know whether the Japanese word umami also referred to savoury in 1908?  In other words, was it a direct translation from Japanese or did the esteemed professor just use a word from his own language to mean something else in English? 

I agree with OP - “imitative” suggests etymology buried in the mists of time.

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Posted: 04 December 2008 05:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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“Blog" ugly?

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Posted: 04 December 2008 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Read it from beginning to end, and enjoyed every word --- muchas gracias, languagehat! 

BTW, I never said “blog” was ugly. I deliberately called it “cacophonous” because of the associations the sound calls up (I noted, lh, that several other posters at your site were of like mind). To any normal coprophile ;-), I suppose “blog” might sound almost as beautiful as kakka itself.

Once the King of Bashan has had a bee to make him bog, maybe if we give ‘im ‘ell, he will blog too............

thinks: I seem to be really full of shit today. Maybe i should go into politics.

(stumbles back to almost empty bogka blottel)

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Posted: 04 December 2008 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Sounds tenuous as Japanese for delicious is oishi and Lao/Thai aroi. I suggested in an earlier post that Lao/Thai for a cat noise (miaow) was imitative but I can’t see the latter two being that or umami. Smacking lips could be a Western cultural habit though I read somewhere that children’s names for Mother often start with M even in non-Indo-European languages.
Once, using a Franklin crossword solving hand-held device with a synonym function it came up with something like “Mmm mmm good” for delicious which was new to me.

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Posted: 04 December 2008 02:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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the associations the sound calls up

But only for non-Yanks.  To Americans there is no association between “bog” and toilets/defecation; it’s simply a rather obscure word for a marshy area.

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Posted: 04 December 2008 10:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Of course. When I said “cacophonous”, I meant for me.

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Posted: 05 December 2008 05:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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“Blog" ugly?

Thanks for that trip down memory lane, LH. Shed a tear—again—at the loss of two grand blogs (i.e., Caveat Lector and Invisible Adjunct). A pulmonic ingressive at meeting a wispy simulacrum of myself in the commentary.

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Posted: 05 December 2008 06:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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You’re welcome, and I shed a tear as well for Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey.

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Posted: 05 December 2008 10:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Was it really only five and a half years ago that people were arguing about whether or not the word “blog” was ugly? More proof that one year on the internet is equal to - what - five years in the “real” world?

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‹‹ burgoo      Literal place-name dictionary ››