Thursday, July 31, 2008

Department of Redundancy Department

July 31

My summer drink of choice is iced coffee — black, unsweetened. It tastes like cold anger, and for some reason that appeals to me when it's hot outside.
In the two (2) blocks from my subway stop to our offices, there are five (5) chain restaurants and at least two independents where I can get iced coffee. At Dunkin’ Donuts I order a large black iced coffee, they ask if I want sugar, I tell them I don’t.
At Pret à Manger I order a black iced coffee, because they only have one size of iced coffee. They get it without discussion and wish me well.
At Starbucks I order a venti unsweetened iced coffee, and the baristas can't help themselves: They have to add another "iced" to the drink’s description when announcing that it’s ready.
“Iced venti unsweetened iced coffee,” they say.
I kind of understand why that happens, because all languages have a sort of rhythm, and that includes Starbucks language, with its invented definitions of things like macchiato, its own internal distinction between latte and cappuccino, its use of “venti,” from the Italian word for 20, to mean “large,” even though a venti iced drink there is 24 ounces. "Iced venti unsweetened iced coffee" has a nice little rhythm that "venti unsweetened iced coffee” doesn’t, although that certainly flows better than “iced venti unsweetened coffee.”
So I guess it’s good Starbucks language. You could even argue that the first “iced” is meant to go with the “venti” to describe the cup size, and then the second “iced” describes the temperature of the drink.
Even so, it’s bad English.
Double use of the same word in a sentence is kind of an old joke. I first heard it probably in the early 1980s with the phrase that is the title of this blog entry, possibly from George Carlin.
The gag was used quite effectively in the 2004 movie Dodgeball. That game is, of course, the province of thugs and bullies who delight in causing pain to those who are smaller, slower and weaker than they are, and can think of no more clever way to do it than to fling balls at them. So naturally its advocates and historians — which all sports have — are dimwits who declare that true dodgeballers must learn the five d’s of the sport: dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.
Because they’re stupid, you see. So stupid they can’t remember five distinct words. As stupid as rabbits. (You might recall in the novel Watership Down that the runt of the litter is named Fiver. The book’s appendix explains that rabbits can only count to four, and so Fiver might not have been the fifth rabbit in the litter, but the last one — that five in the mind of a rabbit is equivalent to a thousand.)
The gag has been repeated again recently, in Joss Whedon’s viral video phenomenon Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, in which Dr. Horrible, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is aspiring to join the Evil League of Evil, which as far as I can tell is a cabal of the sorts of social misfits who would be on the losing end of a dodgeball game. They’re anarchists, but they’re not stupid, and certainly clever enough to notice that “evil” is used twice in their club’s four-word name.
But it does sound good, doesn’t it?
Evil League of Evil, iced venti unsweetened iced coffee. Part of the same linguistic shift? You decide.
Speaking of Starbucks and other chain restaurants, please allow me to link to a story in this week’s Nation’s Restaurant News about customers’ reactions to New York City’s new regulation requiring chain restaurants to post calorie information on their menus and menu boards.
I certainly hope you enjoy it.
Food-in-film note: Dr. Horrible buys a frozen yogurt for his love interest, Penny (who of course is infatuated with his nemesis, Captain Hammer). He pretends he was given two yogurts when he only ordered one, because he’s so shy, so insecure, that he couldn’t possibly risk the rejection that could come from showing enough interest in Penny to buy her a snack.
It looks like a Pinkberry-style yogurt, plain and tart. Inexplicably, they eat it with a spork, allowing Dr. Horrible to stab himself in the leg with it in frustration.

August 18 update: “I-V-I-C,” my Starbucks barista said to me today, handing me my venti iced coffee. I repeated it back to him, but as a question.
“Iced venti iced coffee,” he said, as though I were dumb.
I pointed out that both of the i's stood for “iced” and that he only needed one of them.
He was convinced that I was slow, but said, with clarity, politeness and a smile on his face: “One for the cup, one for the coffee.”
So I was right. I have innate knowledge of Starbucks language even though I have never worked there. I’m not sure how I feel about that.


Lamanda said...

I totally laughed all the way through your linguistics schpeel! Brilliant!

Ok, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan and now must hunt down this Dr. Horrible.

Bret Thorn said...

Just click on the link, lamanda, and Dr. Horrible will be yours!

yishane said...

This is one of the most genius of your genius posts ever.

At the Dominican places where I regularly buy coffee, iced and hot, the staff is unfailingly shocked I never want at least three sugars. Sometimes I give in and have cold, sweet anger.

Clark Mitchell said...

I loved this one! I've been wondering about this myself, as a fellow lover of iced coffee. What's happening here is a violation of the Gricean Maxims of conversation. Paul Grice defined the field of pragmatics with his four maxims. This one violates the Maxim of Quantity:

"Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required."

I suppose the Maxim of Manner was also violated. It states: "Be brief. Be orderly."

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.