Q&A: Eat your words

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're digging into some food…

Q: What are we discussing today?
A: Well here’s one that’s been sitting in our mail bag for a while. It’s from Ellie D and she has a query about tahini.
Q: Oh, I can help there. Beautiful place. Little huts out over the ocean, blue water, just blissful.
A: No, we said tahini, not Tahiti.
Q: Oops. Well, what about it? Open sesame!
A: Nice. Well, she was confused about buying “hulled” and “unhulled” tahini. Because what exactly does “hulled” mean? With or without the hulls of the sesame seeds?
Q: Ah, okay. I’ve had a similar issue in the past with “unshelled peanuts”.
A: Great example. So, with both of these, thankfully the answer is the same. The verb “shell” or “hull” involves removing that outer layer, so when we come to the adjective, it follows suit.
Q: So “unhulled” means the hulls are still on?
A: Correct. They haven’t been “hulled”. Same with “unshelled” – shells on!
Q: I can feel myself getting a nut and seed allergy just contemplating all that.
A: Food allergies aren’t a laughing matter.
Q: …
A: …
Q: Ahem. Moving on.
A: Before we do, a quick word about why “unhulled” and “unshelled” may cause confusion. It’s likely because other outside coatings work differently. For example, something can be “wrapped” and “unwrapped” or “coated” and “uncoated” – which both mean the opposite thing to “shelled”/”unshelled”!
Q: English messing with us again. Let’s talk about other foods.
A: Sure. How about a police officer’s favourite food?
Q: Well, they’re always saying “I eat criminals like you for breakfast”…
A: No! We were talking about doughnuts.
Q: Oh, right. They’re very fashionable right now. But what about the spelling – can it be “donut”?
A: Good question. The original spelling was the one you’d expect – “doughnut” which Oxford Dictionary credits to Washington Irving from an 1809 publication. The shortened “donut” appeared in the late 1800s, but didn’t become popular until the launch of American chain Dunkin’ Donuts – it set up shop in 1950.
Q: So which is more popular these days? I donut know.
A: Oh dear. “Doughnut” is still more popular around the world, even in America. By the way, the original name was “olykoek” – Dutch for “oily cake”.
Q: Okay, so what other foods have spelling issues?
A: We don’t need to stray too far from the doughnut cart to come across another sweet treat. “Macarons” – (pronounced mah-kə-ROHN) are those coloured meringue-based two-layered cookies with cream or ganache in the centre.
Q: So what are “macaroons” then?
A: They’re also biscuits, traditionally made from ground almonds, but commonly made with desiccated coconut in Australia. Both names come from the same Italian root word, but that’s where the similarities end. And probably where we should end this one.
Q: Fair enough. But how about we invite readers to send in any other hazardous food/drink words they’ve come across and we’ll do a follow up if we get a pantry full of them?
A: Sounds like a great idea.
Q: Let’s go and get some doughnuts.
A: Thought you’d never ask…


Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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