Fear the Schmear

The New York Post can be always be relied upon to deliver the important stories of the day that really make a difference in our harried, overcomplicated lives, such as this nugget about a woman who got tossed out of a Starbucks by the cops after getting into an argument with a barista about the way she was ordering a bagel. (It’s a biggie. It took a team of three reporters to cover it.)

She asked for a “toasted multigrain bagel,” and when the barista asked if she wanted butter or cheese on it, she dug her heels in the dirt and refused to specify or say “neither.” To her way of thinking, there was  no need to use their weird lingo.

“When you go to Burger King,” she told the Post, “you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want.”

No, lady, but when you go to Burger King, you don’t order a flame-grilled quarter-pound hamburger sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, mustard and ketchup on a sesame seed bun, either. You order a “Whopper.” You use the conventions of the fast-food place you’re in. We all feel like assholes when we order a chalupa, but that’s what Taco Bell calls it. We can’t be responsible for the fool who named it. Just suck it up, and move on. There’s a line behind you.

“Linguistically, it’s stupid,” she said, “and I’m a stickler for correct English.”

I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with linguistics. (Whether or not having a Ph.D. from Columbia entitles you to be an asshole, on the other hand, may be open to debate.) All the bartista did was up-sell. When you’re at a restaurant, and the server asks if you want to start with an appetizer, you don’t shout and argue and get hauled off by the cops. You recognize that this person wants you to spend as much money as he can get you to spend, and you politely decline the offer.

What’s more, it has nothing to do with Starbucks specifically either. When I get a bagel from Times Square Bagel — whose bagels are conspicuously superior to Starbucks’ anyway — they ask me if I want it toasted. Should I refuse to answer? Should I shout “Did I say ‘toasted’? Linguistically, ‘untoasted’ is stupid! When I go to McDonald’s I don’t tell them the things I don’t want! Give me my everything bagel! Waaaaaaahhhh!”

No. I simply answer “No,” because it’s a perfectly reasonable question.

I can see her being bothered about Starbucks’ tall/grande/venti scheme. Linguistically, that is a little weird. I thought it was ridiculous when they began calling the smallest size on the menu a “tall.” And it was far too embarrassing for me to ever consider ordering anything called a “venti.” Even if it is Italian for “twenty.” And… it’s, um… 20 oz. of coffee. (Yeah, so maybe it’s linguistically OK, but it’s still weird.)

Can’t I just say “the largest size you have”?

Luckily it never became an issue for me — because no one in his right mind needs 20 oz. of coffee all at once. Or or even the 16 oz. grande. I never get anything larger than the “tall,” which is already 12 oz., which is rather large. And when I found out that it’s only called a “tall” to distinguish it from the “short” (or 8 oz.) cup, which isn’t listed on the menu, but is nonetheless available, the whole thing became a little less embarrassing.

I had a similar problem with the year 2000. It felt like everyone was demanding that I accept that the new millennium started on January 1, 2000, when in reality it started on January 1, 2001. Even worse was when people referred to “the millennium” as a singular event that would come and go. Like winter. Or the Superbowl. No, folks, it’s an arbitrary period of 1,000 years. So for a year, it was like nails on a chalkboard every time I heard “the millennium.” But now that we’re 9 and a half years into the century, it’s all over. Like a bad dream.

Life goes on. We get over it. We get a bagel with whatever we want on it. Or not. We continue to talk about decades, centuries and millennia as if they’re somehow meaningful and important. And, with any luck, the English language is in no immediate danger of losing the small/medium/large convention of erstwhile generations. (Though, I suppose, if we continue to order venti peppermint white chocolate mochas, we’ll just move up the scale to Large/X-Large/XX-Large.)


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