What’s in a Name?

Eatery.

The word is suddenly ubiquitous in restaurant reviews and travel guides. I’m not sure when I became conscious of it, but for some reason it grates on me every time I see it.

What is an eatery? Obviously it’s a place where people go to eat, but we already have so many words for that concept, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. Restaurant, café, bistro, and diner are just a few; each of those is more specific, evoking a glimpse of the ambience and perhaps a typical menu. “Eatery” tells me nothing. I can think of no good reason for someone to invent this word.

Perhaps I am annoyed by the ambiguous etymology of the word. Most of our cuisine related words, including the word “cuisine, come to us from French; they retain a certain dignity and class consciousness. Words from Anglo-Saxon, like “eat” are inherently lower class in our culture, ever since the French became the ruling class in 1066. I’d rather “dine” than “eat” if I can afford the time and money. The –ery ending is also French, found in words such as patisserie, boulangerie, and charcuterie, which are the first words anyone visiting Paris should learn. Eatery, then, is a strange hybrid of two cultures and two classes. I have nothing against hybrids—I drive one—but something snobbish in me rejects this one.

This isn’t the first time I have become passionate about clichés in journalism. Suddenly we have to “check out” every website. Can’t I browse, skim, read, study, or explore one? Why does every interviewer have to “catch up with” their subject? I envision paparazzi chasing down their terrified targets whenever I see that phrase.

I realize that I’m abnormal, since I tutor Latin and thus spend a good deal of my time in close analysis of grammar and nuances of vocabulary. I do try to tame my tendency to edit everything I read. In this case, I’ll admit there is nothing incorrect about the word; I am just afflicted with an irrational prejudice. My cousin tells me there are worse things about which I could worry: the Butterfly Pavilion in Denver is in danger of being renamed the Buggery.  I shall, therefore, end my rant and embark on an expedition in search of the perfect buffet, hamburger shack, taqueria, pizza parlor, or sandwich shop. Perhaps I’ll find some good eats.

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