Mind your language

Does the English language need a Norwegian lesson?

On the evidence presented by Kenneth Haug, probably not

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

‘Ten Norwegian phrases that don’t exist in English but should,’ said the headline. So I had a little look, as the writer on the internet, one Kenneth Haug, intended. Here’s one. Takk for maten. Should it exist in English? It means: ‘Thanks for the food.’

English, being a cousin of Norwegian, also used to employ meat to mean food, and we still run into the archaic sense in such contexts as the Bible. ‘The life is more than meat,’ says the Authorised Version in Luke 12:23, as the equivalent of Anima plus est quam esca. The 10th century gloss in the Lindisfarne Gospels made that ‘Se sauel mara is thon mett’, taking anima as ‘soul’ rather than ‘life’, though it boils down to the same thing.

I suppose it would be unnecessarily tactless to remark, ‘There’s more to life than food,’ at the end of your hostess’s carefully prepared dinner. But do we need a formula to thank her for feeding us up? Doesn’t it run the risk of sounding like a critical judgment? It reminds me of Wellington not liking the troops cheering him, because one day they might not. We say grace before dinner because the thanks are not a sort of scoreboard for a well-cooked meal, but are directed towards the gratuitousness of the day itself and the daily bread, or meat, that goes with it.

There used, however, to be a phrase in English, meat-custy, for which the Norwegians, for all I know, may have an equivalent. It meant liberal with food, and so hospitable. Quantity of food is seldom a difficulty at other people’s tables these days. My husband says drink sometimes is.

What English certainly does lack is an equivalent of bon appétit. Waiters (who seldom have English as their first language, since English people are so useless) sometimes say Enjoy, an Americanism, of course, and quite off. English people serving are more likely to say There you are, but that is not to wish one well. My Norwegian informant tells me that, there, velbekomme may be said before getting down to things. I’m inclined to think that perhaps English could continue without a verbal topping and tailing of meals after all.

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