or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, June 23, 2006

Matters of Taste

I've only just gotten around to reading David Rakoff's book "Fraud", five years after its publication. Hey, I've been busy. I'd read some of his essays before--see?--but never a whole collection. I like his writing style, which is reminiscent of David Sedaris', but every now and then, once or twice per essay, I come across a construction that I think a copy editor should have discussed with him. And then, in the second-last essay in the book, was the following sentence about a hotel in Tokyo, which I had to read three times before I understood (and understood to be wrong):

The Seiyo's quiet elegance, its second-floor lobby, subdued golden beige palate, is anodyne after the thrum outside.

I, in love with hyphens, would have hyphenated "golden-beige", but that's a stylistic preference. I'm talking about "palate". That's not just a matter of style to be discussed with one's editor: that's just wrong.

There are three identically pronounced words in English, "palate", "palette", and "pallet", and a writer, certainly an editor, is expected to know when to use each correctly. They're all from the French, and two of them are even from the same source, but they're not interchangeable.

Okay, buckle your seatbelts. The palate is the roof of the mouth, and, by metaphorical extension, the sense of taste; we get the word, through French, from Latin "palatum", with the same meaning. A palette is the flat panel on which an artist holds and mixes his colours, and again by metaphor any array of colours. A pallet is almost any flat broad object: the word's commonest referent in English is a large wooden platform used to transport freight, but it also refers to various tools and mechanisms with that general shape, including a paintbrush--and, rarely, a painter's palette. (These last two are related to the word "pale", as in fence picket. "Pallet" is from a word that meant "tongue depressor", which is delightful, and "palette" from a word meaning "small shovel or spade"; you can easily see how all these words are interconnected. "Pale", by the way, is unrelated to "pail", which is related to French "poĂȘle", "saucepan", which may have stemmed from Latin "patella", which is the name we give to the cupped, frying-pan-shaped bone otherwise known as the kneecap. "Patella" comes from "patina", a plate or pan, and "patina" entered English as a word referring to the appearance of age that builds up on metallic objects, usually copper but really almost any metal; we borrowed the word from Italian--it's sometimes seen as its French version, "patine"--because of the surface corrosion seen on ancient unearthed metal dishes.)

To sum up: Rakoff said "palate" but meant "palette"; someone, possibly he, messed up; nobody caught it before printing; and there's really no excuse.


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