Fine herbs: the truth

One word can have several meanings, or many different shades of meaning, and advertisers can use this to give a misleading impression of their product without actually breaking the truth.

I'll give you a silly example. Our staff restaurant recently had on its menu "vegetable soup with fine herbs". I bought some, thinking that "fine herbs" sounded very classy. As it turned out, the herbs were of an average quality but just chopped up very small. Fine can mean both "high quality" and "consisting of small particles" (OED).

Any excuse for a food photo


Of course, these two meanings of 'fine' are related - fine jewellery, which has "delicate or intricate workmanship" (another OED meaning of fine), is probably of "high quality". There is an association between being small and delicate, and being of high quality - which, sadly, isn't true in every case, as my vegetable soup showed.

All these meanings of fine have the same origin - the Latin word 'finire', which also gave us the English word 'finish'. So we're not talking about several different words that sound the same (known as homonyms), but one word with several shades of meaning. And this is exactly the kind of thing that advertisers can play on, so beware.

3 comments:

terrycollmann said...

"with fine herbs" in a description of a dish isn't a comment on their quality or their size - it's a translation of the French "aux fines herbes", which refers specifically to a mixture of finely crushed chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon, left in the soup or stock, as opposed to a bouquet garni, which is taken out before the dish is served.

JD said...

I did not know that - so thank you! Do you know anything about the origin and history of the phrase in French? (I had a quick scout around but couldn't find out much)

garik said...

This reminds me of a word in Welsh: main, pronounced like English "mine".

You hear the word especially often in mutated form (pronounced like "vine") in the expression yr iaith fain which refers to the English language. The first word is just the definite article, and iaith is language. So far so good. Look up main, however and you'll probably see "fine" as the first translation. So do the Welsh really think of English as "the fine tongue"?

Not really: other meanings include "thin" and "shrill". Mi aeth pethau'n fain arnynt doesn't mean "things went fine for them", but "things got hard for them".

Still, it doesn't seem that relative thinness has ever done much harm to English.