December 29, 2003

lexical change through consumer fraud

I'm not usually one to complain about how the language is going to the dogs, but sometimes using words correctly really matters. A few minutes ago I turned on the TV and watched the final question on Jeopardy. The answer was (I paraphrase) "A condiment eaten with sushi and also eaten at Passover". Since there is no condiment satisfying both conditions, you might think that the contestants all got it wrong. Two were way off: they responded "nori" and "ginger". The one who got it "right" responded "horseradish", which Alex Trebek explained is the same thing as wasabi. It isn't.

Horseradish and wasabi are different plants. They don't even belong to the same genus. Horseradish is Armoracia rusticana. wasabi is Wasabi japonica, also known as Eutrema japonica. Anyone who has tasted real wasabi knows that it doesn't taste the same as horseradish. Another subtle clue is that wasabi is green; horseradish isn't.

wasabi, by the way, is written like this: 山葵. This is a nice example of a Chinese character idiom. The first character means "mountain". Its native Japanese reading is yama; its Sino-Japanese reading is san. The second character means "hollyhock" and has the native reading aoi and the Sino-Japanese reading ki. No matter how you try, you can't get wasabi from these components. The fact that these two Chinese characters together are read wasabi is morphologically arbitrary.

Now, to return to the point, why is it that the Jeopardy folks think that wasabi is horseradish? I think that this is an instance of lexical change through consumer fraud. Real wasabi is indigenous only to Japan and Sakhalin and people have succeeded in growing it only in a few other places, such as Oregon. The real thing is expensive, and for it to be any good, it has to be freshly grated from the root. The result is that as sushi has become more popular, more and more of the "wasabi" served in the United States has been fake. It isn't wasabi: it's horseradish with green dye. Many people don't know the difference between wasabi and horseradish because in their experience there isn't any.

Posted by Bill Poser at December 29, 2003 08:42 PM