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The Hobbitification of America
Wednesday, May 9, 2007   10:03 AM

Taco Bell is promoting a new word, fourthmeal, to describe the meal "between dinner and breakfast."

From a language perspective, we're a little bit richer because we have this word, just as we're richer for having Taco Hell.

(Contrast this useful addition to the language with McDonalds' attempts to enforce their narrow corporate usage of the Mc prefix.)

Basically, this is another word for what is already known as the midnight snack. In my idiolect, and doubtless for others as well, the midnight snack doesn't have to be at midnight and can be far bigger than a mere snack. I know this one Taco Bell fan...

I'm a bit surprised that most of the articles on fourthmeal don't use the term. There are, of course, some interesting and useful connotative differences.

More shocking is the claim (I humbly submit that the Language Log people might call it Whorfian) that the word itself will encourage people to have four meals:

Still, the article did include this gem of a quote from Taco Bell spokesperson Rob Poetsch:

Taco Bell counters that Fourthmeal isn't intended as a literal suggestion. "We're not encouraging people to eat four meals," Poetsch said.

"Freedom is slavery," he did not go on to say. "Ignorance is strength."

Maybe the marketing campaign to which the word is attached is trying to do that, but merely having a word for something should not influence behavior.

Moreover, our language already has several, if not widely-used, than at least more widely-known words for extra meals. Tolkein played on this by giving hobbits an extra large vocabulary to describe meals. According the Wikipedia, hobbits recognize breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, tea, dinner, and supper.

I seriously doubt that Tolkein coined any of these words; instead, he merely narrowed the usages of a few words whose definitions often overlap.

The fact that we can instantly understand all of these terms, just as we understand fourthmeal, would seem to indicate that we've had the concepts all along.


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