Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Just the Right Ingredients

Ten years ago in the Lounge I wrote about the prevalence of food and ingestion-based metaphors in language about the consumption of information. It's a natural and useful metaphor with many parallels: just as we take food into our bodies and thereby nourish and transform them, so we take information into our minds with the same intent and effect.

The metaphors, in nutshells, are IDEAS ARE FOOD and COGNITION IS EATING. It should be no surprise that these metaphors are old, and they are certainly not limited to English. The earliest Buddhist writings repeatedly speak of the mind's need to "feed" on information and sensory stimuli.

Now, ten years further on into the information age, I notice how these metaphors are settling in to the point where words originally denoting food are developing extended meanings that writers use with clear awareness that their readers will get the metaphor without a gloss. Sauce, in particular, is an extremely productive metaphor in contemporary writing. Slate writer Will Oremus in an article about big data talks about Facebook's attempts to maximize the interest to users of what appears in their feeds (there's that metaphor again!). He notes that the company

"began measuring other things, like the amount of time [users] spent looking at a post in their feed, the amount of time they spent reading a story they had clicked on, and whether they hit "like" before or after they had read the piece. When Facebook's engineers had gone as far as they could in weighting and optimizing those metrics, they found that users were still unsatisfied in important ways. So the company added yet more metrics to the sauce."

So apparently, one of the things that is making our Facebook feeds appetizing is indeed a sauce—in this case, a combination of metrics, apparently mixed in exactly the right proportions to make this particular meal ever appealing.

The two definitions of sauce in the VT give us pretty good clues as to what gives this metaphor its potency. The qualities that distinguish sauce (accompaniment to food, an enhancer of flavor and enjoyment), transfer very easily to consumable information: it is considerably enhanced when accompanied by the right thing or mixed in the right proportions. A view of a contemporary corpus shows that sauce's two favorite prepositions in the space before it are with and in. These two small fellows are found in combination with sauce more than with all other prepositions combined, suggesting the importance of sauce's accompanying and immersive aspects. Everything is better in sauce. Everything is better with sauce.

A recent article in Forbes is called The Secret Sauce of the Customer Journey. Leaving aside the "journey" metaphor, which fellow VT contributor Nancy Friedman has explored, the reader of this article will understand immediately that "secret sauce" is a quality that makes something uniquely successful or distinctive. Secret sauce has achieved headword status in some contemporary dictionaries. Merriam-Webster dates it to 1906. A look at Google NGrams shows that the phrase has been around at least since then, but what's interesting in the graph below is how the phrase took off in the late 20th century, more or less coincident with the dawn of the information age:

I have included in the graph the plot of special sauce, always more frequent than its secret counterpart but showing an even more pronounced spike in usage in the early 1970s. The reason for this is surely the 1974 advertising campaign for the McDonald's Big Mac, which included a mention of special sauce. You can generate this chart yourself in the Ngram Viewer and if you do, you'll find links to individual citations below the chart. It's an instructive exercise in two respects. First, you'll see that writers use the two terms interchangeably in relation to the sauce used on Big Macs—perhaps conflating the two ideas that the sauce is something special, and its recipe was once regarded as secret. Secondly, usage of both terms is increasingly figurative and not concerned with food as we approach the present day.

As further evidence of the unmooring of sauce from its literal denotation, writers have been deploying the disparaging term weak sauce to designate something that is lamentably impotent, lackluster, disappointing, or unconvincing. Weak sauce has also achieved headword status in some dictionaries. If you do an image search on the phrase, you'll see that it has also spawned memes. The term is nicely glossed in some dialogue from a 2011 young adult fiction novel, How to Ruin My Teenage Life:

She tries on a big white shirt with an arrow pointing down saying Future Physician.
"What do you think?" she asks, holding her arms out wide to give me the full view.
"I think it's weak sauce."
"Weak sauce?" she says, scrunching up her face in confusion. "New slang I don’t know about?"
"You know . . . same as lame. It's all about the sauce. If it's bad sauce, nobody likes it."

There is some folk etymology floating around online that weak sauce has its origin in a corruption of weak source, but the pixel trail is weak. It's possible that the current use of weak sauce is a fairly recent coinage, but the now nearly forgotten writer Brander Matthews deserves a spot of credit for coming up with the term long ago in a very similar context—1878, in fact, in a satirical article he wrote for The Century, a magazine that was perhaps the Time of its day:

This fellow has stolen the striking and original thought of Lord Macaulay . . . And this petty plagiarist, this empty imitator copies this, steals this, alters this, mutilates this, and serves up this fine thought to his readers with his own weak sauce.

The somewhat synonymous term mild sauce is frequently used to describe food, in a purely descriptive or appreciative way, but nobody calls an actual sauce that accompanies food a weak sauce, except to disparage it. So when you read or hear about weak sauce these days, you can be pretty sure that some writer or speaker was not happy with what they got, and that it probably didn't come to them on a plate.

Has sauce become such a potent metaphor in other languages? I would be interested to hear from readers who have their ear to the ground in other speech communities.

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

The New Food