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Monday, October 25, 2010

Mc Word's Worth: Toll House Cookie

SINCE I WAS FIVE years old I have been fascinated by words, especially their illogical/multi-definitional aspects. Even at that tender age, I was embarrassed by words. Being a Virgo, I was very strict about the way I used and interpreted words and I tried to really use them only in accordance with their precise meanings. But the more I found out about words, the more I was–and still am–perplexed by their capriciousness.

One day our kindergarten teacher administered an IQ test to my class. (At that age how smart could we have been anyway?) Because we did not have sufficient vocabularies and many of us could not yet read or write, the test was supposed to measure our intelligence by having us copy different geometric shapes, drawing them with a pencil next to the ones which appeared on the test.

To this day, I remember the specific directions which I, and apparently only I, followed. The teacher instructed us, "Copy the shapes and draw them next to the ones on your test exactly as you see them." The test was printed on newsprint, so the shapes were formed by hundreds of tiny dots, comic book style, rather like a Roy Lichtenstein painting. (I wonder if Lichtenstein had to take that same IQ test? Maybe that's how he developed his artistic style.) Because our teacher had stressed that we were to draw the shapes "exactly " as they appeared, that is the way I drew them– dot-by-dot, with each dot placed in the "exact" location corresponding to the one in the original shape. Only that constituted drawing them "exactly" for me.

When the allocated time for the test was up, most of my classmates had drawn all 25 or so shapes, incorrectly to my mind, in outline form, while I was still precisely composing a corner of the first shape. I was working on it in all its volumetric glory, carefully and faithfully, dot by dot. Yes, I can follow directions and did, indeed, draw the shape "exactly" as I saw it. How embarrassing. I guess my IQ was off the bottom end of the chart!

Suspecting that I might be considered intellectually challenged, I thought I might be able to save face if I figured out how words and language were conceived. There must have been a time in the history of mankind, I thought, when there was an absence of words. In my infinite five-year-old wisdom, I was certain that the two greatest, wisest people I knew of at that time–God and George Washington–had jointly invented words. What surprised me, though, was that some of their words were quite illogical. Take, for example, the word they made up for "dog," which is the inverse of the word for "God." If I were in charge, I would have chosen that word for the Devil. He is more the opposite of God than a dog, which is one of God's finest creations. Other words seemed arbitrary, overused, stretched and too all-inclusive.

I truly believed I would redeem myself when I told my teacher I figured out that God and George, sitting atop Mt. Rushmore, made up names for all the things they saw. They picked the highest place they could find in order to see everything and not leave anything out. I imagined God would say to George Washington, "You know, George, we've got a lot of interesting things here on earth, but how can anyone talk about them if they don't have names?" George agreed. He understood that agreeing with God was the wisest course. Accordingly, the two great wordsmiths started pointing to various things and naming them. "Let's call that, 'woman,' George," said God. Then they both agreed on "tree" for trees, with God adding, "Now don't go chopping any down, George." (That's the one time George didn't agree with God). But here's the part I don't understand: they picked out several disparate items and gave them all the same name or a name that sounds too similar for such different things. Consider the words "witch," a woman credited with usually malignant supernatural powers and "which," used as a function word to introduce a relative clause. Also, "train," as in teaching and "train," a series of connected railroad cars pulled by one or more locomotives.

A prime example is "cookie." I hate to challenge God and George Washington, but what they did with that word just doesn't work. What were they thinking? Did they run out of words? Below are three wildly disparate things that they decided to name "cookie":

1. The desert or snack we eat that is a small, flat-baked treat, usually containing fat, flour, eggs and sugar.*

2. A piece of text stored by a computer's web browser.
3. An orthopedic insert placed in a shoe under the metatarsal bones in order to take pressure off the foot and relieve pain.

Maybe they were tired by the time they got around to naming all those things "cookie."

They did a little better with "toll" and "house" and also when they put them together and got "toll house". It does makes sense to name a payment for using a road a "toll" and the structure in which a collector sits a "house," and together have them called a "toll house." I have to admonish God and George on "toll," though. We didn't really get our words' worth with "toll"; it's only four letters. In addition ... helloooo ... I am not even getting into the word's alternate confusing sense as when used in "For whom the bell tolls," or as in the verb to "toll" metal.

Getting back to cookies, they did something really nutty (and think about "nutty," which can mean either
mentally unbalanced or having a flavor like that of nuts.) They gave one of the cookies the name "toll house cookie." To prove my point, I have illustrated the toll house cookie. God! George! What were you thinking? Please see above.

PS. There is a school of thought that believes that George and God were not responsible for naming cookies, or anything else for that matter. This school believes that "cookie" derives from the Dutch word "koekie," which means "little cake" and arrived in the English language through the Dutch in North America. This heretical school further erroneously believes that Ruth Wakefield invented and named the toll house cookie when in 1937 she got the idea to make a chocolate butter cookie for her guests. She broke up a bar of semi-sweet chocolate that Andrew Nestle had given her. She thought that the chocolate would melt and mix with the dough to make all-chocolate cookies. As we now know, it didn't and chocolate chips were left in the cookies. Her guests loved these tasty delights, which were named after Mrs. Wakefield's Inn, The Toll House. This unlikely tale is a sweet, chocolate-y little fantasy, but ...

Depingo's readers know better.

Paint on,


  1. Love the new profile picture!

  2. Beautiful new painting of you and friends. Very cool!

  3. you can call them anything you want as long as they are delicious

  4. Heart, if you are the baker, they will be delicious!!

  5. Forget all this word etymology dribble, I want to know what you got on the test!