Librarian's Lobby
September 2002

by Daniel D. Stuhlman

Precision of Language

I was reading the book, The Giver, by Lois Lowry with my children a couple of weeks ago. In one scene a child complains, "I'm starving!" His teacher reprimands him, "Be precise. Say you are hungry. We have no starving people in our community." The teacher continues to warn all the students that precision of language is a virtue and that the adults will not tolerate imprecise language. Later in the book the readers learn the big secrets the adults are hiding from each

On an e-mail listserv a participant asked about the proper British expression to use at the beginning of meal that is equivalent to the French bon appetit, the German guten Appetit that is not religious. This sparked an interesting discussion. One participant, who is an English teacher living in Israel, wrote that her students frequently ask what is the English for, "b'tai-avon." While the teacher could translate the word to "for your appetite." The English words do not convey the same meaning as the idiomatic expressions in other languages. Some answers that received include less polite phrases such as: "Tuck in!, Grub's up! Let's enjoy our food, Get that down you, and Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub."

Saying something before we eat should have a religious connotation. Jews and non-Jews say a blessing before we eat to thank God for his partnership in the meal. The concept is that we are the ones eating and we are the ones who should be thankful. The expressions bon appetit or B'tai-avon are used when you see someone else eating. For example if you serve a guest food, the guest would make a bracha (blessing), you would say B'tai-avon. If you interrupt someone eating or starting to eat you would say, B'tai-avon.

B'tai-avon is an interesting expression in Hebrew. The original is from the Talmud, Hullin 84a. "Shelo Yakhol 'adam basar l'tai'avon" (One cannot eat meat except to satisfy the appetite.)

I examined Hebrew language text books to find some historical development of the expression. In textbooks of the 1940's neither expression appears. In the 1950's l'tai'avon is used. In the 1980's b'tai'avon starts to be used. I suspect the word l'tai'avon changed to b'tai'avon to sound more like the French bon appetite. But this answer isn't totally satisfactory. I talked to some Israelis. The ordinary non-scholars had no idea of the origins. They know when to make a bracha and when to say, b'tai-avon. I found one teacher who offered the explanation that the l'tai'avon form indicates the appetite will be appeased in the future; while the B'tai-avon form

English is missing an equivalent expression. While we understand the words, "Have a hearty appetite." the idiomatic expression does not exist. One explanation offered is that the Puritans did not believe that eating could have pleasure associated with it. A story was told about a boy who once was reprimanded for complementing his mother on her soup. The bowl was removed from his presence. The mother added pepper and forced him to eat it. Never again did the mother serve soup that wasn't overspiced or burnt. It seems difficult to believe that the Puritans could have such a strong influence on language. If they did have this influence on food related language, we should be able to find expressions that pre-date the Puritans. My ability to find these expressions is limited. The Norman conquest of English in 1066 brought many changes in the social and linguistic structure in England. The English language gained many "polite" terms from Norman French that complemented the Anglo-Saxon terms. Many foreign expressions stuck in English, because there was no previous equivalent. The expression, bon appetit, may be one of those polite borrowed expressions that just sound better in French, than, "Hearty appetite."(1)

Some professions are more concerned with precision of language than others. Librarians need to be very precise when entering books and other library materials into the catalog. Names and subjects have to be right all the time. Subjects use a controlled vocabulary and names use an authority file. Lawyers have to have precise language in contracts. Lawyers must be clear in their writing and thoughts or their clients will suffer. Torah readers much pronounce every word precisely and correctly or they will be corrected and forced to read the word or phrase again. Rabbis and teachers explain and comment on the text of the Torah, Talmud other texts. A grammatical and linguistic understanding of the words of the text is important to understand the meaning.

Probably everyone can benefit from the clarity that results when using the precise word or phrase to mean what you think. Speaking clearly and distinctly increases the ability for your audience to understand you. Using little and big words with many precise adjectives helps the audience get a word picture of your ideas.

This time of year exchange new year wishes. Later we will ask release from vows. These are cases of asking forgiveness for anyone improper language. If we offended someone we ask for forgiveness because of our careless or imprecise language. We also ask God to excuse us from vows that we may have made on purpose or unintentionally.

1. After I first wrote this article, Eileen Polk of Bloomfield Hills, MI wrote that when she sits down to a meal that she prepared, "I simply say, 'Enjoy!'" This seems to be appropriate when you have prepared a meal for guests or a special meal for your family. However, "Enjoy!" is not food specific. You could use the same expression before someone goes to watch a TV show. The expression may be gracious and endearing to your guests, but it is parallel rather than equivalent to the Hebrew, French and German expressions.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. They are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit their web page to learn more about knowledge management. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: He can be reached via e-mail at:


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