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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2001 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

A medium guy orders up a big dose of language inflation -- I'M a middle-of-the-road guy in an edgy era.

I drive a midsize sedan. My shirts are size medium. I order burgers medium rare and ask for eggs over medium. I get the medium-sized soda at the convenience store despite the economy of scale achievable by buying cups the size of oil drums. I set the volume at "five." In fact, give me any kind of knob to jiggle and I'll instinctively set it near the middle. I resist all invitations to "super-size" my order.

Marketing people understand that a moderately large number of people like myself feel a measured level of discomfort with our habits. To oblige us, they go out of their way when measuring out their product to avoid calling the middle size "medium."

This is misplaced solicitude and the results get more exotic all the time.

I was at a coffee place when it struck me things had gone too far. I ordered a medium-sized coffee.

"You mean a 'grande' ?" asked the barista. (Disclaimer: I would swear this word -- which means someone who makes coffee-based drinks that cost more than $2.50 a cup -- did not exist before 1999. But what do I know? My pre-1999 experience with paying more than $2.50 for a cup of coffee was very limited.)

If I had been playing by the posted house rules, I would not have ordered a medium drink. I would have ordered a "grande." Unless I wanted a small. They call that a "tall," even though it is served in the shortest of the paper cups.

But I feel dumb using the phraseology on most price lists and menus and always revert to my customary small-medium-large mindset.

"The super-grande mega-king-sized fries for me," I'm supposed to say.

"You can get ultra-super-grande mega-king sized, for 99 cents more" the guy behind the counter is supposed to suggest.

"Make it a medium," I say instead. The terminology is just beyond me.

There seem to be fewer and fewer places where one can buy things in straightforward sizes of small, medium or large. Why is the smallest cigarette size "king size"? Why is the smallest egg carton found in the store is called "medium" and medium size is "large"? Why is the next-to-smallest mattress "full-sized" and the second-largest is king size?

This appears to be a kind of language inflation. We pump up what we call small things, so we must do the same to the large things. Otherwise, they would seem small by comparison.

You do this awhile and jumbo-ultra-king-size is a medium sized and only ultra-super-jumbo-extra-double-dog-big-big qualifies as large.

Except I feel funny asking for "jumbo-ultra-king-size" at the counter. I ask for medium and let the highly trained service staff translate it for me. Only occasionally do they force me to actually say the words with my own mouth.

"Do you mean "jumbo-ultra-king-size" or "extra-value jumbo-ultra-king-size?"

"I'll have a medium," I say as though I can't get my mind around the concept. Sometimes you need to play the part of the problem customer.

"We have venti now," the barista with the eyebrow ring told me helpfully. By which he meant "large."

I held my ground. I wanted a medium and stared at his ear as I demanded it because I can't look at eyebrow piercings without feeling sympathetic pains race across my forehead.

"Sure thing," he replied cheerfully and brewed the brew.

Which made me happy.

Though only in a medium way.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane