June 13, 2011

With compliments from Starbucks

It's one of those things: You see a word misspelled in a public place and it makes you wonder about the etymology of the word. And you ask  yourself: Where does "caramel" come from? Has it got anything to do with "Carmel"?

The answer is 'no.'

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a lovely little town in California, founded as a mission. (It's also rather touristy, not least because it used to have a famous mayor, Clint Eastwood, in the 1980s.) Its name is related to the order of the Carmelites, who define "Carmel" as a way of life in which we try to be aware of the Presence of God in the most ordinary, every day things." They trace their name to Mount Carmel in Palestine. It has got nothing to do with three-syllable "caramel," the substance created by heating sugar, for which the OED has no definite origin. There is speculation that the word is related to the Latin word for sugar-cane, cannamella.

Alas, "carmelized" is only part of the problem here. Let's skip the grammatical mistake ("It has a sweet ...  notes") and let's get to the issue of "compliment" vs. "complement." The verb "to compliment" means "to pay a compliment to" or "to flatter with praise," while "to complement" means "to complete" or "to make perfect". The spelling distinction is quite arbitrary, the words are homophonous (i.e. they are pronounced identically) and there was a time when the spelling "complement" was used for both senses of the verb, which makes sense, since they are both related to the Latin verb "complere" ('to fill up'). Alas, nowadays, different spellings are associated with different meanings and different syntactic behavior and speakers are supposed to know the difference. "Compliment" is often used with a nominal and a prepositional object (one compliments someone on something), while "complement" basically is a monotransitive verb (one thing complements another).

Complementary colors are spelled with an "e," because they 'complete' or cancel out each other. When mixed in the right proportions, they produce a neutral color (like gray), not a third hue (like orange).

In linguistics, two items are said to be in "complementary distribution" if they never occur together in the same environment. For example, the indefinite determiner "a" and the definite determiner "the" are in complementary distribution. One can say "the house" or "a house," but not "the a house.".

On the other hand, guest soaps in a hotel are "complimentary," because they are offered with compliments from the host.

Now back to our coffee with its sweet and slightly smokey (or smoky) notes. Those notes complete or perfect the taste of chocolate and caramel, an accomplishment on which you may compliment the coffee roaster.

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