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Ideas | Mark Peters

What makes ‘milk’ milk?

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Authenticity is important. In a relationship, you trust your partner. In a voting booth, you want to trust your candidate. In a supermarket, you trust food labels.

But labels are a single thread of the tangled, twisted, limitless web of English, which pushes and pulls meaning all over the place. When it comes to food labels — particularly labels involving a word with as rich a history as “milk” — one person’s almond milk may be another person’s alleged FDA violation. One thing is certain: Milk feeds not only people, but the lexicon, from grocery shelves to slang dictionaries.

Lexically, milk made headlines last December when the dairy industry and over two dozen congressfolk (remarkably, a bipartisan group) urged the FDA to crack down on so-called fake milk, which includes products such as almond milk, rice milk, and soy milk. Among other points, the letter said, “While consumers are entitled to choose imitation products, it is misleading and illegal for manufacturers of these items to profit from the ‘milk’ name.” The letter went on to demand that the FDA more strictly enforce its own cow-based definition.

Some nondairy companies do respect a dairy-based definition of milk, which they circumvent through creative spelling. For example, beverage brand Silk uses smashed-together spellings such as “almondmilk,” “coconutmilk,” and “cashewmilk.” A more complex sort of label for nondairy, milky beverages is “mylk,” which Iselin Gambert and Tobias Linné argued for in The Baltimore Sun, saying, “It signals to the consumer a different narrative about milk, bringing up the injustices, exploitation and suffering bound up in the history of the word ‘milk’ and offering a different path forward.” “Mylk” is superficially like “wyngz” — a respelling of “wings” that means meatless chicken wings — but while “wyngz” is self-consciously contemporary, “mylk” has a long history going back to Old English.

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To the dairy industry, all milk-like beverages are fake milk. Yet the words for them are real and have a lengthy history. For example, the term “rice milk” has been around since at least the 1600s, though that was originally a flavored type of cow’s milk, unlike today’s rice-filled milk substitute. References to “almond milk” have been found since the 1300s. “Soy milk” has been around since at least the early 20th century, and a Warren, Ill., newspaper example would likely infuriate a dairy farmer, claiming that soy milk’s “food value” is “equal to that of cow’s milk.” So “milk” has a long, broad history, even within the narrow category of creamy beverages.

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Speaking of history, it’s no surprise this life-giving word has turned up in plenty of metaphorical senses other than the common “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” The term “milk mustache” has been around for over a hundred years, though the phenomenon is surely much older. Exhausted nursing mothers complain of “milk brain.” A rare idiom — “to wash the milk off one’s liver” — means to summon courage. To “come home with the milk” is to come home so late it’s the next morning. If you “strained your milk,” you overexerted yourself and need to take it easy.

In slang, there are many milk-related terms and idioms, usually involving male and female body parts and functions. One example is more newspaper-friendly: “milking the pigeon” (or “milking the duck”) means to attempt the impossible, as defined in Jonathon Green’s “Green’s Dictionary of Slang.”

Green sees milk terms as part of a broad, productive pattern in slang: the animal-related lexicon. Though slang is mostly an urban phenomenon, the barnyard has contributed plenty of slang terms over the centuries. Hundreds of terms involve pigs, horses, cats, and dogs — as well as cows and milk.

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Green said these familiar critters are natural components of the humorous, disrespectful, and off-color lexicon of slang: “Domestic familiarity, one might say, breeds linguistic contempt.” And, of course, creativity. Good luck to anyone, in Congress or not, trying to force a word to mean one thing only. As Green said, “Slang will grab and tweak and play with and that’s the way it is and always has been.” With language, the barn door is always open.


Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.