John Kerry’s Francophilia
“plays into the stereotype of the effete, French-speaking
northeastern Massachusetts liberal elitist,” the Republican
consultant Whit Ayres commented. “The fact that his position
on Iraq seems reasonably close to that of Jacques Chirac is just
icing on the cake.” A less formally spoken consultant might
have considered the senator’s and the French
president’s accordance gravy, with the foodstuff receiving
the gravy normally omitted. (Is it coincidence or hypocrisy that
Ayres chose the cake rhetoric of the French queen Marie
Antoinette?)

Dan Mullkoff

In an interview with Chicago Public Radio earlier this year,
Dave Isay, the creator of a group called StoryCorps, described his
program’s goal as providing a meaningful experience for
citizens, adding, “Any broadcast that comes out of this is
just gravy, it’s just icing on the cake.”

So despite both phrases signifying “unexpected or
superfluous benefits” and often being preceded by the
colloquial adverb form of just (signifying “merely”),
why can one leave out the object of the gravy’s use but must
include the iced cake? Why must one say cake but not biscuit?

Given that icing and gravy serve the same purpose of improving
the flavor of the food they cover, one must look at the inherent
differences between cake and biscuits, potatoes, turkey, and other
gravy-related sundries. Though biscuits sure are good, any
Southerner worth his white flannel suit will tell you that they are
empty without a healthy dose of gravy. Cake, on the other hand, has
for centuries held a positive connotation; according to the Oxford
English Dictionary, “cake is often used figuratively in
obvious allusion to its estimation (esp. by children) as a
‘good thing,’ the dainty delicacy, or
‘sweets’ of a repast.” Furthermore, cake has at
various times been used as a slang term for “money,”
including as a “new musicians’ term” replacing
bread and as Cockney low slang for “a pile of currency or
banknotes.”

Aside from negative phrases such as that’s small potatoes,
which hardly implies that big potatoes would be of great
significance, gravy does not often top foods which themselves
connote good things. Gravy had signified “money” in
U.S. slang since the early 1900s, and in the 1920s railroad men
coined the phrase gravy train to describe “a run on which
there was good pay and little work” or the state of being
prosperous (riding the gravy train).

Is gravy’s superior ability to stand alone with a clear
meaning a result of its greater versatility as a topping? On the
contrary, icing has plenty of uses beyond cakes: danishes,
cupcakes, coffee cakes, glazed poundcakes, etc. Gravy is still
often used with qualifiers (gravy on their meat-and-potato menu of
skills, gravy on the situation, the latter taking the phrase even
further from its culinary origins), but can also stand alone,
unlike icing.

I suppose we should just accept this discrepancy as the
historical will of English speakers, and should we eventually
encounter a neologism such as that’s just icing, consider it
merely gravy on the biscuit.

A metaphor is life and death

When the MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked Sen. Zell Miller
(D-Ga.) if he was sincere in suggesting that John Kerry would
defend the U.S. with spitballs, Miller spat back, “That was a
metaphor, wasn’t it? Do you know what a metaphor is?”
The senator then became infuriated, and eventually lamented that
the age we live in prevented a duel between Matthews and himself.
Though he ignored the host’s follow-up question, “What
do you mean by a metaphor?” Miller probably did intend
spitballs in the metaphorical sense, meaning a weapon of
insignificant strength.

However, Miller’s adamant defense of his figure of speech
raises interesting questions. What if a journalist attempted to
strip Governor Schwartzenegger of his preferred literary device,
the cinematic allusion? (“He has terminated hope. He has
terminated opportunity. And now it is time we terminate Gray
Davis,” in his stump speech for governor; “This is like
winning an Oscar! As if I would know! Speaking of acting, one of my
movies was called ‘True Lies.’ It’s what the
Democrats should have called their convention,” at the
Republican convention.) Dueling may not be Arnold’s style,
but perhaps machine-gunning his way out of the governor’s
mansion against scores of Gray Davis loyalists would suit him.

Presumably no one misunderstood the metaphoric nature of our
vice president’s eloquent reflexive imperative directed at
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this summer1. No physical attack ensued,
though in the past inflammatory words have touched off violence
both by a sitting vice president (Vice President Aaron Burr killing
former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in an 1804
duel, following years of antagonizing comments and actions by the
two politicians) and by a sitting senator (Sen. Preston Brooks
(D-S.C.) caning Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) on the Senate floor
following Sumner’s harsh remarks regarding slavery and the
state of South Carolina in 1856). Perhaps in today’s
political scene, attack rhetoric is so commonplace that it will
take more than calling someone a “bad Catholic” or
boldly suggesting that they take a metaphorical course of action,
as Cheney did, to incite violence. Or perhaps Leahy got off easy

 

1 For a more Cheney-esque and less family-friendly description
of the exchange, try typing “Cheney Leahy altercation”
into your preferred search engine.

 

E-mail Dan at
“mailto:mulkoff@umich.edu”>mullkoff@umich.edu.

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