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Words Jan. 13

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Jim Argue writes that his daughter, Sarah, teaching school out of state, didn’t get enough time off to come home for Thanksgiving, so she and her friends decided to make their own Thanksgiving dinner. Argue’s wife, Elise, provided old family recipes. A few days later, his wife out of pocket, Argue fielded a phone call from Sarah, who was having trouble deciphering a recipe. “What does this mean, one-half stick of oh-LAY-oh?” Argue says he’s told this story to several groups. “It’s amazing how many young people don’t get it. So … when did oleo drop out of usage?” Margarine is predominant now, but oleo was the more common term when I was growing up. Both words are listed in the Random House, as is the long form, oleomargarine. By any name, it’s “a butterlike product made from vegetable oils.” Stuart Berg Flexner’s “Listening to America” says that oleomargarine was in the American language by 1873. “It was simply called oleo by 1888 — but it wasn’t talked about widely until the late 1930s and early 40s, when millions of American housewives, trying to save money and avoid World War II butter shortages, were using it for the first time. The product then still had to be sold under the full name of oleomargarine owing to the successful lobbying of the dairy industry, which also required restaurants to serve it in triangles (instead of in butter’s traditional square pats) and retailers to sell it in a white rather than in butter’s yellow form. A common kitchen scene during World War II was of women squeezing and kneading plastic bags of the white oleo to mix it with the yellowish-orange coloring packet included with it. During this period oleo took on a distasteful connotation and by the war’s end the word margarine had taken over.” Begun to take over, maybe. I note in the Arkansas legislative directory that Senator Argue wasn’t born until 1951, and obviously he knows oleo. I’m only slightly older — so slight it’s not worth mentioning, really. It was television advertising’s repeated use of margarine that eventually drove oleo from the language market, I suspect.

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