Sat 27 Dec 2008
Pulling the cork on a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Riesling 2006 last week, I noticed something written on the label. That phenomenon is not unusual; corks often have words and numbers printed on them, from practical matter, such as the name of the producer and year the grapes were harvested (which should match the name and vintage on the label; that’s why the waiter presents you with the cork, to check the wine’s authenticity, not really to smell the cork), to the whimsical, as in the “Ribbit” that Frog’s Leap Winery puts on its corks.
This, however, was different. The words were: “I selected this cork to ensure the highest wine quality.” Under this screed was the tiny printed signature of Jess Jackson, owner of the Kendall-Jackson empire. Well, O.K., Jess, that certainly reassures us that your eye is on the cork, if not the sparrow, though was it actually necessary to inform us of the fact? Why not just say, “We buy a million of these doodads because that’s what we decided to do”? Must we get up-close and personal with synthetic corks?
(BTW, I like the legend printed on the cork in this illustration, which translates as “Bottled in France.” That’s really reassuring.)
The cork in question is quite ordinary and is not, as is the case with so many corks today, made of cork. It is, rather — and as the cork industry likes to point out — a synthetic cork, made of some slightly creepy-feeling plasticky space-age material. Many wineries use such bottle stoppers nowadays, made from a variety of materials and all designed to replace the increasingly marginalized “real” cork, a trend that makes the hitherto mentioned cork industry very anxious. As most wine drinkers have experienced, “bad” corks, like bad apples in their barrels, have a deleterious effect on wine, making it “corked,” that is smelling of damp cardboard.
What really struck me, though, standing in the kitchen rolling this ordinary object in my hand, is that a cork stopper for a bottle is an example of a thing made of a certain material that has taken on the name of the material itself. First came the cork tree (an evergreen oak, Quercus suber), and then the small cylindrical or tapering object that someone discovered was perfect for jamming into the necks of bottles so the contents did not flow out. Eureka! And then, in the mid 16th Century, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Vol. I. A-M), that object became known as “a cork,” not just “something made of cork.”
The NSOAD mentions that this object, this stopper, may be made “of cork or some other material,” acknowledging the fact that a cork is not required to be made of, you know, cork.
Anyway, I spent almost a week trying to think of another example of this occurrence, an object known by the same name as its material, and then yesterday, I was standing in the kitchen staring at the cabinet that holds the — you know what’s coming, right? — glasses, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, right.” Glasses, vessels made of glass for holding and conveying, generally, liquids, are known by the name of the material from which they are made.
The NSOED offers, as part of a long segment on “glass,” this definition: “A glass vessel or receptacle. Also, the contents of such a vessel or receptacle. A drinking-vessel made of glass; a beverage, (esp. alcoholic) contained in such a vessel,” in the sense that we say, “Have a glass of wine,” when what we mean is “Have a glass filled with wine.” And when the responder replies, “Sure, I’ll have a glass,” they mean, “Sure, I’ll have a glass filled with wine.”
We also say “glasses” for the objects we wear on our noses to enhance vision, a locution that goes back to the mid 17th Century. And from the early 17th Century, magnifying objects like telescopes and microscopes with lenses made of glass were called a “glass,” as when the dreaded pirate says, “Pass me the glass, matey, so I can spy out the cut of yon jib.”
Well, we have wandered far from our original subject here, but if you object to this linguistic digression, all I can say is “Put a cork in it, Jack,” though it’s up to you to decide of what material the cork is made.
Images from wikimedia.