Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


I saw "The Soloist" this weekend.

In it, Robert Downey Jr., who plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, narrates a few excerpts from his columns in progress. In one, the Lopez character talked about Los Angeles' Skid Row, where the homeless former Julliard student Nathaniel Ayers was living. Lopez/Downey said Skid Row was home to "rats the size of meatloafs."

Or, at least, that's what I thought I heard.

I checked the Times archives. But Lopez has never mentioned meatloaf and rats in the same column. (I guess he doesn't eat at Denny's.) So the supposed column excerpt was probably added by a screenwriter.

The idea of a plural "meatloaf" interests me. The word is usually treated as a mass noun. (As opposed to a count noun. Think "milk" as opposed to "marbles.") But must it be? Can we have our meatloaf and count our meatloaves/fs, too?

Neither Webster's New World College Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online, American Heritage via Dictionary.com nor Dictionary.com's own entry offers a plural form or any discussion of whether "meatloaf" can be a count noun.

Dictionaries usually volunteer spellings of irregular plurals. For example, under "loaf" Webster's includes: "pl. loaves." So we can only assume that the dictionaries aren't down with "meatloaf" as a count noun.

That leaves us to wonder: Just how big is a rat the size of "meatloaf" and would it, therefore, have a guitar and a bit part in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show"?

That'd be one rat out of Hell.

(I know. The musician's name is two words. Still, I couldn't resist.)

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LL Blackwell said...

I just can't see "meatloaf" as a mass noun. I understand about "milk" and such like that, it's kind of hard to separate parts of it. But what if I'm trying to feed a crowd? One meatloaf ain't gonna cut it, so I might talk about making twenty meatloaves. And the spell checker on whatever version of Firefox I'm using on my Mac feels it ought to be "meatloaves," not "meatloafs," if that counts for anything. ;)*

June Casagrande said...

Seems to me a lot of people would see it that way. That's why I was so surprised that none of the dictionaries saw it that way.

I mean, you serve "chicken" (mass noun) for dinner, but you could still cook multiple "chickens."

Quoth the loaf: Am I not foodstuffs? If you serve me, do I not feed?

Unknown said...

Grammatically, "meatloaves" does make more sense. But in the context of the quote from the movie, "meatloafs" is funnier.

June Casagrande said...

Actually, that's one of the things that made it so striking to me: It wasn't supposed to be funny. Bitterly sarcastic, but not funny. The VO was over some very bleak images of real residents of Skid Row. (I read that, as part of the movie deal, the director had to hire real Skid Row residents as extras. I forget whose idea it was. But someone, maybe Lopez, thought it was a bad idea to pay extras to play homeless people when you could be paying homeless people to play homeless people.)


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