I usually use this column to dissect a dish which didn't make my current review, or to reveal an incident that helped solidify my impressions of the featured restaurant. But nothing odd or disagreeable occurred at the thoroughly wonderful Terra Plata: The only near-misstep, which involved a bungled reservation, was expertly resolved with a found table and a serving of Shisito peppers. So that makes this a fine week to examine what happens at the keyboard.
Since I've never written fiction or a screenplay, I have approximately zero experience with dialogue. But I thought Tamara Murphy's excellent potato chips were worthy of an interjection conveying the pleasure that universally seizes patrons wise enough to order them. I wrote:
At Terra Plata, depending on the situation, potato chips say "Thanks for coming," "Good to see you again," or "Really sorry about the reservation mix-up." The potato-chip eaters are apt to say only one thing: "By gum, those are good."
To which my editor responded:
I've never heard an actual human utter the phrase "by gum."
Which is why my imaginary chip eater now says "Man, those are good."
To be fair, "man" is probably a more common expression than "by gum" on Capitol Hill, and we reporters can't fight reality. As much as I might like to conjure a world in which eaters express their feelings with two century-old phrases, the exercise would be nearly as pointless as writing about Seattle's lobster rolls and whole hog barbecue. "By gum" stretches the truth a little too thinly - at least in King County.
Down south, there are actual humans who say "by gum." It was a phrase I often heard when I lived in western North Carolina. I have no idea whether the phrase came straight from northern England, as many of the area's first white settlers did - few linguists now believe the Appalachian dialect was imported directly from the British Isles - but it's still in circulation around Yorkshire. A 1996 version of Bible stories subtitled "The Gospels in Broad Yorkshire" is titled Ee by Gum, Lord! "By gum! Jesus looks 'im streight in t'een," one passage reads.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "by gum" is a vulgarity (Sorry, folks: I try not to trot out my alt weekly privileges too frequently.) Considered a variant of dad-gum or goddamn, it's a "defamation of God" dating back to 1815.
The phrase's popularity peaked in the U.S. nearly 100 years later, according to a linguist I consulted. West Virginia University's Kirk Hazen, who heads the West Virginia Dialect Project, says the expression was used throughout the South in the early 20th century. "I see in the Corpus of Historical American English that 1900 and 1910 were the periods of greatest usage," he e-mails. The book includes examples from the period such as "By gum! I'll give them a bit of my mind."
And here's a bit of mine: "By gum" is a great phrase, whether uttered over potato chips or used in a non-dining situation. As my non-Appalachian ancestors would say, gay ga zinte hate (Use it in good health.)