I recently learned I’m not the only language crank on the block.
The news came from readers like you who told me I’d struck a robust chord.
The response was to a column I’d written about annoying words and phrases. The sheer volume of feedback assured me there was no shortage of crotchety, ill-tempered readers out there. Like me, you bristle at language that comes into fashion, pesters us without mercy and then vanishes, only to be replaced by new irritants.
At the end of the day, we all seemed to agree on many of the annoyances. I don’t want to get into the weeds here, but I was surprised not to hear a yip about “probiotics.”
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I can’t believe how often I hear the word in TV commercials. I previously had no idea what probiotics were, let alone how good they were for you. The message seemed to come out of the blue, as if they’d just been invented.
A little digging and I learned these things are actually as old as the Dawn of Indigestion.
Imagine my chagrin when I found that not only were they as old as dirt, but had actually been shacking up inside me without permission.
So why, I wondered, if we’ve had them for centuries, are we just now hearing about them?
The first thing I did was ask my wife about them. Big mistake.
“All of a sudden the world is crawling with probiotics!” I ranted. “Probiotics this, probiotics that! How did we survive before someone figured out you could make money on them?”
This is where I would’ve been better off talking to an oak tree.
How stupid was I thinking that simple support and agreement were possible after 38 years of wedded bliss?
Maybe I should’ve become president and surrounded myself with yes-men.
There are benefits, of course, to being around fact-based people, those who read and retain information. In my wife’s case, you also can take it to the bank that she’ll shoot from the hip, whether you want direct answers or not.
In a nutshell, her take was that probiotics had been around since people decided it was a good idea to eat food and digest it.
I confirmed that by reading that the ancient Egyptians had an inkling about probiotics’ function in digestion, even before they were featured in television commercials.
You can thank the Pharaohs’ crack scientific community for that.
For a word person, it wasn’t just the sudden media visibility that got to me, but the many ramifications. If probiotics were good, I asked myself, what did that say about “antibiotics?” Did it mean they were bad?
I always thought antibiotics were good, but the two words struck me as opposites, one in favor of digestion — the “pro” part of the equation —and the other opposed: the “anti” part.
In our divisive time, you can understand how the “for” and “against” camps could be so far apart.
I also figured that if there were probiotics, substances whose job it was to aid in digestion, there would also be amateurbiotics, unpaid intestinal agents being schooled in the ins and outs.
In a similar vein, I wondered if there were also prebiotics – substances that existed before the digestive process actually started – as well as postbiotics, spent biotics that had done their work and were ready to bask in the glow of a job well done?
A high-functioning society uses language precisely, so these were vital questions.
It turns out there is such a thing as a prebiotic. I found this out by researching the subject.
That was my second big mistake.
The problem with researching is that for a person who’s excited about an idea – mine being to explain the sudden popularity of the word “probiotic” – there’s nothing worse than too much information.
That’s particularly true in column writing, where so much is simply made up.
Facts and data, those lead-footed things, do nothing but complicate what otherwise could be simple. You start with a good idea and then, boom, you’re suddenly taking all these competing ideas into account.
Take “prebiotic,” for example. According to one source, prebiotics are “nondigestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics.” Translation: Not only have probiotics been around forever, but the little King Tuts have special diets.
It gets better. The same source – speaking anonymously for fear of being poisoned by the Russians – said that when “probiotics and prebiotics are combined, they form a synbiotic.”
That opens a whole new can of worms, a Pandora’s Box of bacteria on fancy diets.
One minute we’re discussing the proliferation of the word “probiotics,” then, just like that, we’re talking about foods such as yogurt and kefir, both of which are synbiotics.
Kefir isn’t a character in a Disney film, but “a sour-tasting drink made from cow’s milk fermented with certain bacteria.” Great. How can something aid in digestion if it makes you gag?
The bottom line here is that probiotics are more than 7,000 years old – hardly new kids on the block. The only thing that’s older is shekels, and you can always count on Madison Avenue to find new ways to make them.
Feeling cranky? Write firstname.lastname@example.org.