This is not the first time I’ve taken my text from a cereal packet. Most of the things you read on them are standard advertising cliches, sprinkled with vaguely scientific-sounding technicalities like thiamine and riboflavin, and recitations of the virtues of individually numbered vitamins. Nothing worth singling out for special attention in the context of a survey of developments in the English language
But here’s something a bit different. Sainsbury’s has come up with a new cereal, or at least a cereal it hopes to persuade us is new. Although it is actually the usual small crunchy bits in funny shapes and colours that are no doubt intended to entertain small children – “novelties” that have been around for years now – it claims to be more exotic than that. It’s called “Under the Sea” and is described as “strawberry flavour sea stars and fish”.
I’m not sure I’m drawn to the idea of strawberry-flavoured fish. In fact, the manufacturers in their anxiety to attract new customers seem to be trying rather desperately to tick incompatible boxes. But that oddity isn’t what has prompted me to single out this product – I’m not here to analyse and criticise breakfast cereals. It was the next sentence that pulled me up short. It reads: “Coated cereal extrudates with natural strawberry flavouring, fortified with vitamins and iron.”
Come again? “Extrudate”? That’s as very grand word to find on a cereal packet. It must be scientific. But a little research will confirm that it means precisely nothing. It doesn’t exist. I at first thought, from the form of the sentence, that it was a verb – “to extrudate” – with an associated conjunction, “with”. Then I realised that it is a noun: an “extrudate” would be some sort of mineral, like “carbonate” or “silicate”, both of which are indeed technical terms used in chemistry. But unlike these words, which derive from “carbon” and “silica”, there is no mineral from which the term “extrudate” can have been derived. It seems to be intended as a derivative of the verb “to extrude”, which can mean “to protrude” or “to expel” – two slightly different ideas. They come from a Latin verb meaning “to thrust”. “Extrusion” is also a process, I learn from Wikipedia, used “to create objects of a fixed cross-section by pushing material through a die of the desired cross-section.” Not a mineral.
Perhaps these fish-shaped pieces are stamped out of the parent cereal by a specially shaped die. But “extrude” doesn’t form a substantive at all: “extrudate” is a copywriter’s fiction, a word dreamt up by an advertising company’s boffin to sound scientific. All of which seems particularly inappropriate to small, crunchy and funny-shaped bits of processed cereal. And even if in some remote technical dictionary the term “extrudate” exists, why on earth should the readers of a cereal packet be confronted with it?
I’m intrigued by the clash of intentions here. On the one hand, the manufacturers of the cereal are anxious to present it as fun, original and unexpectedly exotic. On the other, they want to reassure us that the scientists have given it their blessing and know the correct vocabulary to describe how it’s made. Its process of manufacture, though, is barely relevant to the fact that the product is really rather ordinary but with the not altogether pleasant suggestion of strawberries growing in the sea. The whole slightly mad idea reminds me of the old nonsense rhyme:
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A man in the wilderness asked me
How many strawberries grow in the sea?
I answered him, as I thought good,
As many as red herrings grow in the wood.
Nonsense or not, I’m sure the word “extrudate” is something of a red herring.
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