I am reminded of gravy, specifically of an exchange in Henry IV Part II in which the Lord Chief Justice tries to get the better of Falstaff, and fails. Among other insults, he chides him for his levity:

Lord Chief Justice: There is not a white hair in your face but should have his effect of gravity.

Falstaff: His effect of gravy, gravy, gravy.
2 Henry IV 1.2 147-9

The implication here is that Falstaff’s virtue in old age lies not in ponderous decorum but rather in a sort of spontaneous and carnivalesque superabundance or superfluity, the miraculous draft of excess we associate with roasting flesh. He even has to say it three times so that his audience have a proper idea of copiousness.

Gravy, for the uninitiated, is the quintessence of British cuisine: it is the meat juice emanating from a roasting joint, which can be thickened and flavoured and skimmed and concocted in any number of ways, but which in the end is just a unifying extension of the meat itself to cover every other element on the plate. Gravy. I’m getting hungry.


I am reminded of gravy by an anecdote recalled on the blog code switch (which you can read in its entirety here) in which in the 1970s the linguist John Gumperz was asked to study a breakdown in communication between (mostly white British) baggage handlers and (mostly Indian and Pakistani) cafeteria operatives at Heathrow Airport, and concluded that it was all down to the pattern of intonation with which the Desi workers in the cafeteria offered the baggage handlers gravy – in essence, a falling intonation which seemed to say, here it is, take it or leave it and consequently came over as rude.

The blog goes on to highlight the extent to which employers in Britain tend to hire native speakers over recent migrants even for low skilled work such as stacking shelves, not because of their superior language skills, but because of their readiness to lace the interview with personal anecdote, which in part is taken as evidence that such individuals will be able to ‘manage their own boredom’, and which also acts as a species of cultural lubricant (read about the research here); or, if you prefer, of cultural gravy.


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