THE English language is a subtle and grotesque beast, a demanding mistress, capricious, cruel and, in the wrong hands, capable of the most heinous crimes. For instance, a while ago, in the forward coffee shop on the Good Ship Oosterdam, part-way between Tasmania and New Zealand, a chap put ‘raizen’ down as a Scrabble word.

Unaccustomed as I was (and still am) to shipboard etiquette I’m pretty sure leaning over and correcting someone else’s spelling is frowned upon and likely to land you in the brig, or possibly the brigg if you’re wearing an ‘I Love Canada’ T-shirt with what looks like a medicine ball stuffed up it.

But, thanks be to Neptune, someone challenged him; I could remain lexicographically at large for a little longer. Well, until a rather diffident American woman who had somehow reached her middle-or-so sixties without ever playing Scrabble (yes, I earwigged) had leaned in close.

“Isn’t that spelled with an ‘S’?” she asked.

I turned to my partner and said: “Batten down the hatches, shipmate, it’s gonna be a long voyage.”

The question of language had been tickling my tonsils ever since we boarded, especially with regards the menu in the Vista Dining Room. At the Captain’s Gala Dinner, for instance, I spent far too long gazing at a particularly recalcitrant jus. According to the menu my “mouthwatering tenderloin” of beef Wellington was served on a “mirror of Madeira sauce” and for the life of me I couldn’t see my face in it.

After that the menus were a constant sauce, sorry, source of, oh I can’t resist it, ameuse-ment. I imagined there was a coterie of Chinese secret police beavering away in the bowels of the ship torturing the English language into giving up its meaning. It was like the Guantanamo Bay of Syntax, where verbs and nouns and adverbs are kept in solitary confinement for years and waterboarded until they didn’t know whether they are Arthur or Martha.

Eventually they would be released, blinking myopically in the cold light of day, future imperfect, to “accent” rocket salads with pear slices, make “morsels” of pineapple “glisten”, “aromatic-roast” vegetables and, in one memorable instance, to describe a Spice-Crusted Prime Rib with Whipped Potatoes as “heightened with signature-seasoned gravy”.

After so long in captivity these poor lost souls are then brutally employed to dust and drench/stud/lace/top/splash/garnish/finish/glaze/enrich all manner of morsels/pieces/batons/chunks/explosions and bites in “hand-crafted” sauces and even a “bath” of red curry and coconut milk.

Of course, on occasion, the descriptions can approach poetry, in a sort of infinite monkeys-cum-Alice Through the Looking Glass way …

“A vibrant blossom of magenta cabbage sprinkled with citrus-balsamic dressing and surrounded by petals of cantaloupe and apple … a chunky flavorful soup made with pineapple juice and flavoured with basil, mint and rice wine vinegar spiked [spiked!] with jalapeno peppers … “

… before being shipwrecked on the shore of soups “filled with the flavors of” and a “gourmet vegetarian” meat tortellini.

What any of this means is anybody’s guess but it is cruel and unusual punishment and President Obama should close down this Grammar Gulag as soon as is humanly, or humanely, possible. This was, after all, the Holland America Line.

Our gentle chug from Sydney to New Zealand via to Hobart was peppered with “grill-kissed mushrooms”, “gently minced’ salmon” and on one memorable evening an “autumn-scented” cranberry apple vinaigrette. And we loved every mouthful.

It was, indeed, hard to leave the ship when we finally eased into the harbour at our destination and drizzled the anchor gently into the Wellington waters.


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