I wrote this back in 2009 in an attempt to explain a novel term that was puzzling British professionals at the time. Little did I know…
US cook-speak baffles Brits
Reader N. S. (he prefers anonymity) was irritated by a message announcing an upcoming ‘spam-filter bake-off’. ‘I’m pretty sure I know what it means, but I wish they’d write in English, not American. What exactly does it mean, and where did it spring from?’
Sometimes an obscure slang term, the property of a tiny clique, a microniche or microscene, is first adopted by other groups of specialists for their jargon, then crosses over and becomes a respectable technical term – burn, meaning record onto CD or DVD is an example of this, and mashup, denoting a feature edited together from samples, is moving in the same direction. If it fills a crucial gap in the mainstream language such a word might eventually become part of everyday speech – blog is one such. Occasionally, though, this process is stymied by cultural difficulties along the way, as seems to be the case with bake-off where Brits are concerned.
In techno-jargon a bake-off is more properly described as a real-time interoperability testing event and refers to live testing of the functioning and/or compatibility of similar technical products or systems. This may involve, in engineering-speak, threat modelling, identifying and handling edge cases – problems that occur only at extreme operating parameters – and popping the hood (ie revealing the inner workings) of black-box products.
In the USA it can also mean competitive bidding by securities traders for investment banking business, while in media jargon: a script bakeoff takes place when a number of rival writers compete to rewrite part of a flawed movie or TV programme (often contributing ideas for free in the process).
Bake-off is actually a trade-mark whose owners, US food giant General Mills’ Pillsbury subsidiary sent ‘cease and desist’ notices to Columbia University and several software developers in 2001, forbidding them from using the term on their websites. Since 1949 Pillsbury have sponsored a nationwide recipe competition under the title Bake-off, but Columbia riposted that the term had already been in use as engineering jargon for twenty years.
The fact is that baking off just doesn’t feature in the UK’s cooking culture, such as it is, and so the expression continues to sound alien. Baked-off as adjective is slightly different. It’s used in automotive production and furniture design to mean finished off, inspired by the various heat processes used to laminate or seal.
(This first appeared in British Airways‘ Business Life Magazine)