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causing a strong feeling of either liking or disliking
'Bleaklow is among a number of mountains listed in the latest edition of Trail Magazine as a "Marmite Mountain" – one people either love or hate.'GO Outdoors 22nd February 2011
'Our Edinburgh show was very marmite with critics – either four/five stars, or – a couple of times – one star!'The New Current 13th March 2011
Among the idiosyncrasies of British cuisine is Marmite, a strong, dark paste made of yeast extract and traditionally spread on bread. However, unlike the quintessentially English delicacies of fish and chips or afternoon tea, Marmite provokes very strong reactions. Its distinctive, very powerful flavour means that what is nectar to some palates is poison to others, and its capacity to make people smile with pleasure or gag in sheer disgust has had such an impact that, remarkably, the word marmite has now been adopted as an adjective. In informal British usage, marmite is being used to fill a gap in the lexicon for describing something that people either love or hate.
marmite can modify a broad range of concepts, abstract or concrete – mountains, golf courses, managers, accents, book titles, cars and electronic games
If something is described as marmite, then there's no way you can be indifferent about it or express minor shades of like or dislike. No, if it's marmite, then its very nature forces you to firmly sit in either the 'love it' or 'hate it' camp. Of course among the most obvious candidates for marmite status are artistic creations, things that people are conventionally permitted to have strong feelings about without any fear of recrimination, so that the word regularly crops up in descriptions of music, architecture, theatre or cinema. Correspondingly, though marmite would seem a contentious way of describing a person, it does pop up in descriptions of actors, musicians or other celebrities whose performances provoke strong positive or negative reactions. That said, a brief analysis of web-based evidence suggests that marmite can modify a broad range of other concepts, abstract or concrete – mountains, golf courses, managers, accents, book titles, cars and electronic games are just a few of the things that I've seen described as marmite. However, perhaps because there's something incongruous about using it in relation to taste, it doesn't seem to apply to food. Though there are many foodstuffs which evoke love or hate reactions – think tripe, caviar, or olives – describing them with the word marmite just doesn't seem to work!
English has adopted a range of brand names or trademarks into broader linguistic usage; classic examples are Thermos, Hoover and, more recently, google. However such names have conventionally converted to general nouns or verbs based closely on the concepts themselves. Marmite, by contrast, represents a more unusual example because it functions as an adjective, and has less of a 'literal' meaning (i.e. its meaning is projected from a reaction to the product, rather than the product itself).
Marmite the adjective can be used either attributively or predicatively. Its meaning is not yet always felt to be completely transparent, so that, as exemplified in the first citation above, users will often follow it up with an explanatory sub-clause along the lines of: '… you either love it or hate it'. As well as adjective use, it also often crops up as a noun with the same metaphorical interpretation, so that we see examples such as: the building is the architectural equivalent of Marmite, or: that film was cinematic Marmite.
Marmite spread was first produced in Britain in 1902. The name of the product was based on the French word marmite, an earthenware casserole dish that the product packaging was originally based on. Marmite quickly became notorious for evoking a polarized reaction from consumers, and marketing campaigns have consistently capitalized on this, adopting the advertising slogan: "love it or hate it". It is of course this concept's enduring resonance with the public that has led to marmite's newly acquired adjective status.
The Antipodean equivalent of Marmite is the product Vegemite, but there is as yet no real evidence of a parallel adjective use of vegemite in Australian English – perhaps because Vegemite has a milder flavour and therefore doesn't provoke the same reactions of extreme like or dislike.
Read last week's BuzzWord. Content farm and other farming metaphors.
This article was first published on 11th April 2011.
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