What Part of 'On' Don't We Grasp?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A word watcher's work is never done.

Look around and you'll notice that we have recently acquired a new area of gastro-linguistic insecurity. Food writers (and menu writers and even restaurant reviewers) have grown uneasy about how to make the reader grasp something that would seem absolutely simple and familiar. This time the problem is the word "on."

You might not think there could be any confusion if you said that one thing is being served on something else-chicken on greens, fish on pasta, nuts on ice cream or the like. But a couple of years ago, as if there had just been a great disturbance in The Force, food writers around the country suddenly suspected this wasn't enough and started describing such things as being over the other things, or atop them. In the extreme stage of the syndrome, a fried egg may be perched on or even bestriding a steak.

Why should this be? To emphasize the grandeur of the stunningly original idea of putting one thing on top of another? To snatch some of the glamour of Tall Food for something that isn't quite tall? Or is it that writers fear cooking is such a closed book to modern readers that assembling layers of stuff is a brainteaser, or perhaps that a word with only two letters in it might not be long enough to register on the reader?

Sorry for ranting on like this. It's just something that's been atop my mind.

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