The Effects of Attention Deficit Bureaucracy on Linguistic Inquiry

This morning, for breakfast, we had toasted thin bagels topped with cream cheese, purple onion, capers, and smoked salmon. I had mine open-faced;  as in an open-faced sandwich. While I was eating my breakfast, I wondered aloud where the term “open-faced” came from. And I wondered why we don’t call sandwiches between two pieces of bread “closed-faced.” At least I don’t. My wife didn’t know, either. So, after breakfast, I began the exploration.

The first bit of information I came upon surprised me. According to the Merriam-Webster “time-traveler” online resource, the first recorded use in print of the term “open-faced,” with the meaning corresponding to its use with “sandwich,” occurred in 1917. In that same year, dozens and dozens of other words and terms enjoyed their print debut, according to Merriam-Webster. Those words include:

  • coldcock
  • extrovert
  • eyewear
  • macular degeneration
  • slinky

The “time-traveler” stipulates that each word or term first appeared in print associated with a specific definition. So, it’s certainly possible the words appeared earlier, but with different meanings.

The explanation of the etymology of “open-faced” was bare and insufficient, in my opinion, so I kept looking. According to the Collins Dictionary, the first usage appeared in 1787. However, Collins’s presentation suggests the term’s usage might have been in connection with a meaning unrelated to sandwiches. Interestingly, Collins says the term is used rarely; it is in the lower 50% of commonly-used words in the Collins Dictionary.

Still, I had no explanation of why “open-faced” would be used in connection with sandwiches and, moreover, why sandwiches whose contents were between two pieces of bread are not called “closed-face.” The search continued. And I discovered that the term “closed-face sandwich” is both used by and defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA defines a closed faced sandwich as (according to the Michigan state paper noted below):

Product must contain at least 35 percent cooked meat and no more than 50 percent bread. Sandwiches are not amendable [sic] to inspection. … Typical “closed-faced” sandwiches consisting of two slices of bread or the top and bottom sections of a sliced bun that enclose meat or poultry, are not amendable [sic] to the federal meat and poultry inspection laws. Therefore, they are not required to be inspected nor bear the marks of inspection when distributed in interstate commerce.

According to a Michigan State Universtiy College of Agriculture and Natural Resources paper written by Laura McCready, quoting a December 11, 2007 St. Petersburg Times article written by Bill Adair,

“New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted the difference of closed face sandwiches versus open-faced sandwiches during a speech, “A ham and cheese sandwich on one slice of bread is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects manufacturers daily. But a ham and cheese sandwich on two slices of bread is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration, which inspects manufacturers about once every five years.”

Still, no explanation of why the terms are used. “Faced?” Sandwiches have faces? And what kind of bureaucratic madness leads to assignment for regulation of sandwiches to different agencies based purely on the presence or absence of a single slice of bread?!!

My interest in linguistic aberrations is waning, replaced by a burning desire to write an angry rant about the absurdities of governmental regulations. Of course, my insistence that my rant be factual rather than purely emotional would require me to verify that the regulations referenced by then-Senator Clinton were, indeed, as she said and, further, that they remain in effect. I’m not in the mood for research into a government that presently is in the process of being disassembled by an egotistical narcissist who should be, I fervently believe, physically removed from office and chained to a ten-thousand pound anchor that subsequently is dropped into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and, after two hours, retrieved and put away. But I digress.

Consider the state of the English language if it were regulated by the U.S. Congress, subject to the approval or disapproval of a barely coherent ape in an orange jumpsuit. We all would be speaking in single syllable sentences no more than six words long; the definitions of the words would depend on whether the speaker and the audience were Democrat, Republican, Independent, or intelligent.

Not that it truly matters, but according to the Merriam-Webster time-traveler, a year before “open-faced” was first used in print to describe sandwiches, the term “snake oil” and the words “sociopathic” and “sanitorium”  were first used in print. I can’t help but think there’s more than coincidence at play here. Whenever I think of the weapon of mass ignorance occupying the White House, I receive signals from the universe that tell me, in not-so-cryptic language, that “attention must be paid.”

All of this from a simple question about descriptive language applied to food. Just imagine what might happen if I invested a great deal of time investigating serious questions about differences in intellectual dimensions of women versus men or Ethiopians versus Chileans. The end result could be an eighty-thousand word essay on the relationship between the Bible and modern-day video games.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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