Caviar to the general

S. Upendran

Caviar to the general
No need for inferences or implications — we give it to you straight! KNOW YOUR ENGLISH What is the difference between ‘infer’ and ‘imply’? (S. Gayathri, Madurai) There is a big difference in meaning between the two verbs. In an everyday conver...
No need for inferences or implications — we give it to you straight!
KNOW YOUR ENGLISH

What is the difference between ‘infer’ and ‘imply’? (S. Gayathri, Madurai)

There is a big difference in meaning between the two verbs. In an everyday conversation, it is usually the speaker who ‘implies’, and based on what he has said, the listener ‘infers’. When a speaker ‘implies’, he attempts to get his message across in an indirect manner. He does not state anything explicitly; he merely provides hints to the listener as to what the message is. For example, instead of saying that the VC is always late for meetings, he might say, ‘The VC is not known for his punctuality’. Using the hints, the listener reads between the lines and tries to figure out what the speaker is saying. This process of deducing what someone has said is called ‘inference’. When a listener ‘infers’ he tries to figure out the meaning on his own. There may be times when he completely misinterprets the message.

The CEO seemed to imply that more people are likely to be laid off soon.

I inferred from your body language that you don’t like the VC.

What is the meaning and origin of ‘caviar to the general’? (R Yukti, Hyderabad)

This is an expression that I have not heard anyone use in a while. The Swan of Avon, Shakespeare, coined it in his well-known tragedy, Hamlet. Before dealing with the expression itself, let us first deal with the pronunciation of ‘caviar’ — it is also occasionally spelt ‘caviare’. The vowel in the first syllable is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’, ‘bat’ and ‘hat’, while the following ‘i’ sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘sit’, ‘chit’ and ‘knit’. The final ‘ar’ is like the ‘ar’ in ‘bar’, ‘car’ and ‘scar’. No matter how you spell the word, it is pronounced ‘KA-vi-aa’, with the stress on the first syllable. The word literally means ‘egg’; more specifically, the eggs of a fish. Nowadays, the word is mostly used to refer to the eggs from a relatively large fish like the sturgeon — especially those found in the Caspian and Black seas. Caviar is considered to be a delicacy; it is expensive, and not everyone enjoys eating it. The ‘general’ in the expression, ‘caviar to the general’, does not refer to any General in the army; it refers to the common man, the general public. If you were to give caviar to the common man on the street, would he be able to appreciate the delicacy? He would probably be too ignorant to truly appreciate it. Therefore, when you say that something is like caviar to the general, what you are suggesting is that although it is something that is really good or of very high quality, it is unlikely to be appreciated or liked by the general public. The common man is not sophisticated enough to truly appreciate its worth. Another expression which has a similar meaning is, ‘casting pearls before swine’.

I thought my favourite director’s latest movie was brilliant. It was, however, caviar to the general. It flopped miserably at the box office.

The critics raved about my friend’s play but it largely remained caviar to the general.

“Don’t leave inferences to be drawn when evidence can be presented.”

-Richard Wright

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