Honey Mustard: Optical Illusions And Linguistic Blindspots

I’ll never forget the moment my brother and I recognized the essential ingredients of ‘honey mustard’. Groaning and whining, we had thrown our hands up in defeat unable to find a jar of the condiment in our pantry to top off our oven-toasted chicken nugget craving. ‘I’m pretty sure we have some honey and mustard,’ said my roommate at the time. We were absolutely dumbfounded by the epicurean epiphany. In shock and disbelief, I immediately looked it up: Honey mustard is a blend of mustard and honey, typically mixed in a 1:1 ratio.

As first generation Americans growing up in a Spanish speaking household, we only came across honey mustard when dining out at a delicatessen. It wasn’t something we kept at home, likely because my parents had not grown up with it. It hadn’t crossed our minds that ‘honey mustard’ was, literally, mashed up mustard plant seeds and the sweet, viscous insect produced food substance.

With a humble sigh of relief, I soon learned that my brother and I were not alone. A friend of mine who is also a first generation American and grew up bilingual–he speaks English and Russian–experienced the same baffling and revelatory moment over the same sauce, honey mustard. However, this relief was short-lived as I soon discovered that the truth about honey mustard was seemingly self-evident for our English only speaking friends with English only speaking parents.

My friend, brother and I, all three of us bilingual, had a linguistic blind spot. We did not see ‘honey mustard’ as literally two ingredients put together until it was pointed out to us. However, this was not the case of an ambiguous image, like the duck-rabbit illusion or Rubin’s vase, that can be perceived in two or more distinct forms–you see either a duck or a rabbit and a vase or two faces but never both simultaneously. Our entire lives ‘honey mustard’ was in plain sight, yet it eluded the same code-cracking brains ‘taht can read juembld up wrods’. Why didn’t we see it?

Examples of ambiguous images. Duck rabbit illusion (left). Rubin’s vase (right).

It wasn’t that we were simply unfamiliar with these products as first generation Americans or that the translations were wildly unrecognizable–in Spanish, ‘ketchup’ is ‘catsup’ and ‘mayonnaise’ is ‘mayonesa’. It also wasn’t because we were unfamiliar with the concept of condiment names either indicating the ingredients from which it is made–guacamole is a blending of the words āhuacatl (avocado) and molli (sauce) from the Aztec dialect Nahuatl–or seemingly having nothing to do with them[1].

Was multilingualism interfering with how we interpreted English words compared to our monolingual, English-speaking peers? Do the languages a person speaks affect the way they see the world? This is exemplified with the English/Russian words for ‘cup’/‘chashka’ and ‘glass’/‘stakan’. English distinguishes between cups and glasses by material whereas in Russian the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape.

But do these linguistic differences have the capability to influence the way people think and act? English speakers learning Russian will tack on the Russian words ‘chashka’ and ‘stakan’ to the words ‘cup’ and ‘glass’. Interestingly, when tasked with first sorting ‘cups’ and ‘glasses’ into different piles and then re-sorting into ‘chashka’ and ‘stakan’, it has been shown that they will most likely sort them differently!

This is a simple and harmless example of how language can affect a person’s situational understanding and, ultimately, behavior. It may also explain why my Russian friend brings me wine glasses when I ask for a paper cup and why my bilingual brain never saw the literalness of ‘honey mustard’.

[1] A prominent theory for the origin of the word ‘ketchup’ is the blending of words for tomato and sauce in Cantonese.

2 thoughts on “Honey Mustard: Optical Illusions And Linguistic Blindspots

    1. Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I have added a widget for subscribing to receive my posts via email. You can find it on the right sidebar of any page. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any issues.


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