Sunday, 9 December 2012

On forgiving

A correspondent writes from the US to ask whether I've encountered the expression ‘a forgiving recipe’. He heard it recently, looked it up in dictionaries, and couldn’t find it. ‘Is it an Americanism?’, he asks.

No, it isn’t. Nigella’s website, for instance, talks about ‘the most forgiving recipe for banana cake ever’, and there are plenty of other examples from both sides of the Atlantic. I don’t know how long it’s been around, though, and it would be interesting to track down an earliest citation. I asked two cooks in my family whether they knew the expression and neither did, so my feeling is that it’s a fairly recent usage.

I’m not surprised that it receives no separate mention in a dictionary, as dictionaries don’t provide a systematic guide to the collocations that belong to a particular meaning. And in the general sense of ‘easy’, ‘safe’, ‘comfortable’, forgiving has been used in a wide range of inanimate contexts – workplaces, enterprises, timetables, climates, surfaces, lights, clothing, and many other nouns have all been described in this way. Quite a common collocation is with piece: a forgiving piece of clothing / machinery / meat... So, as long as a dictionary illustrates from some of these, the broad sense will be covered.

A forgiving recipe, it seems, is one which does not require exact measurements, where some ingredients can be substituted without the result being affected, or where a cook can get it wrong and it still turns out OK. I'd have thought that, in the context of cooking, this usage has moved away sufficiently from the general sense to warrant its appearance as a separate dictionary sub-entry. A couple of dictionaries are already taking notice of it, and I don't think it'll be long before we see it in all of them.


John Cowan said...

Merriam Webster Online gives "allowing room for error or weakness" as the second definition of forgiving, and provides the example "designed to be a forgiving tennis racquet". My feeling is that this sense is fairly commonplace now, at least in the U.S. The opposite of forgiving in this sense, at least in my usage, is brittle.

David Crosbie said...

John Cowan

I think an unforgiving recipe would be pretty transparent. I would struggle to understand a brittle recipe.

David Chapman said...

I would think it is fairly common in the UK, too, with the sense that you are not punished if you get something wrong. So you still get your cake if even if you don't follow the recipe accurately. I would think of the opposite just as 'unforgiving'. So recipes for soufflés are often unforgiving (in my experience, anyway!)

Anonymous said...

In Australia art teachers use the word forgiving to describe the pastel media as it is easily erased and reapplied and so handy for novice artists.

AMK said...

It's a lovely idea. I have always liked the Spanish term "sufrido" (tolerant,suffering?, not demanding... no real equivalent in English), a word used to describe something that is immune to dirt, wear, or mistakes. Not the same, but a similar type of word.

Mark Lansdell said...

A very similar usage exists in medicine, where the term “drug forgiveness” or sometimes “patient forgiveness” refers to how well a drug continues to work despite inevitable missed doses. See e.g.