What’s in an “a”?

     Giles Coren – long-time restaurant critic for the London Times Magazine – was very angry one Sunday morning when he read his published review and saw that an editor had gotten rid of the second to last word of his final sentence.

     The edited review read: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.”

     It was supposed to say, “…go for a nosh.”

     Perhaps somebody should have advised Coren to hold his breath and count to 10 – or 100, or 1,000 – before raising hell in an email to the Times’ editors. Or perhaps he would have thought twice about lacing it with more than a dozen F-words had somebody told him it would be leaked to The Guardian and plastered all over the internet.

     I’m glad nobody did though, and he sent the 1,000-word rant – which eventually made its way to me through the October issue of Harper’s Magazine. It is the highlight of the Readings section – a delightful department that offers miscellaneous excerpts of letters, documents, and original stories. 

     Why would an angry email make it to one of the most esteemed literary magazines? Because, despite his frequent use of curse words and berating remarks, Coren is a gifted writer. His insightful and highly structured writing reads more like a well conceived and revised piece of literature than an email.

     “’Nosh’, as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardization of the German ‘naschen’. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, ‘nosh’, means simply ‘food’. You have decided that this is what I meant and removed the ‘a’…the other noun, ‘nosh’ means ‘a session of eating’,” he wrote.

     At other times – to his shame – his ranting makes him sound like a dirty-mouthed baby whining uncontrollably because one of his toys (a word) was taken from him.

     “And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on ‘nosh’ is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable… I have written 350 restaurant reviews for the Times, and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable.  Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

     Putting aside Coren’s blatant overuse of the F-word, he makes a timely point. Words have decreased in value for today’s attention deficient generation. We seek everything fast-paced, short, and to the point.

     The editor who made the fateful error of removing that “a” probably thought people would read over it anyway. I know I would have.

     But removing that indefinite article – however trivial an action – killed the joke inherent in that highly nuanced line.

     “I have set up the street as ‘sexually-charged’,” Coren explained. “I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y. I have used the word ‘gaily’ as a gentle nudge. And ‘looking for a nosh’ has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is Soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. ‘Looking for nosh’ does not have that ambiguity. The joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke.”

     I would have missed the joke had there been an “a” there anyway. Yet I’m grateful Coren was very meticulous in including hidden dimensions in his writing. 

     It took a bold editor from Harper’s, who decided to run an over-the-top foul-cry from a wronged writer, to remind me there is such a thing as substance in today’s mass media – and it can be found in unexpected places such as weekend restaurant reviews.

Cristina Luiggi


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