Translating Italics

My recent pattern for breakfast has been a slice of whole-grain toast with peanut butter.  As I was twist-tying the loaf, I found myself skimming over the nutrition facts instead of putting the loaf back in the pantry.  I wasn’t trying to see if I was eating the healthiest bread on the planet or making sure the ingredients didn’t list anything GMO.

I was stuck on the fat.  Not on the total fat, or even the saturated fat.  I didn’t even notice whether the numbers were higher than zero.

Trans fat.  Written just like that, with one word italicized.  I heard the snobby voice inside my head say it, dragging out trans like a suspicious sales pitch.

So I pitched the loaf back into the pantry.

For some reason, no other word on the nutrition facts was italicized.  I began rummaging around in my pantry to read more nutrition facts (and finding some foods past their expiration date). Trans fat was italicized on some boxes, and on other boxes was written regularly like the other upright-standing words.  But no other word was italicized.  Only trans.

So why this tilted transformation?

My money was on the whole trans fat scare.  For years, trans fat wasn’t on our nutritional radar, and then all of a sudden it was the trending topic every media outlet fearfully talked about.  The talk was justified.  Trans fat raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol, causing clogged arteries, inflammation, weight gain, and heart disease.  It’s the baddest fat in town.

It only made sense to me that trans fat was italicized to attract the customer’s attention, a marketing tactic to show just how little or none at all a product had of this bad fat.  It worked on me.  I was minding my own business, twist-tying the loaf, when all of a sudden my eyes zoomed in on the one word that wasn’t as vertical as the others.

Italics are attention-getters.  We use italics to emphasize our point (like that this fat is trans fat), to express the words a character thinks in a story, to highlight vocabulary words in a text book, to point out algebraic symbols in a math problem, to note titles of novels and of ships.

Not only does it appear differently, but we also read it differently.  We drag out the vowels and linger on the consonants, cementing these special words into our brains as if they foreshadow some hidden meaning later in the writing.

What makes the italic type so enticing is that it looks handwritten, even though it is obviously printed by the ink of a machine.  The slant is reminiscent of a cursive-scrolled letter, written for our eyes only.  The words become an intimate setting where we anticipate personal secrets or enlightened revelations.

And that’s why I leaned in for trans fat.

I did my research on trans fat.  According to the FDA website, trans fat is in italics to indicate its Latin origin, meaning “across.”  Like English texts that use an occasional word in French or Spanish or Italian, the nutrition facts italicized trans fat to point out that it’s the only non-English word on the chart.

So the choice for italics was a factually proper (and perhaps snobby) decision.

This takes me back to cocktail parties when someone in the conversation word-bombs foreign phrases, wanting only to size up the others with his or her superior intelligence.  And there’s a difference between someone who is worldly and someone who snooty, for the worldly person would use the phrase as casually as any other word in the sentence while the snooty one would stretch out their precious phrase as long as their breath (and their listeners) can tolerate.

Even dialogue isn’t transparent.


  1. Capital letters do a similar thing in text. There was a blog I was making an Attempt to Follow, but I just Can’t Do it, because the author has a habit of capitalizing every word in a sentence that could be construed as the least bit important—as I have demonstrated in the beginning of this sentence. It is crazy-making because capitalized words, like italics, require a different reading voice in our heads, a special important “title” voice. This can be used to great effect, but when it’s used every other word it creates something really difficult to read.

    I’m enjoying this blog; you’re a great writer and it’s fun to see what you’ve been up to since Ireland!

    1. Ah, random capitalizations are a writer’s pet peeve! It’s as if the writer is brainstorming a self-branding catchphrase (copyright yet to follow). But these words are instead read with a booming, resonating voice inside my head. You are spot-on: that thunderous voice should be saved for a title, echoing like a theme while we read as a reminder of the purpose of the piece. And not to mention taking away grammatical credibility from the writer or the star-quality from words that are capitalized correctly…

      I’m glad to see you’re well and still writing years after our adventuring in Ireland! I see that your forthcoming books have an Irish quality to them. Keep me posted on their publication 🙂

  2. Eccentric Capitalisation amuses me greatly so long as I am not trying to extract meaning, comprehension, etc from the text. It used to be much more common in written English than it is now (I’m thinking of writers like Andrew Marvell and Dr Johnson, who capitalised almost anything they could get their hands on)…I wonder why this is? Changing styles, I guess.

    The FDA’s claim that ‘trans’ is italicized because it is a furrin word seems bizarre at best. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that was not the only Latin origin word on the label, given how many Latin origin words English has. Secondly, even if that were true, who cares? Why do they think consumers need to know when they’re reading a word of Latin origin? How is that going to help anyone, in any universe? When a customer is making informed decisions about the nutritional value of the food they are about to get outside of, they are probably (insert italics and heavy sarcasm here) indifferent to the etymology of the words they’re reading.

    In summary: Bah!

    1. I love the rant! Anyone that gets that worked up about words is a friend in my book. And I love books.

      The FDA allows free speech on a food’s nutrition facts when it comes to trans fat, so the company can choose whether or not to put it in italics (the FDA site says it “may be italicized to indicate its Latin origin”). So my best guess is that many companies italicize it to attract attention to its low trans fat content. Or maybe they received too many angry letters from linguists, historians of ancient Rome, and freelance proofreaders. Or maybe they’re afraid of stepping on the FDA’s toes.

      But I’ll end my government rant here.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! Feel free to speak your mind here.

      1. Hurray, let’s be friends! 🙂 I like your blog a lot. And words are always worth ranting about.

        I’m still baffled as to why the FDA feels the need to mention in the first place that it “may be italicized to indicate its Latin origin”. WHY?? Can food companies bold words of Greek origin? Or put words of Middle English origin (like fat) in brown type? (Brown indicates a murky past.)

        Sighs.. I used to work in a job which required me to know about UK food labelling law. We have some similarly arcane and risible nonsense.

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