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.