Cereal is cereal

The most cerious battle of our time.


Brian Brooks, Freelance Writer

In a recent Chimes article, editor-in-chief Christian Leonard made the oft-repeated claim that cereal should be called a soup, based on a definition he found that did not exclude the breakfast meal. While he makes a convincing case using the definition, I believe his overreliance on dictionaries gave his argument a weak foundation. [Note: Christian is a Torrey kid, so this is to be expected. What is more concerning is his overreliance on caffeine pills and memes. -Austin Green, Managing Editor]

Leonard quotes Merriam Webster as having defined soup as “a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food.” On the surface, this distinction seems as if it will serve us well. Scanning our mental checklist of soups, we realize the many constituents it satisfies: lentil, chicken noodle, French onion, gumbo, minestrone and more are all happily described by this definition.

Where Leonard takes the argument too far is in describing a food which the term “soup” was never intended to describe. He says, “cereal, which I mean to refer to as the combination of cereal and milk, is a food group which fits into the more expansive food group known as ‘soup.’” Noting that tomato soup is also a soup, he explains that the term “soup” is so expansive that it somehow includes foods that are simply liquid, implying that if I poured milk into a bowl and ate it like soup, it would then become soup.

The definitions of “soup” and “cereal” as supplied by both Leonard and Webster are simply insufficient, as definitions always are. Words are meant to be servants to reality, not the other way around, and their definitions are replacements for definite objects. Take the word “tree” for instance. Webster defines tree as “a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.” These words might help us to understand a tree if we were somehow ignorant of it, but surely this understanding would be inferior to the understanding one would acquire by simply looking at a tree for oneself and understanding what the word means.

If a person has lived his entire life say, on the treeless terrain of Kerguelen Island in the Indian Ocean, and he attempted to draw his impression of a tree based on that definition, one can only imagine the strange creations which might result from his lack of information.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates describes a “form world” where realities exist in their purest form. There are forms for “courage,” poetry,” even ideal forms for concepts like “chair.” According to Plato, these forms can be accessed by humans if they use their innate knowledge that they have to understand ideas and then attach words to them. In this paradigm, words are servants to reality and have a duty to describe the concepts that are so natural to the human mind, in this case, the idea of “soup.”

The concept of soup is older than the word “soup.” When the combination of letters “S-O-U-P” was given by the Anglo-Saxons to our language, it defined a reality that already existed. That reality did not include breakfast cereal.

In his article, Leonard uses the term “redefine.” By putting it this way, he implies that the term “cereal” is not a soup in its present form and that we must make a change to our language to accommodate this glitch. But surely the reason cereal is not a soup is because no one orders it at Souplantation. “Soup” refers to a food group which is intrinsically different from cereal.

Language was designed for communication, not technicality. Unless Leonard genuinely believes he would be properly understood if he sat down at the breakfast table and told his roommate that he was pouring a bowl of soup, his “redefinition” cannot be accepted on merely technical grounds. Words have meanings. Dictionaries and definitions simply do their best to affirm these meanings. Cereal should not be described as a soup not because it does not, in some semantical way check all of the boxes of “soupiness” but because it is not the sort of thing that is meant by the word “soup.”

There is a temptation to make our categories more airtight than they ought to be. We identify a reality and give that reality a word. If we define a word and then shape reality to fit that term, we define our words out from under themselves and make our language an artificial prison. We saw this with the heartbreaking 2006 demotion of Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet.” We simply must stop the madness. Tomatoes are vegetables, Pluto is a planet and cereal is not a soup.

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