A White Amorphous Mass


I’m here to ruin a word for you: EMULSIFY.

milk not pictured

Because I was a kid who read a lot, once I hit college or so, it was noticeable and memorable to me when I encountered a word (outside an Obvious Learning Situation like a class/reading) that I didn’t know the meaning of. (It still is! I can tell you exactly where I was when I first encountered “bespoke” and “excoriate.”)

So I remember hearing “emulsify” and going WTF: it was from my hair person at the time, who was explaining a product she believed would meet my “like I just got out of salt water” needs (this was before there were like 25 products marketed to do exactly that). I looked it up and found something like “a mixture that results when one liquid is added to another and is mixed with it but does not dissolve into it” and went on with my life.

But when Bill made a beurre blanc the other night, I got to wondering where on earth the word came from. I figured the answer was “chemistry all the way down” and it sort of is but also NOT.

All from etymonline:

Emulsify: 1853, from Latin emuls-, past participle stem of emulgere “to milk out” (from assimilated form of ex“out;” see ex-; + mulgere “to milk,” from PIE root *melg- “to rub off; to milk”) + -fy. Related: emulsified.

Emulsion” seems to have a related but earlier, more directly from French history:

1610s, from French émulsion (16c.), from Modern Latin emulsionem (nominative emulsio), noun of action from past participle stem of emulgere “to milk out,” from assimilated form of ex “out” (see ex-) + mulgere “to milk” (from PIE root *melg- “to rub off; to milk”). Milk is a classic instance of an emulsion, drops of one liquid dispersed throughout another.

Are you feeling a way yet? Well here is *melg itself:

Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to rub off,” also “to stroke; to milk,” in reference to the hand motion involved in milking an animal. Compare *g(a)lag-.

Maybe none of this bothers you, and in that case, please enjoy your new knowledge next time you have hollandaise!

But for me, something about the “to milk out” verb (I mean just what is “out” doing there? It could be a lot of things but it’s weird) and the rub off/hand motion business just makes me not want this near my delicately pan-fried fish. And then, right there in “emulsion,” we learn that MILK ITSELF is an emulsion. Fat suspended in water. DID YOU KNOW THIS? Maybe everyone does! I find it upsetting.*

So I cannot tell you whether “to milk out” means “to make the milkiest version of itself,  just all white and creamy and  bodily-fluidy, maybe involving some hand motions” or just “to make like milk insofar as milk is one thing suspended in another thing, NBD” (cf “trick out“), but I’ll only ever be able to picture the former.

Also: I had to move the 1934 Websters International to my office (for Renn reasons, so I don’t mind), and one thing that means is that when I get to wondering, my first stop now is usually etymonline and then at some point mid-writing I’ll go “oh, let’s go see what crazy 1934 uncle (h/t Drew Jameson) has to say about this!” In this instance, I am sorry to tell you that it makes it all even worse.

Ok, first it’s actually better, because hey-o, look at “emulsion”: the “milk” is just ALMOND MILK! I mean, they even have that shit at Starbucks nowadays. And then there’s “emulsin,” which no one ever uses and is RIPE for co-opting as a term for such white amorphous masses as: (and please go here for more)

But when 1934 Websters tells me to “see ___” whatever other word, I usually indulge it.

JESUS. Every word in these definitions makes my relationship with vinaigrette more fraught. Did you think you were going to read a sentence today that ended “and so producing the urine”? It’s Saturday! Ugh.

And are you even ready for the “emu” connection? 

JK, no emu connection! The emu was just a red herring.

fine, herringS

Good luck out there,


*I wish to note that if all this milk business was clearly referencing breast milk, I would be singing a different, defiantly pro-human-lactation tune.** See posts on “nourish” and “galactagogue“.

**I can’t bring myself to click on any of these but THEY EXIST.

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