Column: Sure bet about sherbet

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Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Who doesn’t like a good ice cream cone during summer? Lactose-intolerant people. Intolerance aside, I want everyone to be able to stomach this column, so I’ll do my best to steer clear of Bessie.

Today I’m tackling the words sherbet, sherbert and sorbet.

First, what is sorbet? Sorbet is a frozen dessert made from frozen water and juice. That’s it. No dairy. And it’s pronounced the way you would talk about the Chesapeake Bay if someone punched it over and over: sore-bay. The word sorbet is derived from the Arabic verb “sariba” (to drink). Interestingly, we also get the words sherbet/sherbert and syrup from sariba.

I know I promised to avoid dairy in this column, but we have to discuss sherbet, which is basically all the coldness of ice cream without any of the taste. Yes, sherbet does contain milk. Start with a pureed base of fruit and sugar, add some cream or milk, and then freeze. However, make sure that your frozen concoction contains between 1 and 2 percent dairy fat or it can’t be considered sherbet.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up calling sherbet “sherbert.” As in, “Sure, Burt ol’ buddy, I will go to the park to feed pigeons with you.” As I evolved from Bookish Boy into Grammar Guy, I just knew that “sherbert” was incorrect and that “sherbet” (pronounced sher-bit) was correct.

They’re both technically correct.

I told you I didn’t want to be intolerant (lactose or otherwise) today. Yes, both spellings and pronunciations of sherbet and sherbert are correct. Although “sherbet” is the overwhelmingly more common spelling, both spellings came about when the word was adapted into English around the early 17th century. “Sherbet” (the spelling and the pronunciation) is much more common. Although the Oxford English Dictionary considers “sherbert” a misspelling of “sherbet,” I side with the U.S.-based people at Merriam-Webster who see “sherbert” as a lesser-used variant of “sherbet.”

Don’t snooze on popular culture to throw a wrench into things, though: remember the 1939 Tommy Dorsey hit “Shoot the Sherbert to Me Herbert”? This late-30’s earworm used “sherbert” to rhyme with “Herbert.” This song was undoubtedly inspired by the late-20’s jazz rag “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream.” The lyrics even nod to the lactose-heavy song that drove the youngsters mad in the 1920s. I think the “sherbert” pronunciation owes at least some of its lesser-used popularity to this song.

So, whatever your flavor this summer, make sure to go easy on people who say “sherbert,” as they aren’t technically wrong.


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