Sun, Aug 28, 2005 - Page 9 News List

'Muffin-top:' A bellybutton flasher losing the battle of the bulge

A muffin is small cake which rises above its container with the result that the top hangs over the base of the cake, the perfect image for a fashion faux pas


The fashion world is a fecund, fruitful and fertile source of metaphoric phrases. (Funny, that all these synonyms for "productive" begin with f.) In 1999, an outbreak of bare midsections in the fashion world led this department to a midriff riff: I expressed my preference for the informal term bellybutton to be written as a single word, on the analogy of bellyache; this stand was opposed by a legion of navel-gazers who preferred a two-word usage, on the analogy of belly dancer. The dispute has never been resolved.

We now turn to a related locution spawned by the sight of as much as 15cm of stomach bulging out below a short blouse and above hip-clinging "low-rise" jeans.

When the wearer's abdomen is flat, a display of flesh above and well below the bellybutton produces an eye-catching picture of what the <> in Britain has called "the Britney belly-flash." However, when the wearer's midriff is flabby, a vivid culinary metaphor is used: muffin-top. As every baker knows, a muffin is a small cake that rises above its metal container. When removed from the pan, its shape is round, with the top hanging over the base of the cake like a small, harmless mushroom cloud.

"Muffin-Top Mayhem!" was the headline in the New York Daily News this summer, atop a picture of a woman whose midriff was overhanging her belt. The unfortunate loser of this battle of the bulge was said by the writer, Mark Ellwood, to be called a muffin-top. He defined the display as "the unsightly roll of flesh that spills over the waist of a pair of too-tight pants." The locution is not sexist: A male actor, usually characterized as a "screen hunk," photographed in such a state is called a stud-muffin-top. (I am indebted to Ann Wort of Washington for this citation.)

Rarely can slang lexicographers find "first use" of such a phrase, but blogging helps: Coinage is claimed by a Netizen named Dyske Suematsu, who proudly informs the Internet set of having sent the compound noun to in May 2003.

Anatomically, muffin-top fills a lexical void. Nearest to a synonym (with over 150,000 Google hits) is "love handles," a jocularly euphemistic neologism of the late '60s, defined in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as "a bulge of fat at the side of the waist." But the love handles (usually plural) are exclusively on or above the hips; the muffin-top describes the roll of excess flesh spilling out primarily in front but possibly all around.


"Metaphors matter," Jagdish Bhagwati writes in the Wall Street Journal. The university professor of economics and law at Columbia suggested a new vocabulary for global trade featuring a "kaleidoscopic comparative advantage." He prefers this trope to Tom Friedman's word picture of the new economic world being flat.

Offhandedly, Bhagwati used another word calling up an even more vivid image: "It turned out that the Japanese were real klutzes in the financial sector."

For the skinny on klutz, I turned to Sol Steinmetz, one of the world's great lexicographers. He has just turned out the invaluable and scholarly Dictionary of Jewish Usage, a guide to the use of Jewish terms (Roman & Littlefield, US$49.95) that shows how Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic words are being absorbed into the English language.

Take klutz, defined as "a clumsy person." Steinmetz informs me that the word that has largely replaced the English oaf in common usage is from the Middle High German klotz, "block, log, tree trunk," and that "the Yiddish word took on the figurative meaning of `fool, blockhead.' It came into English in the 1930s, first found in print in Meyer Levin's 1936 novel, The Old Bunch: `He's a klotz. He can't do no repairs. He got wooden fingers.'"

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