Mark Liberman has an excellent post today about winetalk, the habit that food writers have of attributing a variety of tastes and scents to wine, which are at best dubiously provable by a decent food chemist.
SC has always suspected this sort of talk of being an out-and-out fraud, even though he will happily agree that the products in question often do have fairly unique properties, and are not perfect substitutes. But he'll also concede that in the area of wine tasting, he is a dilletante at best.
However, there's another area where he considers himself expert, and that's audio electronics. In this area, your host is a lot more confident that the terminology is, to put it mildly, bunk.
A long time ago -- right after World War II, really -- there was an explosion in popularity of do-it-yourself kits for building amplifiers and loudspeakers. Not phonographs, which require more sophisticated machine tools to build (making a flat platter to hold records is more difficult than you think, unless you've used a lathe before). The necessary science being well understood by engineers, but not by casual consumers, there was a need for an educated press to explain this stuff and provide credible reviews. Into this void stepped a gentleman named Julian Hirsch, the first serious reviewer of audio equipment. Being a trained engineer, Mr. Hirsch's reviews tended to be long on measurements and short on descriptive language. It might be reasonably contended that he had something of a tin ear; certainly, his loudspeaker reviews of the '80s, '90s and '00s suggested that he wasn't overly bothered by the sound of loudspeakers whose measurements suggested aural disaster (conspiracy theorists would argue that his employer, Stereo Review, simply wouldn't allow anything negative to be said about advertisers).
In reaction to the Hirsch style of reviewing, another gentleman named J. Gordon Holt founded a magazine called Stereophile, dedicated to what he called "subjectivist" reviewing. Mr. Holt's innovation was to bring a limited version of "winetalk" into discussions of the sound of electronic equipment. Holt was generally an honest man, writing at a time when the differences among electronic devices (as opposed to electroacoustic ones, like loudspeakers) were clearly audible. Thus, equipment perceived to emphasize treble sounds might be described by Mr. Holt as "bright", a loudspeaker with heavily distorted bass as "muddy", and an amplifier with diminshed midrange response might be "lean".
This sort of subjective discussion didn't preclude recognition of objective measurements; Holt's negative review of the original Bose 901 loudspeaker contained both flowery winetalk-like language and serious engineering objections.
Over time, though, the differences in sound among amplifiers largely vanished. While vacuum tube-based amplifiers were often prone to complex interactions with loudspeakers, producing recognizable "sounds", solid-state equipment tends to be considerably more predictable. This greatly reduced the credibility of discussion of winetalk-type language in the consumer audio press, except as applied to loudspeakers, which still exhibit considerably more variation in their sounds and interactions with listening rooms than any other piece of equipment.
Since the product changed so drastically, so did the market for audio journalism. There is now a split in the press between Sound and Vision, heir to Stereo Review, where such language never appears (but neither does serious criticism of flaws obvious from the data), and magazines like Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, and The Audiophile Voice strive to pile ever thicker layers of descriptive language onto equipment which is more and more narrowly differentiated in measurable performance. Consider this line from a recent Stereophile review of a vacuum tube-based preamplifier:
In the process, the surrounding instruments became somewhat less mechanical and clattery, and the edge (that harmonica!) got smoothed off some: The Cary, though never dull, was consistently free from treble nasties.
This statement is very hard to reconcile with the published measurements, which indicate that the signal passes through almost perfectly unaltered. In fact, despite the vacuum tube design, its measured performance is indistinguishable from a good-quality solid-state device. (In fairness, tubes can be very linear, low-distortion devices; the difference in performance is almost as much about improved manufacturing tolerances as anything intrinsic to the devices.)
Just as Prof. Liberman notes that winetalk deals with "luxury food products", this sort of talk largely occurs with luxury electronic goods. However, unlike wine, much of it really cannot be "finely differentiated...in a plausibly reproducible way". It is no overstatement to say that if the current purveyors of "audio winetalk" decided to stop speaking as they do, the high-end electronics market would collapse overnight. Certainly, there would be no more market for wires claimed to be "fast and airy", neither of which has ever been demonstrated to correlate with anything reproducible.
Another thing I'm not sure Prof. Liberman is quite right about in his assertion that "other food products like beef and sweet corn have been exempt so far". Certainly, it's not true to the same extent, but some people are trying; witness Omaha Steaks' attempt to label some of their meat "Private Reserve", a name which would hardly look out of place in the wine aisle of your local grocery store. Ditto for some of the claims made about Japanese Kobe beef (described in the link as "sweeter and lighter" than "ordinary" beef), which interestingly is already subject to a certain amount of scientific skepticism. As for corn, well, in San Diego County, at least, the name Chino really does have cachet among the gourmet set as branding for produce -- although SC hasn't yet found anyone saying that the corn displays "a nose of soil and sugar, with just a slight hint of Roundup, and a firm, leather-like finish".
Despite being wildly skeptical about winetalk, SC doesn't let it get in the way of enjoying his electronics hobby. Even when it's very, very hard to be sure that the terms describe anything that really stands out as much as is claimed, there are often real differences in things you can still enjoy: craftsmanship, appearance, ease of use. And the language isn't always inept; sometime in the not-too-distant future, SC will publish a few audio measurements taken around the house to explain why he likes his headphones better than his computer speakers, his home theater setup better than his headphones, and why his current speakers are far from likely to be his last.