Sunday, February 5th, 2012

What do you call that empty space at the top of a beer bottle? There’s already a word for it that goes back centuries, but I don’t think I heard anyone use one word consistently for it until the last five or ten years when I started hanging around beer brewers, who usually call it headspace.

The traditional name for it, going back a few centuries, is ullage. I wanted to find out where the term came from, so I looked it up in a two-volume Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary I snagged at Saint Vinnie’s a couple weeks ago for three bucks, a purchase I am still feeling well chuffed about. I have in my possession, ah, let us say, more than two dictionaries, but I digress. Ullage comes from a French word and, I have to assume, so does the clunky definition in my old dictionary:

ullage: the amount that a container lacks of being full.

“Lacks of being full?” What kind of incomprehensibly uptight way is that to describe a concept as simple as “the empty space above the liquid?” It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I looked it up in a modern edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I have long regarded as the non plus ultra of desk dictionaries. It had the same goofy definition, word for word, as if they’d plagiarized it from Funk and Wagnall’s. I’m not saying they did, but it’s weird that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate described ullage using the exact same, nearly opaque wording that Funk and Wagnall’s did nearly forty years earlier. And so did Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate. What the hell?

Descending to my basement lair, I consulted Volume Two of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language (pock-mark to zy-mur-gy, and supplements) to see if they spoke in this stuffy, backwards-assed manner in the 1920s. Well, duh. Of course they did. Verbatim. Almost as if an Intelligent Designer decreed many moons ago that ullage would for all time be known as “the amount that a container lacks of being full,” no matter how much it makes anyone sound like a complete doof.

Speaking of sounding like a complete doof, I might never have heard of this word if I didn’t incessantly read about the moon landings. Rocket fuel floats around in the tanks that hold it, just like astronauts float around inside their space ships, but like the gas tank in your car there’s only one way for the fuel to get out: through a pipe running from the bottom of the tank. To make sure the fuel is down there to feed the rocket, astronauts give the ship a little jog forward with the maneuvering thrusters just before firing the main engine, which they report to the ground by saying, “Ullage.”

Too bad the landings didn’t take place forty years later, when they could have said, “Headspace.”

ullage | 2:41 pm CDT
Category: hobby | Tags: , ,
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