Chinese food for thought

Somewhere on Shattuck Avenue, there is a sign that haunted me for nearly an entire summer. “CHINESE GOURMET FOOD,” it advertises. The phrase evokes the same feeling I get a couple of days before a midterm or when I’ve held in my pee so long that I’m at the point of forgetting it: “Something is terribly wrong — but what?”

For most people, instinct says that “gourmet Chinese food” is correct, but don’t the two mean the same thing? I spent hours pondering this. “Chinese,” I reasoned, is an adjective, and adjectives always qualify nouns. It couldn’t possibly qualify “gourmet” unless it were an adverb. So whether you say “gourmet Chinese food” or “Chinese gourmet food,” you ought to be referring to food that is both cooked in the Chinese style and of gourmet quality. Right?

Here’s the thing. While the word “Chinese” is an adjective, it turns out that the word “gourmet” is not. The latter is a noun referring to a food connoisseur. (Also, whoever decided the spelling of “connoisseur” should be made to suffer for every person who ever had to memorize that word. Just a thought.) “Gourmet” functions as a noun adjunct modifying “food” — think of a car park or field hockey — which is all fine and dandy, but it means Chinese gourmet food and gourmet Chinese food are not the same. Gourmet Chinese food is Chinese food of gourmet quality. Chinese gourmet food, presumably, is food made for/by/from Chinese gourmets. Hopefully not that last one, but we can never know.

Just to confirm my findings, a Google search will show that there is a general order of adjectives for the English language in which more important adjectives are placed nearer the noun in a series. This order is why “Chinese gourmet food” sounds so instinctively wrong to many English speakers even though they probably didn’t learn it in school. (I didn’t, at least.) Whether the restaurant’s food is of gourmet quality is subjective. Whether it is Chinese, however, can be fairly easily observed — even if your conception of Chinese food is as crude as Patrice Wilson’s. Moreover, “Chinese,” being an adjective of origin, is higher in the adjectival hierarchy, so it ought to be placed closer to the noun it qualifies.

So the takeaway is this: Chinese gourmet food and gourmet Chinese food are not the same thing. Also, if you are the kind of person who will obsess over two words in a Chinese restaurant advertisement all summer, don’t look out the window on bus rides.