Jonathan D. Grinstein, PhD

Science Storyteller & Translator

After working in biotech research for more than a decade, acquiring a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a PhD in biomedical science in the process, I decided to hang up my lab coat, goggles, and gloves. In my last few years working in the lab, I took a step back from the bench and became interested in the seemingly limitless world of biotechnology. This field is helping people fight rare and debilitating diseases, live longer, healthier, and happier, reduce our impact on the environment, feed the hungry, use cleaner energy, and make industrial manufacturing more efficient. Now, using words and microphones, I’ll guide you through this vast landscape of innovation.

Currently, I am a Senior Editor at Mary Anne Liebert Publishers, writing feature articles for several in-house outlets, including magazines Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN) and Inside Precision Medicine as well as GEN Biotechnology, and producing a podcast that is currently in development.

Selected Writing
Playing God with Pork
Swallow the Micro-Robot
Shooting for Longevity and the Stars
*There’s a lot more where that came from

Want to work with me?
Send me an email

Honey Mustard: Optical Illusions And Linguistic Blindspots

I’ll never forget the moment the essential ingredients of ‘honey mustard’ dawned upon my brother and I.

Groaning and whining, we had thrown our hands up in defeat unable to find a jar of the condiment in our pantry to top off our oven-toasted chicken nugget craving.

Then my roommate chimed in: I’m pretty sure we have some honey and mustard.

We were absolutely dumbfounded by the epicurean epiphany.

In shock and disbelief, I immediately looked it up: Honey mustard is a blend of mustard and honey, typically mixed in a 1:1 ratio.

It hadn’t crossed our minds that ‘honey mustard’ was, verbatim, mashed up plant seeds combined with the sweet, viscous food substance produced by a winged insect.

As first generation Americans growing up in a Spanish speaking household, we had only come across honey mustard dining out at delicatessens. It wasn’t something we kept in our pantry, likely because my parents had not grown up with it.

With a humble sigh of relief, I soon learned that my brother and I were not alone. A friend of mine also a first generation American and grew up bilingual–he speaks English and Russian–experienced the same baffling and revelatory moment over the same sauce, honey mustard.

However, I soon discovered a trend about honey mustard–it was literal and self-evident to our English only speaking friends with English only speaking parents.

So: Why did my friend, brother, and I not see honey mustard?

It appeared that the bilingual three of us had a linguistic blind spot. We did not see ‘honey mustard’ as literally two ingredients put together until it was pointed out to us. Our entire lives ‘honey mustard’ was in plain sight, yet it eluded the same code-cracking brains ‘taht can read juembld up wrods.’

Was this a linguistic analogue to an ambiguous image, such as the illusions of the duck-rabbit or Rubin’s vase that can be perceived in two or more distinct forms–you see a duck or a rabbit and a vase or two faces but never the two simultaneously?

Examples of ambiguous images. Duck rabbit illusion (left). Rubin’s vase (right).

Though first generation Americans, this likely was not explained by being unfamiliar with this type of food product or that the translations were wildly unrecognizable–‘mayonnaise’ is ‘mayonesa’ and ‘mayonez’ in Spanish and Russian, respectively.

It also wasn’t because we were unfamiliar with the concept of condiment names either indicating the ingredients from which it is made–guacamole is a blending of the words āhuacatl (avocado) and molli (sauce) from the Aztec dialect Nahuatl–or seemingly having nothing to do with them [1].

It was as if multilingualism was interfering with how we interpreted English words compared to our monolingual, English-speaking peers.

Which led me to think: Does language affect the way a person sees the world?

To illustrate, the English/Russian words for ‘cup’/‘chashka’ and ‘glass’/‘stakan’. English distinguishes between cups and glasses by material whereas in Russian the difference between chashka (cup) and stakan (glass) is based on shape.

But do these seemingly small semantic differences have the capability to influence the way people think and act?

English speakers learning Russian often will reflexively tack on the Russian words ‘chashka’ and ‘stakan’ to the words ‘cup’ and ‘glass’. Interestingly, when tasked with first sorting ‘cups’ and ‘glasses’ into different piles and then re-sorting into ‘chashka’ and ‘stakan’, it has been shown that they will most likely sort them differently according to their mother tongue!

This is a simple and innocuous example of linguistic determinism–the concept that language limits and determines knowledge and thought as well as thought processes such as memory, perception, and, shown with the example of cups and glasses, categorization. The term implies that people who speak different languages have different thought processes.

The poster-child for linguistic determinism is the the Eskimo words for snow. Whereas in the English language there is only one word for snow, Eskimo, the language of an indigenous population to the Arctic, has around 50 words for snow. This enables the Eskimo people to see snow differently; that is, Eskimo people see subtle gradations and features in snow that people speaking other languages do not.

This begs the question: Does linguistic determinism have any real consequences?

After all, languages are a mirror into how communities see the world and how they in turn, see their individual and collective roles within it.

For example, one major differentiator between the two languages I speak is that one, Spanish, is gendered.

But, this only leads to more questions than answers: If a person grows up noting gender at every word, do those habits of speech eventually bind them to a perception of the world as a realm with distinct male and female entities, with strong stereotypes for each? Does language shape how young boys and girls all over the world perceive their educational, economic, and professional opportunities and limitations?

There are many forces at play that shapes a community and an individual, and language certainly appears to be just one of such factor. Nonetheless, language seems to have the power to shape our sense of reality–it is how the human brain normally organizes and interprets sensory stimulation.

For now, at least I can confidently say that differences in native language likely explain why my Russian friend brings me wine glasses when I ask for a paper cup, and it may be why my bilingual brain never saw the literalness of ‘honey mustard’.

[1] A prominent theory for the origin of the word ‘ketchup’ is the blending of words for tomato and sauce in Cantonese.

2 responses to “Honey Mustard: Optical Illusions And Linguistic Blindspots”

  1. This is interesting, thanks. Is there a way to follow this blog? I found it via your recent Scientific American article, by the way:


    1. Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I have added a widget for subscribing to receive my posts via email. You can find it on the right sidebar of any page. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any issues.


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