Commentary: Learning the word “ullage”
By Jim Schuh
Not long ago, I learned a new word. It’s a word I like, and until now, it’s been missing from my vocabulary. I intend to use it because its meaning describes what we seem to be experiencing more often these days.
Each of us has the daily opportunity to learn words that haven’t graced our vocabulary before. No doubt, some of us have no interest in picking up new words, thinking we can get along just fine with the ones we know and use. While that’s true, it’s still fun to discover new ways of expression and prove that you’re not dead.
By now you may be curious about my recently-discovered word. So I’ll tell you: it’s “ullage.” Pronounce it “ULL-ij.”
My new word has two meanings. The first is: “the amount by which the contents fall short of filling a container, as a cask or bottle.” The second: “the quantity of wine, liquor, or the like, remaining in a container that has lost part of its contents by evaporation, leakage, or use.”
I plan to use the word the way the first definition puts it. That’s because of what I experience nearly every time I open something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bag of potato chips, a box of crackers or a can of Chinese noodles – none is filled to the top. The containers include small print that tries to get us to believe their excuse that “contents may have settled during shipment.” I don’t buy it – there’s no way the contents could have settled to take up just one-half of the container’s interior space. Plain and simple, giving us a partially-filled bag, box or can when we pay for what we think is a full measure is dishonest – call it cheating or thievery.
Big companies get away with “ullage” by listing weights on the package. The weights make no sense – who sets out to buy a package that weighs eight-and-a-quarter ounces? Nobody. (Originally, the container held one pound.)
The peculiar weights food manufacturers give us result from many instances of downsizing the package. In this country, we’ve bought items by the pound for at least a good part of our history. But food manufacturers or processors changed all that by continually reducing the size of what they sell to us, without reducing the price.
Cans of vegetables always used to be a pound, but somewhere along the way, the contents shrunk to 15-ounces.
Today, you’ll find 14-ounce cans. Can 13-ounce versions be far behind?
Whatever happened to a pound of bacon? While you still might find that size in a butcher shop, the stuff the supermarket offers has fallen to 10-ounces and maybe even less. Since bacon is no good for you, maybe the marketers should be hustling their scaled-down packages as being “healthier” because they’re not giving us as much to eat.
Even potato chips used to come in pound packages. It’s true you can still find a few local brands that package their chips in one-pound containers, but the popular brands keep shrinking the packages. You now find them coming in nine-and-a-quarter ounce bags and maybe even less. If the manufacturer tries to hoodwink us by listing the weight in grams, the result is still odd – 241 grams.
Some years ago, while writing on this topic of downsizing, I cited Cheetos for scaling back the contents of their bags.
I concluded that sooner or later, a bag of Cheetos will shrink so that it contains just one Cheeto.
At our house, we like La Joy rice noodles – the crunchy ones that come in a can. They’re a great topping for Chinese dishes. But the last time we opened a can, it was slightly over half-full (or half-empty, depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist.). The contents did settle while shipping, but I have a question to ask the manufacturer: Isn’t technology sufficiently developed so that you could figure out a way to give us a full can? May I suggest that you install machines that shake the cans to settle the contents and then fill in the empty space before sealing so that we get a full can.
What about toilet paper? The vanishing act is visible there, too. Someday, look at how much space there is between the toilet paper roll and the receptacle that holds it. You’ll find the paper width has narrowed. The producers also have figured out how to fluff up the paper so that it still looks like you’re getting a decent-sized roll, but in fact, they’re giving you fewer sheets on each roll.
I haven’t figured out a way to solve the downsizing problem. Complaining about it doesn’t produce results. I remember writing to one company to express my annoyance at finding it had cut the size of its package to some odd-numbered volume, like 13-5/8 ounces. Incredibly, a spokesperson responded that “our customers are asking for that size package.”
Shaming producers publicly doesn’t work, either because they don’t pay any attention to criticism. So we have two choices – refuse to purchase products that keep reducing volume or succumb to the manufacturers’ dishonest tactics and just buy it. I don’t like either of those choices.
At the very least, I now know that “ullage” describes the empty space in the containers. And a few might favor having the Gazette apply “ullage” to this column!