Wandering around my local supermarket the other day, I began to talk casually with a member of staff I vaguely knew. “What’s your job these days?” I asked. “I’m the ambient stock control manager,” he replied. For a moment, he seemed to say he was the ambulant stock control manager; though staff often talk about goods walking out of the store, I never thought they really meant it. But then I realised what he’d said.
It turns out that ambient, as a bit of food industry jargon, has been around for a decade or two without attracting much attention. The Oxford English Dictionary has traced it back to the early eighties. It mostly turns up in phrases like ambient food (my friend ought to be called the ambient foods stock control manager but nobody in supermarketing has enough time for that).
In its proper meaning, ambient refers to the immediate surroundings of something. It comes from the French ambiant and, further back, from the Latin ambientem, which is from the verb meaning “to go about”. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had taken on its modern meaning in English which the OED comprehensively lists as “lying round, surrounding, encircling, encompassing, environing”. It’s related to ambience, another word with interesting cultural overtones, which also refers to one’s surroundings, but especially to the character and atmosphere of a place.
You might think that ambient is just the adjective from ambience. That is how it was formed in the nineteenth century, but the two words have diverged enough that their associations are different. So ambient music is strictly speaking wrong, as it refers to a style of music with textures but without a beat that aims to create a mood or atmosphere, an ambience in fact.
Engineers and other technical persons use the word correctly when they speak of such matters as ambient temperature, meaning the conditions surrounding some object they’re interested in. This phrase has become so fixed, and is so often how people come across the word ambient, that many seem to think it means “normal room conditions”. That’s not so, of course, as you can talk about the ambient temperature of a lump of iron in a furnace, or of a meteorite in Antarctic ice.
But when food technologists speak of ambient foods, they’re using the term as shorthand for ambient temperature foods (which makes my friend’s job ambient temperature foods stock control manager, which really is a mouthful). You can argue they’re using the word correctly, since they’re speaking of foods that can be stored at the temperature of their surroundings in the store, without needing to be chilled, such as canned foods, jars of coffee, fresh fruit or bags of sugar. But I’ve also come across ambient fishmonger, a wonderfully gnomic phrase meaning one of those guys who sells unrefrigerated fresh fish.
You have to admit there’s an ambience about ambient.