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source: "Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder" (Second Edition) P397

hypercritical

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If your father asks what you think of his new experimental meatloaf and you say it needs a pinch of oregano, you're being constructive; if you say he should cut down on the sawdust next time, you're probably being hypercritical.

I recognize these words individually, but I fail to figure out the meaning of "cut down on the sawdust".

At first, I misunderstood that it meant "dice the meatloaf on the surface of sawdust" (while wondering whether a layer of sawdust really has a surface). That's why I couldn't get the meaning of the sentence.

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    That's not an example of hypercriticism at all. It could be considered to be hyperbole - it's saying the meatloaf is so dry that it must be made of sawdust, which is almost certainly an exaggeration.
    – Martha
    Feb 5 at 23:24
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    I also think it's not a good example of "hypercriticism" (though the dictionary uses it). And that's another reason I got confused at that time. @Martha
    – Zhang Jian
    Feb 6 at 4:43
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    It's a characteristic of meatloaf that it's made with filler (breadcrumbs) and is drier and less attractive with meat (benefits from gravy). Saying that "your meatloaf should be made less like meatloaf because it's too much like meatloaf", is being "excessively and unreasonably critical". It may not be a good example of hypercritical, but it's certainly an example of hypercritical.
    – david
    Feb 6 at 5:29
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    @Martha : Perhaps the complaint is that there is sawdust present and there should be less. Sawdust is a relatively harmless food additive (high in insoluble fiber). (marketplace.org/2017/11/01/…) Worry more if there is alum (or plaster of Paris) in the bread. (tastingtable.com/1080592/…) Feb 6 at 6:42

2 Answers 2

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It is a joke.

"Cut down" here means "reduce the amount of something". So if you say "cut down on the oregano" that is normal and not a joke.

If you put sawdust in a meatloaf it will make it almost inedible. So if someone asks for a comment about their meatloaf and you say "less sawdust" you are saying that the meatloaf is disgusting.

Meatloaf frequently contains a "filler" like breadcrumbs, to increase the amount, but not costing as much as meat. If a meatloaf has too much filler you might say literally, "cut down on the breadcrumbs". Using sawdust as a filler would be a terrible idea, and the point of the joke is to say something extreme and ridiculous.

It is not a common expression, but the meaning is clear from the literal meaning of the words. The literal meaning is so extreme, it must be a joke.

I know it's not part of the question, but this is not a good example of "hypercritical" which means "excessively critical of unimportant details." When my teacher rejected my essay because the dots were too close to the "i"s she was hypercritical of my writing.

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    There is no necessary implication either that the meatloaf contains any sawdust, or that it is unpalatable. Family mealtime conversations can be jokey. My mother used to say 'How is the pastry, dear?' to my father after he had tried some of her apple pie, and he would often say things like 'We're rich! You've developed a new form of concrete!', or 'Phone the army! This is excellent armour plating'. Things like that. I was struck, at the ages I was, (8 to 12 I suppose) how my mother would smile and laugh merrily, and my father managed to eat all of his slice of pie. Feb 5 at 10:38
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    So "cut down on the sawdust" literally means "put less sawdust onto/into the meatloaf" (which actually means "make the meatloaf less inedible"), right? At first, I misunderstood that it meant "dice the meatloaf on the surface of sawdust" (while wondering whether a layer of sawdust really have a surface). That's why I couldn't get the meaning of the sentence.
    – Zhang Jian
    Feb 5 at 11:54
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    @ZhangJian - meatloaf is made by mixing ingredients together, usually in a bowl. They would include some kind of finely ground or minced meat, and other 'filler' things like breadcrumbs, chopped vegetables, etc. The mixture is then put in a baking tin like those used for loaves of bread (hence the name_ 'meatloaf') and then baked in an oven. It is at the time of mixing that dubious ingredients may be introduced (in meatloaves you can buy in shops). Feb 5 at 15:06
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    @ZhangJian Yes. "cut down" can be an idiom for "reduce". So if you "cut down on something" you reduce the amount of something. (In this case, that something isn't actually present. The implication instead is that the meatloaf seems like it has a large amount of sawdust as an ingredient.) There's no literal cutting involved. (Metaphorically, you can think of the phrase as implying you should take the current amount of sawdust used, "cut" that amount into parts, and then only using one of the "slices" instead of the whole.)
    – R.M.
    Feb 5 at 21:00
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    It’s clear from OP’s comments that their key difficulty was recognising the phrasal sense of “cut down on”, meaning “reduce” — and I guess this would be the same for many other learners. So it might be worth emphasising that point slightly more visibly here — it currently gets a little lost behind the answer’s main focus on explaining the joke.
    – PLL
    Feb 6 at 7:53
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This is actually quite an interesting sentence for an advanced learner; there's a lot going on.

As explained in James K.'s answer, your confusion comes from misunderstanding the phrase 'cut down', which is intended to mean 'reduce' here. This is a metaphorical use of the phrase - you might more literally 'cut something down [to size]'. For example if you have a curtain rod that you plan to shorten you might say 'I will cut down that rod to fit my window'. Note that this is different to 'cut down' as in 'cut down a tree', which you could think of as cutting a tree so it is 'down' on the ground. You misunderstood it to mean 'cut with a knife in a downwards direction', which would in another context have been correct.

The other interesting part of the sentence is the use of sawdust. James K touched on this, but only briefly. Sawdust is relevant to meatloaf for two reasons:

  1. Sawdust is widely used for drying things out, and has a dry, dusty feel. A common issue people have cooking meatloaf is making it too dry. Therefore the speaker is probably saying that his father made the meatloaf too dry.
  2. Butchers used to often be accused of adulterating minced meat with sawdust. Meatloaf normally has breadcrumbs mixed into the meat; this would make sawdust easy to hide. Because of this there is a subtle association of sawdust with meatloaf, and similar foods like sausages.

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