The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu 

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu 
Dan Jurafsky
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

Fresh. Delicious. Perfectly cooked (oh, how I hate that one). The way we talk about food, especially how it’s described on menus, plays a huge role in how much we’re going to end up paying for those same dishes.

Dan Jurafsky’s amusing and informative book The Language of Food looked at thousands of menus from all types of restaurants. Fancy restaurants with “five-dollar” words on the menu charge more money for their dishes, But beware any place telling you the food is fresh, real (as in maple syrup), or crispy — because don’t you already assume that the food in restaurants is fresh and real? As Willy Shakes said, “I think thou doth protest too much.”

Menus aren’t the only thing Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University discusses in his book. He spends a lot of time looking at the origin of food words and how they morphed as food culture was carried with explorers to new countries. Ice cream, for instance, started as flavoured syrups used in drinks in the Middle East and Persia. Then the Chinese discovered that salt-peter used in gun powder made ice really, really cold and that process also moved east where it was used on those syrups to make the frozen treat sherbet. It didn’t take long for someone to start flavouring milk and cream and using the same process, and voila — ice cream.

I most enjoyed Jurafsky’s chapter on food marketing in which he discusses the copy used on packaged food to make it seem more real or authentic. The next time you pick up a bag of fancy potato chips, scan the text on the bag to see how often the chips are referred to as natural, old style, authentic (or authentic recipe, process, etc), and how many times the text refers to small batch, family-run business, small town, etc. It seems so cynical, but this simple choice of language on the package totally influences how we buy junk food like potato chips, as well as how much we’ll pay for that product.

There’s a very sciencey chapter in which Jurafsky explores how we talk and form words within our mouths and what effect those sounds have on the food words we use. Our brains tend to pair sharp-sounding words with sharp or crispy foods, and rounder smoother sounds with smoother foods. Think about it – does the name “kiki” better fit a type of cracker or a type of pudding?

The author also explores the origin of making a toast (toasted bread was dipped in wassail, a type of punch, or earlier in cider, and hung in the trees), how macaroni pasta, coconut macaroon cookies and French macaron pastries all originated from the same source, and why Chinese meals don’t include dessert.

The Language of Food is a great read for any food or word nerd and Jurafsky does a great job of showing how both food and language change over time. My only disappointment would have to be that, given this phenomenon, I’m going to have to accept that the term “high tea” will become standard usage for what is actually called afternoon tea, even though it’s utterly and completely incorrect. But as Jurafsky demonstrates, the language of food is constantly morphing, whether we like it or not.

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