The Language of Food

by Carlos C. Olaechea

Student Carlos C. Olaechea recaps Dan Jurafsky’s lecture and book signing at Harvard Bookstore on October 10th.

photo credit: Kingmond Yong,

As gastronomy students, we learn that food is intrinsically tied to many aspects of our human existence, and through the multidisciplinary nature of our program we learn to view food through many different lenses. History, anthropology, politics, and visual arts are just a few of the ways in which we examine what food means to humankind, but as author and scholar Dan Jurafsky illustrated to a packed house on October 10th at the Harvard Bookstore, language can actually offer some of the most revealing information about what we eat.

A professor of linguistics at Stanford University, Jurafsky recently published a book titled The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, and he was present at the bookstore in Harvard Square last Friday to sign copies and give a talk about the meanings of the words we use to describe food and eating.

He got the idea for writing a book about linguistics and food while doing research in China and hearing someone tell him that the origin of the word “ketchup” was Chinese. He thought there was no way that ketchup could be Chinese, so he did some research to refute the notion and ended up finding that the word for the “all-American” condiment is, in fact, of Chinese origin.

Jurafsky began his very animated, prop-accented talk with an exploration of the origins of ketchup. He quickly went through the long history of how an East Asian fermented fish sauce called ga zhap became a favorite of British importers who made it a hit in their homeland. The luxurious condiment – as happens with most luxury goods – soon spawned knockoffs that all tried to cheaply imitate the umami flavors of the original Asian product. The original Chinese name for the sauce began to transform and Anglicize so that it was legible and pronounceable to the general English-speaking population. Around the 1850s, Americans started making it out of tomatoes, added sugar, and removed the fish altogether making the ketchup that we know today. It was through this example that Jurafsky demonstrated how the names of foods tell the stories of foods.

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Jurafsky went on to illustrate other aspects of linguistics present in the foods that we eat, providing some interesting observations. Showing the audience a bag of Lays potato chips and the pricier Pop Chips, Jurafsky read the back labels of each and noted how the latter distinguished itself as a better product by stating that which it is not. Having examined scores of other packaged foodstuffs, he stated that for every time the word “no” appears on a package, there is an average price increase of four cents. Similarly, he explained how expensive restaurants tend to use a small number of larger words in their menus as opposed to midrange to inexpensive restaurants that use a larger number of smaller words, suggesting that one can add 18 cents for every extra letter on a restaurant menu.

Jurafsky and his research team went further and examined how consumers talk and write about food by examining user reviews on the website Yelp. He noticed that bad reviews are almost always written in the past tense and use “we” to describe the experience. The language, he stated, is remarkably similar to that used to describe traumatic experiences, where “we” is used to express a sense of collective suffering. He also found, in his research, that reviewers used sexual innuendos when describing expensive dining experiences and drug references when describing inexpensive ones, with the majority of drug references being made by women.

Perhaps the most fascinating revelation was a phonological one that showed that the sounds of certain food names can reveal certain patterns about their place in our culture. Jurafsky showed the audiences several boxes of snack crackers – Cheez-It, Triscuit, Ritz, Wheat Thins – and illustrated how the short “i” sound present in each brand name is known as a front vowel and that in the English language small things are represented by words with front vowels. In effect, brand names for chips and snack crackers reflect their diminutive size. On the contrary, words with back vowels are used to describe things that are rich, bold, or voluptuous, such as ice cream flavors.

After a question and answer session where Jurafsky answered audience members’ queries regarding why certain foods have certain names (a lot of the answers are in his book), as well as addressing issues of eroticization and familiarization in food marketing and the price implications involved, the author and linguist tied in all the examples to illustrate his point that there are many stories to be found in food and our words for food. He wrapped up the night urging us all to go out and look for those stories. As gastronomy students, many of us are already doing just that.

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