It should come as no surprise that the way we talk about food and drink impacts the way we consume it. But just how much does our food-centric language affect our life—and in what ways? Food writers and cultural scholars seek to answer these kinds of questions for the linguistically and culinary curious alike.
Today’s Foodie Friday takes a closer look at the words that come out of our mouths and how they affect what types of food and drink go into our mouths.
One way we see this phenomenon in action is through food labeling and advertising. For example, labeling items a certain size can cause us to eat or drink more, such as when we order a “medium” by default, but it’s bigger than a competitors version of a “medium.” (Check out a comparison of common portion sizes here).
Yet there’s a whole lot more to the relationship between language and food. One Stanford University linguist named Dan Jurafsky has a fascinating book all about it called The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu in which he details the connections he’s found between our words and our food. Here are some of the appetizing findings from his research:
Jurafsky and his colleagues compiled data from restaurant reviews on Yelp and examinations of restaurant menus. They observed that:
- Writers of “1-star” reviews use the language of trauma. For example, they incorporate the pronouns “we” or “us” to convey shared grief and solidarity and describe unpleasant interactions as if they were attacks.
- People reviewing expensive restaurants use big words. The researchers noticed multisyllabic words such as “commensurate,” “unobtrusively,” and “sumptuous” cropping up in the reviews. They also noted these reviewers tended to be a bit more long-winded in their writing, perhaps in hopes of coming across more well-educated or sophisticated (i.e. “high class” people who eat fancy food).
- Positive reviews of expensive restaurants use sensual language. Reviewers described items such as, “seductively seared foie gras” and cake that is “creamier and more voluptuous.” This may come from an unconscious desire to emphasize the enjoyment (or justify the cost) of the food by making it sound hedonistic and indulgent.
- On the other hand, positive reviews of inexpensive restaurants use words related to drugs or addiction. For example, reviewers used words like, “crack,” “addicting,” fix,” and “craving” for items like pizza or cookies. The researchers speculated that this might be a blame-shifting tactic: I feel guilty about eating cheap, unhealthy food, but I can’t help it! It’s addicting!
- Expensive food labels rely on comparisons such as “less sodium” or negations like “nothing artificial” to distinguish them from “lesser” items. In other words, “We’re not like them.”
- Menus at expensive restaurants include challenging words—often in foreign languages—to highlight status. Also, they emphasize the prerogative of the chef’s opinion over the individual tastes of the customer.
- Middle-tier restaurant menus use lots of adjectives to describe their dishes (e.g. “rich,” “crisp,” or “tender”), but the least expensive restaurants use broadly positive terms like “delicious” or “tasty.” The researchers noted that “fresh” is used most by cheaper restaurants, where customers may be understandably dubious about the freshness of the ingredients.
The next time you look at a menu or evaluate a restaurant experience, be sure to notice what kind of language you naturally use to describe your food—and what sorts of words they use to market it to you!
Visit Jurafsky’s wonderful blog, The Language of Food, to read more about the interactions between our words and our meals, such as this post about the globe-spanning history of ice cream and why we have certain associations with the names of flavors based on the way they sound!