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What Language Does the Food Speak?

What Language Does the Food Speak?

A linguist at Stanford University, Dan Jurafsky has just launched his latest book 'The Language of Food', analyzing the union of linguistics and gastronomy.

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Dan Jurafsky is officially a genius. He is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Award,” which consists of someone randomly phoning you up to say that you’ll be receiving $500,000, with no requirement as to what to do with it, no speech to give, nothing owed - and given to you just because you are doing ingenious things and deserve to be funded to continue to do so.

He is not the first “genius” I have interviewed (Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem are on my list), but he is the most culinarily-inclined. A linguist at Stanford University, his latest book, The Language of Food, analyzes the union of linguistics and gastronomy.

Was there a first word, description or dish that prompted your interested in linguistics and food?
Definitely ketchup. I was a grad student studying Cantonese 20 or 25 years ago and my Hong Kong friends all thought it was obvious that ketchup was a Chinese word, which flabbergasted me, as I thought of ketchup as the all-American food. But it turned out they were right!

Thanksgiving is fast upon us. What can you share about the language of that holiday?
Thanksgiving is indeed a holiday of contradictions. One great fact about Thanksgiving is the story of how we came to call the turkey after the country Turkey. It all has to do with the Portuguese, whose strict rules about naval secrecy meant that no one knew where they had acquired the various trading goods (spices, gold, exotic birds) they brought to Antwerp to trade in the 16th century. And so the turkey (which didn’t yet have an English name) got confused with a bird we now call the guinea fowl but then called the turkey cock, because it had been imported via Turkey. And the result was that everyone confused the two birds, even Shakespeare. Because turkeys spread throughout northern Europe so quickly, they were very popular in England for Christmas and harvest festivals by 1600, and because people weren’t clear they were from the New World when the first English settlers came to America, they were surprised to find local birds that looked just like “our English turkeys”. So Thanksgiving is really a traditional English harvest feast, which explains all the medieval spices in the pumpkin pies and the common habit of doing an old-fashioned presentation of all the dishes at the same time, instead of in courses….

Is there a term for food words that have multiple meanings (like “toast” or “cream”), and could you tell us about the story behind any one of them?
Words with multiple related meanings are called “polysemous” (there’s a different term for words with unrelated meanings: “homonymous”). So for example the word toast meaning “grilled bread” and meaning “the act of drinking in honor of someone” are related; the original meaning of “toast” was just grilled bread. In the middle ages, it was common to put spiced toast into wine and ale, as a way to add flavor and substance to the drink; those toasts were often spiced with ginger or galangal. Then in the 18th century, as this habit was dying out, it became common to drink someone’s health at dinner parties, often the health of the popular belle of the ball, who became known as the “toast” because it was said she “flavored the evening” as the toast flavored the wine.

I’m interested in the history of how menus described dishes to try to entice customers to order them. Any idea what was the earliest recorded menu, in the traditional sense?
The word “menu” was first used in French in the 18th century and English in the 19th century. In its English use, one of the first uses was to describe a small card listing the set of dishes that was placed by diners at a formal dinner so they knew what the courses would be. It comes from the Latin word minutus, meaning “small, minute, detailed.” Probably written menus are not very old, but of course at taverns in every civilization there have always been oral lists of foods given to the diner or travelers. In recent years, it does seem like there was a trend for expensive restaurant menus to have long flowery descriptions, which then trickled down to cheaper restaurants, while expensive restaurants got more minimal. Sociologists like Thorstein Veblen and George Simmel explained that customs that are common to the upper classes are often quickly borrowed by the middle classes, and then the upper classes come up with a new custom to differentiate themselves. So the sparse descriptions are a new trend. Presumably they will trickle down too.

I imagine you can likewise chart the popularization of certain keywords that seem to crop up everywhere: artisanal, locavore, vegetable butcher, house-made, and so on.
Yup, for example house made seems to starting become more common about 1995, you can see it in the search engine the new york times provides to count words in their, compared to homemade:

And here’s the rise in “artisanal” at about the same time.

What’s with the obsessive reference to “house-made” products when we usually think of “home-made” as the catch-all term for something that was made where you intend to eat it, rather than bought for resale?
Right, see above for this recent trend to use “house-made.” I don’t think there is any inherent semantic meaning different between homemade and house made. My suspicion is that the difference is in connotation; fancy restaurants wanted a term that meant “made in house” and that didn’t have the connotations of mom and grandma and traditional down-home restaurants, which “homemade” had, so they invented this new word.

How does your Stanford course differ in substance from your book, The Language of Food?
The course is a seminar, so we explore lots of topics in linguistics through the window of food, a far broader range of subject than I cover in the book. Some of those topics included grammar: we look at the grammar associated with recipe language (in recipes you can just say “Mix” or “Add slowly”, where the thing that you are adding or mixing remains unspoken, which is not common in other uses of language). And we studied the language of flavor, the vocabulary for describing the different flavors; we did taste tests in class. And for their projects students investigated a lot of TV ads and other kinds of advertising language. They also did some psychological experiments, testing the ways in which changing the words on a food label influenced how people perceived the food.

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