Book Review: The Language of Food

Diners at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia

By Paul Riegler on 1 October 2014
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For years, I’ve puzzled over (and avoided) restaurants that promise food that is “fresh,” “ripe,” “tasty,” and “delicious.” After all, isn’t that why people go to such establishments, because it is expected that the food will be all of those things and more? As language maven William Safire succinctly stated: “When too many words chase after too few ideas, the result is adjective inflation. Words mean less.”

It turns out that we’re not the only ones. Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University, has voiced similar concerns, and his delicious, crispy, and fresh book, the Language of Food, is full of validation for those who share this view.

Philosopher H. Paul Grice, of Grice’s conversational maxims fame, postulated in his four maxims that people say things to convey information to the recipient without saying more than is necessary. Hence, one must ponder the reasons for every statement. Flagrant examples of violating Grice’s maxims are establishments that promise “real maple syrup” and “fresh food.” (I avoid places that promise “fresh food” however, as it makes me wonder what the extra verbiage is actually hiding.) Clearly, the menu writer has assumed that customers have a reason to think the maple syrup isn’t real and the food isn’t fresh.

Many menu writers seem to follow a philosophy of “Why use one word when three will do?” (One must ponder whether they are paid by the word.) New writers at this magazine are put on notice about this and told to be economical and not lazy. My years of studying the problem of Information Overload have sensitized me to word pollution as well.

The author and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University analyzed 6,500 modern online menus with roughly 650,000 dishes from restaurants in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. The findings were telling.

Menus at low-priced restaurants offered more dishes and had far wordier descriptions, while those from upscale restaurants used longer words. The use of longer words translated into a price per dish that was 18 cents higher per additional letter but this did not necessarily make the explanation of what would be served any clearer.

On the other hand, for each instance of vague positive words such as “delicious” or “tasty,” the average price of a dish would be 9% lower. What Jurafsky calls “appealing adjectives” such as “rich,” “chunky,” or “zesty” result in a 2% lower price.

He does caution early on that there is no evidence that restaurants price their food based on the number of words, such as “delicious,” used to describe it or even that they choose such words after deciding on a price. All we know is that lower prices and wordy menus go hand in hand.

If reading through 6,500 menus is overwhelming, how about one million online reviews on the Yelp website? Jurafsky and the team at Carnegie Mellon found that reviews where the reviewer awarded four stars exhibited a narrow range of imprecise positive words, while reviews where only one star was given had a far more varied vocabulary as well as greater use of the past tense and plural pronouns.

The author takes us on a journey of the history of food as well as its language. One story in the book explains how ketchup transformed from a Chinese fish sauce to a spiced sauce: “And so in England, ketchup lost the fish and acquired tomatoes, and much later on, the Americans added sugar, and there’s our national condiment,” he writes.

Other tales track the how the Jews expelled by the Inquisition brought “Jewish fish” to England that eventually became British staples of fish and chips and how the Italian vermicelli became the Yiddish chremsel.

The Language of Food is a recipe combining history, etymology, human intrigue, and humor. It will change how you look at food from the moment you open its cover.

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, by Dan Jurafsky.  $17.04 at

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