BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

Shouting man: "Amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great!

When a linguist writes about global food culture it feels like being given a glimpse into the complex machinery of the human race.

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University whose speciality is the application of heavyweight computing power to vast bodies of writing such as restaurant menus or online reviews. In The Language of Food (Norton, 2014, Amazon UK | Amazon US) he explores the etymology of food-related words — ketchup, Turkey, ceviche — and, in so doing, the shared origins of apparently divergent foodstuffs. Ketchup, for example, he traces back to dirt ditches full of fermenting fish in South East Asia, making it a cousin of Chinese soy sauce and Indonesian arrak, which itself begat rum.

The cover of The Language of Food.The book isn’t primarily about beer but there are frequent mentions of it and linguistically related varieties of booze:

[The] Hebrew word sheker had a continued life as the meaning ‘fortified beer’ generalized to refer to any kind of strong drink. Saint Jerome in his fourth-century Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate, borrowed it into Latin as sicera, which he defined as beer, mead, palm wine, or fruit cider. In the early Middle Ages… the word sicera, now pronounced sidre, became the name of the fermented apple juice that became popular in France, especially in Normandy and Brittany. After 1066 the Normans brought the drink and the new English word cider to Britain.

There is also an entire chapter that draws heavily on research by him and his colleagues into reviews on RateBeer and Beer Advocate. It turns out that people have much richer vocabularies when it comes to slagging things off than for being positive about them:

[Reviewers] tended to describe the way they were ‘bad’ by using different negative words for different senses, distinguishing whether the beer smelled or tasted bad (corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical), looked bad (piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky), or felt bad in the mouth (thin, flat, fizzy, overcarbonated). By contrast, when people liked a beer, they used the same few vague positive words we saw at the beginning of the chapter—amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great— regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

Which perhaps explains why bad reviews are more fun to read and write than good ones.

That word ‘awesome’ also gets a bit of personal attention: I now know that the process of taking a word originally intended to describe something HUGE and IMPORTANT (the awesome power of the ocean) and applying it to something small and trivial (this lager is awesome!) is called ‘semantic bleaching’. Worth knowing if you want your fings-ain’t-wot-they-used-to-be grumbling to sound more intelligent.

And there are many more passages that, even if they don’t refer to beer, clearly apply to it. When he mentions, in relation to the habit of eating meat with fruit, that seasonal food is often a reminder of what was everyday behaviour hundreds of years ago, old ales and winter warmers come to mind. In a passage on the ‘grammar of food’ he argues that the reason people like putting bacon in ice cream these days is ‘not because this is necessarily the most delicious way to serve bacon but, at least in part, because it breaks the rules, it’s fun, it’s rebellious’ —  does that also apply to the appeal of sour, hazy beer in today’s craft beer culture? (Yes.)

Jurafsky’s concluding arguments certainly apply to beer — think India Pale Ale in its many guises, or Imperial stout, or Gose:

All innovation happens at interstices. Great food is no exception, created at the intersection of cultures as each one modifies and enhances what is borrowed from its neighbors.

The foods we eat and drinks we drink — our cultures — are the same, only different. That’s a comforting message in 2016, isn’t it?

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the book is also a goldmine of quotable not-so-trivial did-you-know trivia — I was saying, ‘Huh, fancy that!’ every other paragraph, in a way anyone who follows @HaggardHawks or @Susie_Dent on Twitter will recognise. I don’t think it will be for everyone: despite Jurafsky’s best efforts to find an over-arching narrative, and to personalise the text with mentions of his grandmothers and in-laws, it is really an information dump with periodic conclusions. But that very much works for me.

6 thoughts on “BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky”

  1. Not sure I understand the comfort. Why do we value innovation in food and drink? Didn’t that give us individually wrapped process cheese slices? Slow food, veg gardening, traditional methods, River Cottage, etc are the comforting antithesis of disruptive innovation.

    1. The comfort is in the idea that cultures can’t help but co-operate and borrow from each other. But I’m also quite positive about the idea of innovation — I like new things! Ice cream was new once — Jurafsky tells us it evolved from Middle Eastern sherbet drinks. (I will also defend processed cheese slices for certain applications but let’s not get into that.)

      1. This is something of a personal character trait for me, I suppose. I am hardly a great traditionalist or conservative but I do like things which have lasting cultural stability. There is a type of magic in the thing that goes along unaffected. Onions and peas have been onions and peas for hundreds if not thousands of years. Grainy malt beer being drunk at a meal after recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. But give me the newest garden tool, the most fad focused socks.

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