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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