When Stanford University linguistics and computer science professor Dan Jurafsky researched the language used to describe food, he discovered big meaning lurking behind even small words like “real” and “crisp.” In “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,” the San Francisco-based author looks at fast food menus, ancient recipes from Sumer, even potato chip packages to offer a linguist’s insight into the cultural meanings and unspoken histories that are embedded in language choices about food.
“Historically, food wasn’t considered an appropriate academic subject. But it’s everywhere and the language reflects all sorts of stuff — human nature, phycology, economics,” Jurafsky says. The author, who is a MacArthur Fellow, began researching food language in 2008 for a freshman seminar he teaches. Finding food a good way to draw students into the study of language and discuss big ideas, he started sharing his research and insights into word origins on the blog Language of Food (www.languageoffood.blogspot.com).
Q. You describe some food words as living fossils. Explain that.
A. I was living in Hong Kong and everyone there knew that ketchup was a Chinese word. I’m an American studying Cantonese and wondered how could it possibly be. It turned out they were right. In the 17th century, Europeans were traveling to Asia for silk and porcelain and spices and tea. They would bring wine and beer on the trips, but those go bad in the heat. They get to Indonesia and they find ethnic Chinese selling soy sauce and fish sauce. They’re also distilling liquor. They buy thousands of barrels of liquor for the navy. While they’re there, they also buy this fish sauce that distillers are making on the side called ke-tchup. “Ke” means salted fish in a particular Chinese dialect.
Q. How did that become today’s ketchup?
A. They buy this fish sauce and bring it home. It’s really expensive and exotic, an imported luxury used by the rich. When you have an exotic product, you immediately have knock-offs. Jane Austen’s family has a recipe for ketchup made with walnuts. Around 1800, the tomato comes from the New World and people begin to experiment. Anchovies and fish begin to die out of the sauce by 1850, then sugar starts getting added, especially in America. And we end up with our modern tomato chutney. The fact that we still use this Chinese word for this food tells you about the relationship of the East and West over nearly 500 years, which is amazing.
Q. Are there more linguistic remnants of East-West connection in food words than in other kinds of words?
A. We have a paper that we just presented that asks a related question: Which kinds of words get borrowed most from other cultures? If you compare the word “coffee” with a coffee maker, like a French press, why do we call it a French press rather than what they call it in French? We do borrow the word coffee, probably from the French, who borrowed it probably from Arabic. What we saw is that words that get borrowed are of a natural kind — food, animals, plants. When you borrow those from a neighbor, you tend to think that the name is essential to it.
Q. On menus, what did you find that words like “real” and “fresh” are really saying?
A. There are certain positive adjectives — fresh, rich, mild, crisp, tender, golden brown — that we found only on the middle-priced and cheaper restaurants. Expensive restaurants want you to assume it’s crisp. Cheaper restaurants have to convince you it’s crisp. The presence of those words tells you the restaurants are protesting too much about the food. “Real” is very similar.
Q. What else were you able to tell from studying restaurant menus?
A. The more expensive the restaurant, the longer on average the words they use. At the same time, they use less short words. Long words correlate with complicatedness and rareness. They’re using these long, complicated and rare words as a sign that they’re a fancy restaurant and have an educated staff and educated customers.
Q. How did we come to use the word toast to describe both charred bread and a celebratory drink?
A. People used to put toast in their wine. People would grill their bread, spice it with something like ginger then they would throw it in the wine and heat it a little bit. The flavor palate of the Middle Ages was much more heavy on spice. Right around the 1700s, as this custom was beginning to die and people were beginning to drink their wine neat, the custom arose of raising your glasses to the belle of the ball or the celebrated lady of the season. People called her the “toast” of the evening because she flavored the party like the toast flavored the wine. So the word stuck and then it became a verb.
Dan Jurafsky will talk about “The Language of Food” on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1515Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.