The Language of Food – A Linguist Reads the Menu

9780393351620_p0_v2_s192x300In keeping with theme – we are not eating what we think we are eating – Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food exposes more assaults on our feeble brains.  Although the debate over “natural” vs “fresh” seems obvious, Jurafsky concentrates on more subtle influences.

What image comes to mind when you read “exotic spices” on a menu? Or other linguistic fillers like “zesty, crunchy, fluffy…”  One of my favorite authors, Calvin Trillin, would “sneak off down the street to the place that is authentic enough not to have to protest is so much” and where the food was cheaper and often better.

In chapters addressing the origin of food labels (ketchup comes from the Chinese), the true beginnings of Thanksgiving (not the Pilgrims and Wampanoag sharing a meal but the successful lobbying of an anti-slavery novelist), linguistic analysis of Yelp reviews, the brilliant advertising behind junk food (convincing you it is really a health food), and the link to social status of the expensive macaron (as opposed to the old standby coconut macaroon), Jurafsky includes a mix of research, history, and old recipes – sprinkled with humor and a dash of irony.  In my favorite chapter – “Does This Name Make Me Sound Fat?” – Jurafsky explains how sounds affect food marketing.

With an extensive list of references, the book clearly has a scholarly tone, yet, Jurafsky has managed to include  wry observations to make the science of words palatable.  A short book and a quick read – despite the many references – The Language of Food left me with a good aftertaste.