Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Club: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

If you're fascinated by language and love food, you might want to consider reading The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, a recent book by Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University. In it, he uses computational linguistics to look at things like menus and restaurant reviews to study how language is used in relation to food. The first chapters especially captured my interest and the very first chapter, entitled "How to Read a Menu", discusses the interesting linguistic patterns that can be found in restaurant menus.

Not a mushroom you'd want to eat.
If you've ever been to an expensive restaurant, you've probably noticed how their menus tend to feature a shorter than normal list of items that use foreign terms (for example, champignons instead of mushrooms) and long words (such as accompaniments instead of sides) far more often than your "average" restaurant. However, Jurafsky's research delves even deeper into the facts behind the language of menus, discovering that there is even a correlation between the length of the words used to describe a dish and its price!

Another interesting insight was the fact that mid-range restaurants that fall between "cheap" and "expensive" often use lots of "vague positive descriptors" to try to convince us about the quality of their food. While I had never thought about it before, it is quite odd that such restaurants feel the need to use words like fresh and tasty in their menus. It seems like the natural assumption should be that every restaurant's food is fresh and tasty... why would they sell it otherwise?

The book shares insights on this question and many other linguistic queries related to food, including the differing uses of the word entrée, which refers to different dishes in American and British English and has been the cause of plenty of linguistic squabbles in the past. I especially appreciated learning how both meanings of the word are technically correct, and merely retain different aspects of the original French term. I'll leave it to you to read the book and learn all of the juicy details.

Have you read The Language of Food? What did you think of it? Do you have any other language-related book recommendations? Let us know in the comments below.