BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

BOOKS: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

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] 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 Ohio pawn shop the beginning of the chapter-amazing, perfect, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, great- regardless of whether they were rating taste, smell, feel, or look.

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:

The foods we eat and drinks we drink – our cultures – are the same, only different

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.

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

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 or on Twitter will recognise. But that very much works for me.