Learning the language of food with Dan Jurafsky

Full Frame

Ketchup is a beloved American condiment – it’s the ubiquitous presence on restaurant tables and the virtually required dressing for hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries. So you might be surprised to discover that a sauce which is often considered distinctly American was originally a fermented fish sauce created in China thousands of years ago.

Learning the language of food with Dan Jurafsky

Learning the language of food with Dan Jurafsky

Ketchup is a beloved American condiment. It’s the ubiquitous presence on restaurant tables, and the nearly required dressing for hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries. So you might be surprised to discover that a sauce which is often considered distinctly American was originally a fermented fish sauce created in China thousands of years ago.

In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics and computer science professor at Stanford University, reveals the fascinating history behind words like “ketchup” and “toast,” the psychology of restaurant menus, and the grammar of cuisine.

Jurafsky and his team reviewed over 6,500 online menus and determined that there are consistent differences in the way that inexpensive and expensive restaurants describe their food. One key example? “While inexpensive restaurants use the pronoun “you,” e.g. “your way,” expensive restaurants are more likely to refer to the chef, e.g. “chef’s choice.”

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There is also a difference, they found, in the way that online reviewers talk about cheap versus fancy restaurants. The food at the former is more likely to be described with drug terminology (“donuts are like crack”), while the latter lends itself to sexual metaphors (“a seductive crème brûlée”).

“By talking about these cheap foods as drugs it’s like saying, ‘Well, it’s not really my fault that I ate that. I’m addicted to it. The drug really forced me to do it.’ So it makes us feel a little less guilty for eating these unhealthy foods,” said Jurafsky.

Another interesting study revealed that potato chips all tout health food language on the bag, but the gourmet ones advertise what’s not there, like trans-fats and genetically-modified ingredients, while the cheaper chips tell consumers what they do contain, such as “real potatoes.”

Even still, consumers should be wary, says Jurafsky.

“If they have to talk about how healthy it is, well, it’s probably not healthy,” said Jurafsky.

Join Full Frame for this fascinating look at the relationship between language and food, and learn why some countries call that warm, brewed drink “tea” and others call it “chai.”

Follow Dan Jurafsky on Twitter: @jurafsky

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