I recently picked up The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky, which turned out to be an entirely enjoyable, accessible collection of essays about food nouns and adjectives. A little more than half of the book is linguistic history, tracing the evolution of words across language families — such as salt/sauce/salad/salsa, which all come from the same root — and ultimately locating them in the present, both within contemporary food discourse generally and the culinary melting pot of San Francisco specifically.
Delicious as that may sound, far more constructive and delightful is the book’s quantitative analysis of menus and restaurant reviews, which deploy linguistic concepts to explain the language patterns revealed across samples of those texts. For example, in “Sex, Drugs, and Sushi Rolls,” Jurafsky recounts the results of his language lab’s examination of Yelp reviews from a number of U.S. cities (Philadelphia, among others) over a period of six years. Analysis revealed a distinction that is roughly consistent with broader linguistic patterns: when reviewers enjoyed their restaurant experience, they tended to use extremely positive but nonspecific words (love, best, amazing, perfect, awesome, incredible); meanwhile, negative reviews tended to be very specific as to the sensory qualities of foods and the experiential qualities of restaurants. Bad beer is not just awful but “thin, watery, metallic” and other undesirable traits in a beer; restaurant service is not just bad, it’s a sequence of unpleasant events recounted in detailed first-person narrative. Jurafsky chalks this up to negative differentiation: generally speaking, there are more types of words to describe specific negative feelings and experiences than there are positive ones–not because bad feelings are intrinsically more varied or more intense, but because it’s cognitively useful to distinguish bad feelings from one another.
Positive experiences can be described in specific sensory detail, too — it gets easier with practice — but our clever minds love a shortcut, so we tend to express pleasure in hyperbole, although those words tend to carry less intensity over time. Jurafsky calls this “semantic bleaching” — envision the “awe” being wiped out of “awesome” and the sense of disbelief fading out of “incredible” — and gives an excellent shout-out to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, in which prim Miss Patty complains about the semantic bleaching of the young:
The girls nowadays indulge in such exaggerated statements that one never can tell what they do mean. It wasn’t so in my young days. Then a girl did not say she loved turnips, in just the same tone as she might have said she loved her mother or her Savior.
Such excellent cantankerousness (and use of italics). But I’m afraid Miss Patty would be further scandalized if she read Jurafsky’s results, because it turns out that in addition to words like love, awesome, and incredible, Yelp reviewers tend to rhapsodize about their positive food experiences in two very distinct hyperbole patterns.
The more expensive the restaurant is, the greater likelihood that a positive review will use sex-related words to describe it: seductive, orgasmic, sensual, and so forth. “The association is quite strong,” Jurafsky writes; “The more mentions of sex in a restaurant review, the higher the price of the restaurant.” On the other hand, positive reviews of lower-priced establishments tend to rely on language of chemical dependence: craving, crack, fix, addictive.
I particularly enjoy this revelation because it implicitly invalidates two of my least favorite food narratives: that junk food is addictive (when in fact no definitive biochemical link has been established), and that food has replaced sex as the American national obsession (which I’ll believe when lawmakers are as preoccupied with legislating grocery lists as they are with reproductive choice). The unambiguous class differential suggests that whether we find a cheese puff addictive or seductive depends very much on how much we paid for it. If it came in a foil bag, perhaps we learn toward language that distances ourselves from the decision to enjoy it; but if it arrived on a small plate with a drizzle of truffle oil, perhaps we prefer intimate language that restages consumption as conspicuous consummation.