Review: The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, by Dan Jurafsky, Norton, 2014.
A book that combines two of my favorite subjects! What could be better?
I majored in anthropology in college, where I picked up a smattering of linguistics, and during my career in information management rubbed elbows with a few computational linguists, so I thought I could give this book a somewhat knowledgeable critique from several angles.
Turns out I didn’t need any specialized knowledge to enjoy 95% of it. Jurafsky bends over backward to adopt a folksy, populist tone as he discusses language analysis of menu descriptions, restaurant reviews, and the cost of potato chips; traces several cases of food evolution through word derivations; and describes the potential effects of vowels on food names.
He explores questions you may or may not have ever wondered about, such as why we refer to food with either sex or drug metaphors in restaurant reviews, or whether there is a relationship between “macaroon” and “macaroni” (guess what – there is).
Several chapters explore not only linguistic associations among foods through time and space, but how these can be used to trace social attitudes of the people who ate them. Anthropology in action!
There are only a few chapters in which Jurafsky’s academic research peeps through. In the very first, “How to Read a Menu,” computational linguistic techniques are used to analyze word frequency in restaurant menus to reveal how more expensive restaurants describe food differently from the cheap joints. In “Sex, Drugs and Sushi Rolls,” those metaphors are analyzed in Yelp reviews. Again, a chapter near the end, “Does This Name Make Me Sound Fat?” makes a discussion of vowel sounds understandable, and even enjoyable, to laypersons.
But his academic background reveals itself in the footnotes, hidden in the back, just before the extensive list of references. With no obtrusive superscript to detract from the reading experience, and indeed, no reference to the footnotes at all in the introduction or text of the book, the inattentive reader may not even realize this feature exists until finishing the final chapter. In my obsessive-compulsive way, I found myself skimming the footnotes to each chapter in advance, just in case I was missing something. Occasionally, there was an additional tidbit of knowledge to be found.
I did find one error in the text that a proofreader should have caught. In one chapter, Jurafsky refers to “the old term for fifty cents…’two-bit words'” – but this colloquialism means twenty-five cents. He uses it again, correctly this time, later in the book. This is an example, by the way, of many instances of repetition throughout, enough so that I wearied of the device. A second quibble I had concerned his constant references to his wife, Janet, and the city he lives in (San Francisco). It’s another way he tries to inject folksiness into a book which could easily turn abstruse. That it doesn’t is a credit to his balancing skills. Still.
The Language of Food painlessly educates the reader in aspects of linguistics and food history. Dan Jurafsky proves himself able to explain obscure topics without sugarcoating the science. I for one would like to go out eating and drinking with him and Janet, next time I visit San Francisco.