Choose Your Words Carefully: Why Semantics Has Great Power in Food

People like to say semantics ‘is just semantics’. But is that really true? Out of the 1,163 American adults asked in a study by Matthison, 73% said ‘100% plant based’ food tastes better than ‘vegan’ food, with 68% saying it’s healthier. Even though, to you and me, they’re the same thing.

More than anything, it’s the connotations these words carry. As part of the survey, it was thought that ‘vegan’ had militant tendencies, was more of a lifestyle choice certain people adopt as part of their identity, and that there was a trade-off involved somewhere. ‘Plant-based’, however, seemed more descriptive of the actual food, and less committal.

Which might make you wonder ­– what lexicon should and shouldn’t restaurants be using in their email marketing, menus, and web copy? In some instances, it’s a case of more is more. As linguist Dan Jurafsky points out in his book The Language of Food, 69cents ­– about 50p – is added to the price of a dish for each word describing it. ‘Grass-fed heritage beef patty with beef dripping and rosemary fries’ is likely going to cost more than ‘beef burger, hand cut-chips’.

But Jurafsky’s conclusion isn’t final. While longer, foreign words are commonplace in finer establishments (‘strozzapreti’, ‘yakiniku’, ‘croquembouche’ signifying the educational to the educated), adjectives are scarce – restaurants want the diner to assume the desired effects, such as ‘delicious’ or ‘tasty’, rather than tell them. Some restaurants, like St John and Quality Chop House, deliberately use a few basic words to describe their dishes, yet few would consider them cheap. Meanwhile, a restaurant with flowery words and unnecessary verbiage would suggest the restaurant is trying to be posher than it is.

If the menu is a restaurant’s primary marketing tool (with social media not far behind), it’s also a diner’s primary source of information. And, these days, people are looking for more of it. But at the same time, shorter menus are good indicators that the cooking is honed or refined; more set on the idea that the restaurant should do less, but do it better.

On the other end of the scale, you have Chinese takeaways with hundreds of items on the menu, but no one is expecting quality. Ironically, more choice makes it harder to choose, potentially putting the diner in an uncomfortable position. Though, again, this depends on where you’re going ­– a Birmingham University study showed that customers want more choices in fast food outlets, and fewer in white table clothed establishments.

Are linguistics less important as they were before Instagram, and other image-heavy marketing? Maybe. But social media has birthed the hashtag. As pointed out in a study by the University of Arizona, hashtags can tell a lot about the user’s personality. Therefore, businesses can better talk to them.

#Foodporn, it might pain you to know, is identified as one of the most used hashtags on Twitter. It points to the seductive nature of food, and perhaps that certain food is dirty, a taboo in modern culture. People see it, they want to eat it, but they don’t want anyone to know they’ve eaten it. On the flip side, people do want other people to know they’ve eaten a #healthy #vegan #brunch – some of the most popular ‘positive’ hashtags associated with food.

What does this mean for restaurateurs? Better targeting. Words like #party #snack and #healthy are well received by more affluent, right-wing guests, whereas #bacon and #delicious are more common among the casual and left-wing. Similarly, this being an American study, those in the southern parts of the US liked to use words and phrases like ‘mimosas’ and ‘bottomless’ and ‘after work’. In the Northeast, words attributed to group dining (our, us, join) and roast meat (chicken, pork) are rife, though there’s a fair bit of overlap in some instances.

Is the world of culinary linguistics as explored as it should be? Sometimes better options are obvious – ‘Heritage grains’ sounds a lot better than ‘100% non-GMO’. But sometimes they aren’t so much. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of it before, but if you had a vegan restaurant, would you label it ‘vegan’, or ‘plant-based’?

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