Heinz Tomato Ketchup

Food Linguistics: Evolution of Food, Menus, and Online Reviews

Linguistic and cultural anthropology can reveal a lot about languages and culture through mediums such as food menus, online reviews, and advertisements. According to Barbara Miller (2005), linguistics is the study of language. Questions that anthropologists ask and research revolve around how a person’s language relates to one’s culture, and how and why they change over time. How do online interactions affect language and communication? Over time, food cultures have transformed drastically, and how food has been described linguistically and procured can be traced through many years.

For this blog post, I will share my information from The Language of Food, Stanford University Linguist by Dan Jurafsky. The author provides a rich history and evolution of food as well as a captivating analysis of the sharing of cultures and traditions through food. During their research, he and his colleagues made use of computational linguistic tools, online menus and reviews, food advertisements, and brands in order to find how languages and cultures are cognitively shared and passed on.

First, the author begins by exploring how tomato ketchup made its way from Asia to the United States and how foods reveal patterns of global exploration, and then he expands into how to read and decode a menu and online reviews linguistically through sound and olfactory senses. Jurafsky “offers a window” into the past through the history of food and presents modern linguistical phenomena in order to show how language reveals so much about food, people, and a culture itself.

A brief history of ketchup
Source: https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-ketchup-99812

Food History: Ketchup

Jurafsky traces the origination of ketchup and wine and toasting, and even the order of meals to allow the reader to uncover the reasons behind global influences and culinary connection through language.

Did you know that ketchup is actually Chinese and the word originally meant fish sauce?  Sweet-tomato ketchup actually originated from Asia as a fermented fish sauce and made its way to the United States and Europe. It comes from the Hokkien Chinese word, ke-tsiap, and is originally a sauce from fish that is fermented. In the 1690s, the British had a trading post in Bengkulu and they took the recipe back to the United Kingdom in order to try to replicate it. One of the earliest recipes, in 1732 is from the Indies.

Jurafsky believes that around this time, the word “ketchup” first came into the English language partially due to the fact that the English could not pronounce the Asian word, ke-tisap. Ketchup had become profitable and in several reports from traders from the East India Trading Company including Charles Lockyer, the dialogues in the reports revealed how important it was to be trading with Asia.  Lockyer said, “soy comes in tubs from Jappan, and the best Ketchup from Tonqueen (northern Vietnam) yet good of both sorts, are made and solvery cheap in China.. I know not a more profitable commodity.”

A guide to toasting - Vino-Club
Source: https://www.vino-club.co.uk/toasting/

History: Drinking and Toasting around Food

Jurafsky explains how drinking cultures, including the act of toasting, became deeply embedded in cultures going as far back as 6000 BCE through libations and domestication of wine grapes. Domesticated wine grapes have been found to exist as early as 6000 BCE found in a Neolithic village called Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains in Iran (71). While evidence appears to be unclear to how alcohol evolved, several types of wine and beer may have been associated with health and thought to have some antipathogenic properties. One early concept related to toasting is called a libation, an offering of mead, wine, or oil, that the Greek people poured to the gods before drinking. Overall, drinking and toasting have always played an important role in celebrations.

With these forgotten histories of ketchup, alcohol, and even ceviche (which is mentioned more in his book) that the author offers, the reader can value and recognize the hardships and labor that went into the procurement of food that appears as always available for society today. Throughout his historical and evolutionary analysis, he successfully finds how people were brought together and connected through food and how language evolved through the discussion and written reports on these different foods.

Food White Menu Template with bright blue heading highlights
Source – Easil Templates

Understanding and Decoding Menus 

The words in menus have linguistic, hidden clues about the origination of the food being prepared, the cost and the price of the restaurant, and also the types of chefs that run the restaurant. According to Jurafsky, expensive restaurants are very likely to display where each of their dishes originates by using words such as “grass-fed” and even over advertise their products. These types of places show pride in their work and accomplishments and even love to place prominence over their chef.

Costly food establishments have an inclination to make use of more two-bit multisyllabic unique, fancy words such as “accompaniments, complements, traditionally, specifications, preparation, magnificent, tenderness,” while cheaper ones tend to use positive words shorter in length as “tasty,” “delicious,” “decaf,” and “sides” (13). Even the addition of one letter hints at a correlation with an increase of 18 cents (14).

Alternatively, menus that contain long words may be more aimed at tourists or non-native eaters who do not eat the food being served every day and may be unaware of the actual food prices allowing the restaurants to secretively upcharge. If a restaurant emphasizes the types of “spices” or exoticness of a food, the price may be raised (14).  Jurafsky concludes that restaurant menus that consist of lengthy and descriptive words for each dish have a tendency for being expensive establishments overall.

Furthermore, a third idea presented by Jurafsky for understanding menu prices can be termed as  “linguistic fillers,” which are characterized as vague words like “delicious, tasty, mouth-watering, flavorful, scrumptious, tasty, wonderful and delightful,” and “appealing adjectives” such as “zesty, rich, golden brown, crunchy.” (15). Compared to expensive restaurants, cheaper restaurants use positive words, but also tend to use more vague words. Words such as “delicious and tasty” are used and are open for interpretation. Cheaper restaurants are likely to say that food should be served “your way” so it attracts more customers. The linguistic fillers and appealing adjectives are associated with cheaper restaurants because they serve as a tease for the guests; a promise for distinct or exceptional food that actually may not exist.

The author’s analysis of cost and word lengths depicts the true causation between expensive restaurants and lengthy words and cheap restaurants and shorter words.  The restaurants and chefs that want to be deemed as prestigious and appear to show pride in their work make use of different adjectives and verbs than the cheaper establishments that exist. The length and type of words can reveal so much about the culture of a restaurant including the types of people, social norms, and the type of establishment. However, Jurafsky’s analysis presented could be deemed as flawed in 2020, because he should have included several examples of data sets, graphs, statistics, actual numbers associated with restaurants.

Food reviews
Source: http://www.allstarsteamer.com/star-steamer-llc/yelp/

Preview (opens in a new tab)

Decoding Business Reviews  

Online reviews play a large role in helping people decide where to eat and purchase food, as well as reveal human psychological behavior, perception, and thought.  In a few studies, Jurafsky and colleagues make use of computational linguistics to examine the type of positive and negative Yelp reviews from restaurants in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, LA, Philadelphia, and Washington, which reveal people’s thoughts and feelings about restaurants from 2005 to 2011.

While good or positive reviews include positive sentimental words such as “love, delicious, best, amazing, favorite, perfect, excellent, awesome,”  bad reviews use negative emotional words including “horrible, bad, worst, terrible, awful, disgusting, bland, gross, mediocre, tasteless, sucks, nasty, inedible, yuck and stale” (94).

Reviews also contain lots of expressive words and exaggerations. Jurafsky exhibits his term “semantic bleaching” as a way to describe human exaggeration or as an “awe,” responsible for changing meaning in words such as “sauce or salsa” from their original meaning of “salted.”

In positive reviews, people who have a good time at a restaurant are shown to be more likely to use sexual metaphors and also have a positive correlation with a higher price of the restaurant. It has been shown that the more reviews mention dessert, the more they have the tendency to like the restaurant (104). Good reviews are also associated with positive emotional words or positive words. Words such as “love, delicious, best, amazing, great, favorite, perfect, excellent, awesome, wonderful, fantastic, and incredible” are all examples of positive words used in food reviews (94).

For bad reviews, Jurafsky terms “negative differentiation” as a way to describe bad opinions rather than positive ones,  and these occur across many languages and many kinds of work.  Words like horrible and terror are used to mean “inducing horror” or “inducing terror” (94). In anthropology and psychology, most theorists have revealed that humans are biased and maybe more aware of negative situations. Negative reviews are shown to have the pronouns of “us” and “we” when describing distasteful traumas. Reviews that contain some experiences, such as waiting for food too long or not being served well, always start with the words “us and we” at different locations. In their analysis, they found that beers that were deemed as “bad” were written as “watery, bland, corny, skunky, metallic, stale, chemical, piss, yellow, disgusting, colorless, skanky, thin, flat, fizzy, and over-carbonated (96).

On the contrary, positive reviews of food establishments that served beer were deemed as “amazing, wonderful, fantastic, awesome, incredible, and great” regardless of the taste, feel, look or smell. It may be that negative reviews are actually more descriptive, and more time and care is taken into choosing words when leaving a bad review.

Response to Food Reviews by business owners

Most interestingly, people actually respond more to positive reviews than negative ones (104). Oftentimes, restaurants try to deal with negative reviews by responding to the issue on the same review board, reconciling the issue, and/or providing a solution as soon as possible so the review doesn’t hurt their business. They want to make sure they emphasize with the customer and apologize for their actions so that the customer feels heard and also saves their business image.

Humans have the tendency to remember positive reviews rather than negative views. However, if people have been traumatized by a certain event, they will remember the negative parts and may even post several reviews on different sites. Simply put, more research needs to be done to reveal why we simply remember the bad events more than the good ones, and why others remember the good events instead of the bad events? The linguistic analysis Jurafsky describes through the differences in positive and negative reviews serves as a framework for understanding linguistics, human nature, emotions, and opinions.

Smell Training' Could Help People Who Lost Their Sense of Smell From COVID-19
Source: https://www.verywellhealth.com/smell-training-covid-19-5090018

Smell Vocabularies in Menus

Some languages have many, olfactory vocabularies including Cantonese and Mandarin, and these languages are rich in negative smells. Yik, the smell of rancid or oxidized oil or peanuts, Seng meaning fishy, blood smell, Jurafsky’s team analyzed several online reviewers and their discussion of beers they disliked at sou, meaning musky, muttony, gamy, body and order smell (97). While these negative vocabulary words are actually not being used as much in Cantonese, smell words still hold meaning. The vast majority of many different types of smell have made it difficult to maintain a “shared stable vocabulary of smell words” and people interpret each smell word uniquely (98).

Sound vocabularies with food
Source: https://theconversation.com/excavating-hidden-and-forgotten-pasts-with-sound-140680

Sound Vocabularies in Food

Lastly, Jurfaksy shows that there are similar consonants and vowel sounds that help us to make meaning out of food words. The sound of a food word can tell us a lot about a particular item of food or menu item through his idea of sound symbolism. Sound symbolism has been studied with vowels, particularly front vowels and back vowels (161). According to Jurafsky, sound symbolism plays an important role in modern advertising and designer names and some companies even get their ideas from linguists (164).

It is said that mammals and birds use low-frequency sounds when they are angry or upset and use high-frequency sounds when they are happy. On the contrary, humans have the tendency to associate different pitches and frequencies of sounds with sizes. “Chips, Cheese, Wheat Thins, Pretzel Things, Ritz, Krispy, Triscuits, Cheese Crips all have front vowel words” and back vowel names in ice cream names like Rock Roady, Almond, Fudge, Chocolate, Caramel, Cooking Dough and Coconut (164). These words sound so appetizing when they are being spoken that they can almost see and hear the foods. The frequency sounds reveal that consonants and vowels have helped to create a rich system of meaning in our languages.

How To Talk About Food And Drink In Turkish
Source: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/turkish-food-words

Significance in Anthropology

The various links between unique food words and the way that they are used, read and heard can show how dishes are procured and the processes that occur to produce them. Menus can tell the customers a lot about the cost of the establishment and the type of place it is just by reading the words. Through the historical tracing of ketchup and drinking culture and the analysis of online reviews and menus, the reader is offered a lens into how certain words produce certain emotions and reactions. The next time you see a menu, maybe you will see each food word in a new light.


Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. Print.

Miller, Barbara D. Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World. Boston: Pearson, 2017. Print.

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