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The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  1,682 ratings  ·  265 reviews
Why do we eat toast for breakfast, and then toast to good health at dinner? What does the turkey we eat on Thanksgiving have to do with the country on the eastern Mediterranean? Can you figure out how much your dinner will cost by counting the words on the menu?

In The Language of Food, Stanford University professor and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky peels away the mysteries
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 15th 2014 by W. W. Norton Company (first published September 8th 2014)
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Average rating 3.71  · 
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 ·  1,682 ratings  ·  265 reviews

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I enjoyed this book. It's very US-centric and the US is all about never losing an opportunity to sell someone something. In this case food. Sometimes it is done with onomatopoeic words like 'cracker', say it and you can feel how crisp that wafer is in your mouth. The best known example is the breakfast cereal that goes Snap, Crackle and Pop (no one mentions it goes soggy in the milk). Or what about the cheese 'bubbling' on the pizza with it's thin, crispy crust as you sip your fizzy soda?

Aug 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
good gravy. between putting this book down and losing it in my stacks to triumphantly finishing it after months and months of not knowing where it was only to have it be potentially compromised by the bedbug invasion which necessitated it be locked up in a bag for a month, it has now been over a year since i first picked this thing up and i am only now able to review it. and it's not even 200 pages long. take out the pictures and the recipes, and it's practically a magazine article.

i am the wor
Diane S ☔
Sep 17, 2014 rated it liked it
2.5 an interesting though unevenly written look at the history of some of our foods. Also how a look at a menu can determine the price of the food charged in a restaurant. Some parts were fascinating, some parts were not. A good skimming book.
Nov 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommended to Laura by: NPR
Shelves: history, food
Good bus book. Not as deep as I was expecting from the NPR stories.

I suspect there’s a deeper book on the cutting room floor. On the penultimate page of the main text there’s a great paragraph about the “implicit cultural norms” embedded in food and an assertion “that a cuisine is a richly structured cultural object, with its component flavor elements and its set of combinatory grammatical principles, learned early and deeply.” (184). Our author wraps up by musing that the bacon fad comes from
Jun 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"The linguistic and culinary habits of our own tribe or nation are not the habits of all tribes and nations. Yet all languages and cultures share a deep commonality, the social and cognitive traits that make us human. These facets - respects for our differences, and faith in our shared humanity- are the ingredients in the recipe for compassion. "
Edwin Battistella
Oct 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In thirteen (a baker’s dozen) readable chapters, Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky shows what happens when linguists study the language of food. Combining etymological research and contemporary linguistic theory, the book offers a readable history of such staples as ketchup, turkey, salad, sushi, macaroni, sherbet, and even broader concepts like entrée and dessert. His well-researched vignettes provide something for readers to chew over, while the computational insights are surprise ingredients. We ...more
Sep 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
Initially, I gave this 4 stars, on the grounds of the subject matter, trying to ignore the atrocious writing. Alas, it's so bad it overshadows the good parts. And there are good parts. Whenever Jurafsky addresses his own research, things are fine--even if I don't think he quite understands how a regression analysis works. The writing, though. So bad. There's misspelling the name of your hometown (p. 66). There's ridiculous turns of phrase, like "it was here that the main industrial production oc ...more
Bastard Travel
Aug 07, 2016 rated it it was ok
A more accurate title would be "The Language of A Bunch of Six-Hundred-Year-Old Recipes for 28 Gallons of Vinegar-Meat Stew".

I learned a few new words and fun tidbits, but by and large, it was just a guy talking about how great California is for the first quarter of the chapter, then slapping up a recipe for a gross and/or uncookable food, then explaining the (chiefly Arabic) origins of the word.

Ketchup comes from China. The word, too. Looks German, doesn't it? Used to be a fish sauce. England s
Alex Hammel
Mar 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
We get it, dude. You live in San Francisco.
Creda Wilson
Sep 25, 2014 rated it it was ok
I liked the book - there was a lot of interesting content about the history of food and language. However the style was sometimes a bit weird - could have done without the personal tidbits throughout.
Jan 13, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-cooking
Available as a 6+ hour audio download.

I teach English. I listen to books like this as a kind of professional development that you can do on a bicycle, city bus, etc., because you never know what kind of language-related trivia may come in useful in the classroom.

For example (if I remember correctly), study of a large data set shows that a one-letter increase in median word length in the description of menu items correlates with a 19 cent increase in price. On the other hand, the average number o
Jun 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
Interesting but even book that would be better as a magazine long-read. Why do menus or TV ads always use buzzwords to make foods sound better (juicy cuts of steak, fresh vegetables, locally-sourced products, etc.)? What's the origins of ketchup? Why do we propose a toast?
Author Jurafsky proposes to take the reader though the origins and histories of foods. Some of it is quite interesting (the origins of ketchup for example) or looking at how someone could/should look at a menu for the quality
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book about words and food what's better than this!
"As part of this French invasion, sometime in the thirteenth century, a word spelled variously flure, floure, flower, flour, or flowre first appeared in English, borrowed from the French word fleur, meaning “the blossom of a plant,” and by extension, “the best, most desirable, or choicest part of something.” [...] “Flower of wheat,” ... meant the very fine white flour created by repeatedly sifting the wheat through a fine-meshed clo
Soobie's scared
I first became aware of this book reading an Italian weekly magazine. Which is weird since it hasn't been translated into Italian yet. Anyway, it tickled my curiosity and I bought it. After three years I finally read it.

First of all, I have a feeling this book will be way more appreciate by people living in Los Angeles. There are tons of references to places in the city. It gives authenticity but it makes it a little obscure for those who've never been to L.A. On the contrary, I didn't mind all
Mar 28, 2016 rated it liked it
My daughter-in-law combines her professional knowledge of medicine with her academic knowledge of classic literature to produce her sagacious and erudite self. But her greatest savvy is the ability to choose books to give to her father-in-law which he is highly likely to enjoy. Dan Jurafsky's "The Language of Food" is a double delight: a feast for word nerds and a feast for foodies. Jurafsky is a linguistic anthropologist, interested in the secrets contained in the ever-evolving language used to ...more
Aug 04, 2014 rated it liked it
In a medium bowl, mix equal parts of research, recipes, fun facts, and story telling. Recipe yields plenty of entertainment and information about why we eat what we eat, how foods traveled from culture to culture, and how food vocabulary affects our appetites.

The author's brief bio on the back flap explains the focus of this book. "Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University. One of the foremost computational linguists in the world, he is the recipient
May 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Well, I had expectations, I enjoyed it, but it was not what I expected.
Dec 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
There is a lot of interesting history here but the linguistics part of it, which is what I thought would be most interesting, gets somewhat lost in print. I wish I had listened to this on audio book to get the full understanding of the routes to the subtle changes in words. While some of them are just matters of simple letter transposition or slight spelling changes, most appear to have been from hearing in one language and trying to translate those sounds into another. There are also many words ...more
Rosario (
This is a collection of articles on language relating to food. It's a mixed bag. There is a lot about etymology and word origins (Why do we "toast" someone or something when drinking? Are macaroons and macarons related, and do macaroni have anything to do with either of them?). This was ok, if not particularly captivating. I was much more interested in the chapter on the language used in menus and how it varies depending on the price point of the restaurant. That was actually quite fascinating, ...more
B. Rule
This one was about a 3.5/5 for me. It has some really interesting etymological and historical info on various culinary practices and dishes, and it's a relatively well-written book for this genre of stuff. In it, you'll learn a little about the history of ketchup, the common origins of fish and chips/escabeche/ceviche in an ancient Persian dish, comparative sequencing/grammar of American, French and Chinese meals, and the associations of certain vowel sounds with particular flavor profiles, incl ...more
E. C. Koch
Oct 23, 2014 rated it liked it
What are the two fundamental and universal elements of any culture? Language and cuisine, of course. Jurafsky breezily takes the reader through the etymologies and histories behind food words, from menu to ketchup to turkey and on and on. And I think "breezily" is the operative modifier here, because the book proper tops out at 190 pages, and even with notes and an index it doesn't quite get to 250. So for $26.95 of your hard-earned book dollars you're not getting very much book. And then also t ...more
Andrea James
May 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: cooking
The book feel well researched and with interesting titbits of the history of how a number of different dishes evolved as they move across countries and continents. As a title suggests, there are also explanations of the effects of words - front/back vowels, sharp (i or e) round (o or u) - on our perceptions of lightness/heaviness etc. and made me reflect on the choice of words in brand names and advertising slogans.

And the book reminds us of the impact that influential people have on what we eat
Aug 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is what you would expect from the title -- a lighthearted look at the words we use for common foods, with historical and linguistic context -- and occasionally a bit more. I really enjoyed learning about how foods and preparation techniques spread and morphed through trade and colonization.

My only criticism is that it lacks cohesion and (useful) structure. The author skips from topic to topic, often following historical or cultural connections, but equally often following personal ass
Well researched! The works cited section is steep. However, also written in a friendly tone. It never got stuffy or a drag to read. Casual, conversational anecdotes about the author's personal observations in the foodscape of San Francisco. Deep, historical evidence from 1500s-era French recipes to tales of seafaring rum drinkers. You can tell the author loves this subject and its nuances. The best part, personal opinions were confined to the epilogue, where the author argues to inspire a worldl ...more
Nov 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Some interesting stories about how the names of foods developed across the world and the origin of a lot of these foods.
Renee Ortenzio
Mar 09, 2018 rated it liked it
3.5. It wasn’t a page turner, but it did have nuggets of info that excited my nerd brain.
Oct 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Food and language, two of my favorite things in one book. Jurafsky draws on computational linguistics as well as the "EATymology" of words and other linguistic skills to look into what language and food together can tell us about such things as optimism, class structure, health, marketing ploys, and our commonalities as humans. Some of the word histories are well known (ketchup, turkey), though more richly explained here than I've seen them before, but my favorite parts are the novel ideas he ex ...more
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Such an interesting read! I love books where I have to look up words that challenge. Mr. Jurafsky's explains how some of the food combinations we eat today are the result of centuries of tweaking and modifying. My mother fried filet of sole that she served with sides of rice and spinach. (Carefully separated on our plates because we were a litter of picky eaters.) She encouraged us to season the fish and spinach with vinegar or lemon juice. This dinner was a 1950s descendent of a sweet and sour ...more
Nov 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
Love food and find linguistics interesting. This book mainly discusses the intersection of food history through food names and how both the food and words evolved. This book seemed to just sample the subject here and there. It was quick but fairly unremarkable.
Aug 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I devoured this book! I learned so much not just about language, but about the history and science behind popular foods such as macaroons, ketchup, ceviche, and ice cream. The Language of Food also answered a question I've always been curious about: why the heck does turkey (the bird) have the same name as Turkey (the country)? This book is a fascinating study of the interaction of East and West in the formation of modern cuisines. Recommended for everyone!
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Dan Jurafsky is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. He and his wife live in San Francisco.

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Ashley Poston made her name with Once Upon a Con, a contemporary series set in the world of fandom, and her two-part space opera, Heart of...
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“Chekyns upon soppes” (basically chicken on cinnamon toast) from the 1545 early Tudor cookbook A Propre Newe Booke of Cokerye: Chekyns upon soppes. Take sorel sauce a good quantitie and put in Sinamon and suger and lette it boyle and poure it upon the soppes then laie on the chekyns.” 0 likes
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