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Language About Food


LANGUAGE ABOUT FOOD. Foods can be named according to different levels of generality. The basic level terms (Rosch, "Principles of Categorization") are the most consistent across languages in that translation equivalents can be readily found. Examples of basic level terms are "apple," "potato," "rice," "coffee," "turkey," "salmon," and "snails." This level often corresponds to scientific taxonomies. More specifically, varietal or breed terms tend to be compounds consisting of a modifier plus a basic term, as in "Jonathan apple," "jasmine rice," "sockeye salmon," or "green-lipped mussel."

Higher level categories are more variable across languages than are basic level terms and often result in different, incompatible classifications. Whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable depends on the purpose of the classification. For scientific purposes, it is a fruit (as are squash and bell peppers), since it contains the seed for reproduction. However, for culinary purposes, a tomato is a vegetable in Europe and North America. In Taiwan, where tomatoes are eaten for dessert, along with sweet fruits, it would be a fruit. English-speakers classify potatoes as vegetables, but German-speakers are not likely to consider the Kartoffel (potato) to be included in the German word Gemüse, translated as "vegetable" but not coextensive with the English category.

There are many named categories based on cultural, dietary, and religious practices. According to Jewish dietary laws, the term kosher designates foods acceptable for Jews to eat, and tref (a Yiddish word) designates pork, shellfish, and other foods forbidden to eat. Another distinction is between milchig, describing dairy products, and fleishig, describing meat products, which include poultry but not fish. Items from these two categories are not to be eaten at the same meal. Pareve products are made without milk or meat, and can be eaten at dairy or meat meals.

Foods can be classified by their primary biochemical composition into carbohydrates, proteins, and fat for health and other dietary purposes. Vegetarians distinguish between "vegans," who eat no animal products, and "ovo-lacto-vegetarians," who eat eggs and milk products.

There are many informal and slang words for food in general: "chow," "grub," "mess," and "eats" are a few examples.

Words for Meals

English has various names for the customary times of day when people eat. "Meal" is a general term that includes breakfast, lunch, and supper (or dinner). "Dinner" is the largest meal, which can be midday or evening, depending on the region and culture. "Supper" is an evening meal, but for many people in the United States, "supper" and "dinner" are synonyms. The Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English (p. 217) contrasts meal terms for the British middle class and working class, and for Scotland in general. British middle-class words are similar to American usage, with the addition of "(afternoon) tea." In Scotland and among the British working class, "dinner" is served at noon, tea is served around 4 P.M., "(high) tea" is a light cooked meal served between 5 and 6 P.M., while "supper" is a small meal between 9 and 10 P.M.

In contrast to "meal," the term "snack" refers to food eaten between meals. Fancy or elaborate meals, especially those served on special occasions, are termed "feasts" or "banquets."

For meals with several courses, the courses are generally named according to the order in which they are served. In English the first course is the "appetizer" (or "starter" or "hors d'oeuvre"), followed by the main course or "entrée," and finally the "dessert." Although many English culinary terms are taken from French, usually with the French meaning, the sense of "entrée" has undergone a slight semantic shift. Traditional formal French dinners typically consisted of five courses: the hors d'oeuvre (literally "out of the work," often a soup or pâté), then the entrée, usually fish, followed by the plat principal (or plat de résistance, pièce de résistance ), then fromage (cheese), and finally dessert.

Cooking Vocabulary

Preparing food by cooking is a universal practice in human societies, and every language has words to differentiate cooking methods. In English, "cook" is a general term with more specific words: "boil" (cook in water), "bake" (cook with dry heat in an enclosed space), "grill" or "broil" (cook over/under an open flame), "roast" ( originally, cook on a spit over an open flame, but now partly synonymous with "bake"), and "fry" (cook in fat). English has highly specific words, including "steam," "poach" (cook gently in water), "deep-fry" or "French-fry" (sub-merge in hot oil), "sauté" or "pan-fry" (fry quickly in fat), or "stew" (cook slowly for a long time), "simmer" (gently boil), "braise" (sauté then simmer), and "barbecue." A relatively recent addition is "microwave."

Although German is closely related to English, the same concepts are expressed with somewhat fewer words. Kochen can mean "cook in general" or "boil" as a specific cooking method. Braten covers pan-frying, grilling, and broiling, while backen is the general word for "bake." Other words are sieden (boil, simmer), rösten (roast), and grillen, a specific term for grilling. Dünsten, schmoren, and dämpfen (braise, stew) are more specific.

Polish, like German, uses one word, gotawać, for cooking in general and for boiling. Other words are smażyć (fry), duscić (stew), and piec (bake, roast).

In Japanese the general term for cooking is nitaki or ryoori-suru (prepare food). Niru is a general term for boiling, with two subterms: yuderu for boiling solid food and taku for boiling or steaming rice. Musu means 'steam'. Yaku covers baking, roasting, broiling and frying, but there are specific words as well: ageru (deep-fry), itameru (stir-fry), aburu (grill or broil).

The general term for 'cook' in Mandarin Chinese is shāo. Its basic meaning is 'burn', and in context it can also be interpreted as 'bake', 'roast', or 'boil'. Other cooking words are zhǔ (boil), zhēng (steam), chǎo (stir fry) and jiān (fry in a little oil), zhà (deep-fry), and káo, a general word which covers baking, roasting, and broiling. More specific words include dùn (stew in broth or sauce) and mēn (cook slowly in a covered pot).

Amharic, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia, uses the term bessela (cook), with specific words for cooking methods and type of food cooked: fella for boiling liquids, k'ek'k'elle for boiling solid food, gagger for baking bread, t'ebbese for frying or roasting meat, and k'olla for parching grain.

In general, languages have a variety of different words for cooking methods based largely on whether water, oil, dry heat, or an open flame is used. There is almost always a specific word for "boil," and often this is also the general word for "cook." Grilling (broiling), baking, roasting, and frying can be denoted by different words, but frequently these are combined into one or two general words.

Eating and Drinking Vocabulary

All languages have words for eating and drinking. In English, the distinction is whether solids or liquids are consumed. German, in addition to trinken (drink), contrasts essen (eating by humans) and fressen (eating by animals). Navajo has a general word for "eat," and several specific ones whose use depends on the amount, shape, and consistency of the food eaten. (Corresponding distinctions occur in Navajo verbs for handling food, but not in verbs for cooking, which depend on the cooking method.)

English has two sets of specific verbs for eating. The first set comprises intransitive verbs for eating meals or amounts of food: these include "dine," "lunch," "snack," and "nosh." The second set comprises transitive verbs that describe the manner of eating or drinking: these include "gobble," "munch," "nibble," "lick," "guzzle," "sip," "wolf down," and "slurp" (Fellbaum and Kegl, 1989).

Words for Wine

Although we can perceive only four basic tastessweet, sour, bitter, and saltywe can perceive thousands of odors. These odors fall into a few basic categories: floral, ethereal, musky, resinous, foul, and acrid (Ackerman, p. 11). The sense of smell is extremely sensitive and selective. "Our olfactory threshold is about 6,000 to 10,000 times as sensitive as that for taste" (Amerine et al., 1959, p. 483). What we perceive as taste is really a combination of taste and smell.

A very large, creative vocabulary has been developed to describe the taste and smell of wines, and new words are continuously invented. The vocabulary includes scientific-technical terms mostly used by experts (for example, "malo-lactic fermentation," "botrytis nose"), and widely used varietal names, like "Chardonnay" and "Pinot Noir." Some words are descriptive: for example, wines can be "sweet" and "dry." However, a large part of the vocabulary consists of words that have both a descriptive and evaluative component. A wine with a high acid content can be "tart," if it is judged desirable, or "sour," if undesirable. A wine's "body," a function of dissolved solids (tannin, acids, and fruit extracts) and alcohol, can be either "heavy" or "light," words that are evaluatively neutral. "Rich" and "big" are positive terms for "heavy," while "coarse" is negative. "Thin" and "watery" are negative terms for the neutral term "light."

The purely descriptive and descriptive-evaluative words are usually divided into the following three categories: "Taste"sweet or dry (residual sugar or no sugar), sour (acidic), and bitter (tannic); "bouquet and aroma"the smell of the wine; and "texture"the feel of the wine in the mouth. This last category of texture includes body, and also includes sensations such as prick-liness from certain acids and astringency from tannin. Positive texture words include "smooth" and its synonyms "soft," "silky," "velvety." Negative descriptors include "rough," "hard," and "harsh."

The numerous descriptors for specific tastes and smells are based on a similarity to some fruits, vegetables, or other objects. Wines can be "fruity," "vegetal," or more specifically, have the taste or smell of any fruit (cherry, apple, melon), vegetable (green bean, asparagus, bell pepper), spice (cinnamon, nutmeg), or herb (thyme, peppermint). Wines can also be "meaty," "yeasty," "perfumed," "flowery," or "smoky." These specific descriptors are nouns or adjectives derived from nouns.

Perhaps the most interesting, most discussed, and most ridiculed aspect of wine description is based on metaphor. "Body," the weight of the wine, gives rise to an open set of semantic extensions. Since heavy things are usually big, various size words are used as synonyms: "huge," "massive," "mammoth." Other metaphors based on the human body include "muscular," "brawny," "fat," "fleshy," "stout," "beefy," "big-boned," and "chunky" for heavy wines, and "lean," "sleek," "sinewy," "svelte," and "thin" for light wines.

The "structure" of a wine is its solid components"the combined effect of elements such as acidity, tannin, glycerin, alcohol and sugar as they related to a wine's texture" (Steiman, p. 231). The concept of structure has generated terms like "backbone," "frame," and "framework."

Especially interesting and creative are metaphors based on personality and character. Wines, whose properties are immediately apparent, can be "generous," "approachable," "assertive," "bold," "brash," "loud," "sassy," "flamboyant," or "in-your-face." Wines with subtler properties are "shy," "sly," "reserved," "reticent," or "subtle." Many terms based on human personality are mainly evaluative: "agile," "charming," "classy," "diplomatic," "friendly," "graceful," "polished," "refined," and "elegant" are positive, while "aggressive," "stingy," and "mean" are negative.

Some wine descriptors are based on age and the life cycle. "Young" and "old" are a function not only of when a wine was made but also of its stage of development from grape juice to drinkable wine to vinegar. Wines that are too young can be "immature," "green," "closed," "dumb" (mute), "tight," (tightly closed, tightly wound), or "locked in." Wines at the peak of drinkability are "open," "mature," "ripe," "developed," "evolved," or "mellow." Wines that are too old can be described as "withered," "dying," "decrepit," "over-the-hill," or "senile."

"Balance" is the way in which the various wine components interact. Positive descriptors include "balanced," "harmonious," "integrated," "focused," "formed," "coordinated," and "well-defined." Negative words are "unbalanced," "unharmonious," "diffuse," "disjointed," "uncoordinated," and "muddled."

In the vocabulary of wine description, synonyms can be added for existing concepts. "Big" is a conventional word for full-bodied wines, and general mechanisms of semantic extension allow speakers to generate descriptors like "gigantic," "towering," or "elephantine" to express the same idea with greater rhetorical effect.

French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other languages spoken in wine-growing countries also have extensive wine vocabularies that cover scientific-technical, common descriptive, and evaluative meanings. Vocabularies for beer, coffee, and tea have many parallels, and even share many of the same words (for example, "rich," "light," "deep").


Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Amerine, M. A., E. B. Roessler, and F. Filipello. "Modern Sensory Methods of Evaluating Wine." Hilgardia: A Journal of Agricultural Science Published by the California Agricultural Experiment Station 28, 18 (June 1959): 177567.

Cook's and Diner's Dictionary: A Lexicon of Food, Wine, and Culinary Terms. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Fellbaum, Christiane, and Judy Kegl. "Taxonomic Structure and Object Deletion in the English Verbal System." In Proceedings of the Sixth Eastern States Conference on Linguistics, edited by K. deJong and Y. No, pp. 94-103. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1989.

Lehrer, Adrienne. Semantic Fields and Lexical Structure. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1974.

Lehrer, Adrienne. Wine and Conversation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English. Burnt Mill, Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 1981.

Rosch, Eleanor. "Principles of Categorization." In Cognition and Categorization, edited by E. Rosch and L. Lloyd. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978.

Steiman, Harvey. Essentials of Wine. Philadelphia: Wine Spectator Press, 2000.

Adrienne Lehrer

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