On the Language of Food


A quick experiment. 
Let’s take three short review pieces A, B & C.
Review A is a  lowly 1 star, extremely negative review for a mid-priced brasserie.
Review B is a highly complimentary review for a high end and expensive restaurant.
Review C is an eloquent complimentary review for a low priced fast food restaurant.
Now you know a little more about them, have a quick read of the following three excerpts from restaurant reviews and whilst you read them, consider whether anything strikes you as at all odd or unusual?
Review A: 1 star, extremely negative review for a mid-priced brasserie:
The staff at Chez Stinky made me wait for ages before eventually taking my order. It felt like eating in a scene from “Waiting for Godot”. I had to wait an unacceptably long time for the food to arrive and my plate was dirty. When I tasted the food a brief moment of happiness occurred as I pictured what it would be like to leave this restaurant and not eat here again. Happier memories faded as I found the meal to be uninspired and lacking any discernible flavour. I wondered if I had personally annoyed one of the chefs or waiters to have such a disagreeable experience. I would avoid this lacklustre palace of bland!
Review B: 5 star complimentary review for a high-end expensive restaurant:
Our experience at Chez Champagne was the shiznits. Their addictive seared foie gras and brioche is like some sort of meth amphetamines - we can’t wait to go back and eat them again. Sipping an amuse bouche of fortified sherry was like enjoying the smoothest and most ecstatic rush imaginable. Their chocolate fondants must have crack because we want more. Definitely a repeat experience.
Review C: 5 star complimentary review for a low priced fast food restaurant.
There’s something about the pizza and hot wings at Colonel Quick Fry that reaches sublime heights hitherto only realised by the great renaissance masters. We felt like protagonists on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, touching the divine whilst surrounded by the ephemeral beauty of Heaven and Earth. As we reclined in our unobtrusive vestibule of secret delights, the seductive and voluptuous jam doughnuts for dessert, crowned a meal commensurate with the expectation of our highly experienced and sophisticated palates. Colonel Quick Fry is a connoisseurs sanctuary where the minutiae have received careful consideration.
Does anything strike you as somewhat odd about the three reviews above? 
First and foremost let me emphasise that these reviews are completely made-up and don’t equate to any real restaurants. As they say in the movies - any similarities with restaurants living or dead are purely coincidental. Also, it’s important to state that these fake reviews are exaggerated in order to make a point. And the point is this - the particular language used for food reviews says a lot more than merely what the reviewer thinks of a dining experience - it reveals as much about the reviewer and the perceived “class” of an establishment, as it does about trying to impart what someone genuinely thinks about a particular food and drink experience. For this reason, in the false and exaggerated reviews above, I've attempted to turn the conventions of food review language on its head.
So let’s take a crash course in restaurant review language trends.
In this week’s FT Magazine there’s an excellent piece about the language we use to discuss food, by Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/82f41202-27f3-11e4-ae44-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3BK8CDkHO
The piece explains that in a recent research study at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, 900,000 restaurant reviews for 6,500 restaurants across seven cities in the United States were carefully studied, using specialist computational linguistics techniques, writing bespoke software to automatically count the number of words, analyse their complexity and note the frequency of certain words and phrases including specific pronouns, particular nouns and adjectives.
The findings of Dan Jurafsky and his colleagues are interesting enough for him to have written a book on the subject: ‘The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu’.
In essence, they found that when people write extremely negative reviews they tend to use personal language and words that equate to a traumatic experience - the same words people would use to write about war, the death of a loved one or a tragedy. In order to emphasise some collective grief - negative reviews would typically refer to “us” or “we” to obtain some solidarity - which also adds credence to the message. The same terms and words are typically employed when referring to trauma. 
In order to test this observation and the reader’s response, you’ll note that Review A, above, used singular personal terms. It’s all about “me” and “I”. In addition I attempted to avoid any typical terms used to describe trauma or tragedy - instead seeking to use different language. 
How did it come across? Am guessing it was almost as bland as the fake meal it describes.
Next, Dan Jurafsky explained that when reviewing expensive restaurants, reviewers tend to write much longer reviews, using multisyllabic words and generally trying to show they are sophisticated and educated. Because, when we eat “high class” and sophisticated food - part of the experience is to suggest that we are “high class” and sophisticated ourselves. There also a tendency to use erotic and sensual language when reviewing expensive restaurants - possibly as a way of expressing a reviewers hedonistic tendencies.
Conversely, the study showed that when people review fast food and cheaper restaurants, the language and metaphors used tend to reflect similar words used to describe drugs and addiction. One reason for this is that when eating “naughty” foods like chocolate or fried foods - reviewers attempt to convey blame on the food itself rather than our choices. The study showed this especially applied to women, who may be under more pressure from media and society to eat low-calorie or healthier foods. So, a typical review might say “the French fries were so addictive they must have crack” - in other words it wasn’t my decision to eat unhealthily, I couldn’t help myself, the fries and chocolate made me do it.
Looking again at the made-up reviews above - reviews B and C seek to reverse the language typically used for expensive and cheaper restaurants. How did they come across to you?
It’s impressive that based on his team’s extensive study, Dan Jurafsky and his colleague Josh Freedman believe the can accurately predict the prices on a menu based on the language used.
In addition to analysing reviews, the team looked at menus - how restaurants described their own food - and the language used on packaging for expensive and less expensive food items.  Typically they found that the cheapest restaurants and products tend to use more vague language like “tasty”, “savoury” and “delicious” on their menus. Mid priced restaurants would use too many adjectives like “tender”, “mild”, “fresh” and “rich” to describe their fare, in what is explained as a sort of overcompensation for “status anxiety”. This is in contrast to the most expensive high end restaurants where there’s an assumption the food is “fresh” and “tasty”. Here the name of the game appears to be based on using more unusual, fancy and foreign words - the FT piece uses the examples “tonnarelli”, “choclo”, “bastilla”, “persillade”, “oyako” - all of which relay the highly evolved and sophisticated knowledge of the menu writer and by association - the customer. It also illustrates the idea that the higher class taste in food and the language used aims to distinguish itself from other classes.
It’s right to point out that Dan Jurafsky and his team, focused on American restaurants and reviews. In Europe we may be innately more class conscious and certainly our language and food culture is somewhat different. Nevertheless the language of food reveals much about the economics, status and subconscious of society.

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