Stanford Linguist Speaks the Language of Food
How does the department chair of the Stanford Linguistics Department, who also boasts a doctorate in computer science from Berkeley, end up writing a book about food? A recent chat with Dan Jurafsky, author of The Language of Food, A Linguist Reads the Menu (WW Norton, 2014) answered this question as well as revealing the surprising parallels between the evolution of ketchup and product innovation in Silicon Valley.
Beth Lee: So how did you end up in academia writing a book about the language of food and not get lured into the Silicon Valley startup frenzy?
Dan Jurafsky: I enjoyed working on startups between college and post-doc. But teaching and having students around is so energizing. Young people are passionate about what’s exciting and new.
Academia is also a great job if you get bored easily, which I do. As a professor, you’re doing something different all the time from one-on-one student mentoring, to great discussions in a little seminar, to the huge lecture classes. And I still taste the startup scene by acting as an advisor to students working in companies or companies themselves.
BL: But when did food enter your body of work? You won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 when you were at the University of Colorado. How did that influence your work?
DJ: Awards like that are very validating. It’s recognition that you’re good at what you do, which gives you permission to work on subjects that aren’t just incremental. I think the food came out of that. It’s OK to work on things that are at the fringe of your field. Food and linguistics is not a typical intersection.
BL: Has food been a fascination your whole life?
DJ: I’ve always been obsessed with food. When I was 12 or 13, I remember dog sitting for a neighbor and reading their Julia Child cookbooks at their home, memorizing all the sauce names. It was fascinating. Growing up in Silicon Valley, we lived in Los Altos near the apricot orchards and I remember picking apricots on the way home from school. Food was all around me.
BL: You discuss so many interesting food topics in the book— from the origin of ketchup to what the word “delicious” really means on a menu. So what is the hidden meaning of the word “delicious”?
DJ: I call the word “delicious” a “linguistic filler” because restaurants use vague positive words like delicious or tasty to fill in when they don’t have anything better to say. These fillers are associated on menus with lower prices—a few cents less for every time one of these words is used.
BL: What is your favorite chapter in the book and why?
DJ: My favorite is the origin of “ketchup” because it was what led me to write the book. Thirty years ago I was living in Hong Kong and everybody seemed to know that “ketchup” was a Chinese word. I was skeptical—after all, it’s the all-American sauce—but it turns out they were right.
In the book I show how ketchup evolved from an exotic imported Chinese fish sauce through a British mushroom sauce to the tangy American ketchup we know today. Ketchup is a symbol of our immigrant nation, reminding us that even the quintessentially American condiment came from somewhere else and evolved through many cultures.
Actually, the story of ketchup is a great metaphor for Silicon Valley. Like any recipe, ketchup is a scientific innovation, one that evolves collaboratively as generations of chefs make changes that lead to a totally new sauce. At each iteration the recipe feels completely new but you can see how it’s grounded in what went before.
That’s the story of Silicon Valley. Nobody ever invents things completely from scratch. You take the last widget and bring your new insight. But if you step back, it’s easy to see how it’s come out of what went before.
BL: You mentioned orchards in Silicon Valley growing up—they are nearly all gone—so what’s unique about the Silicon Valley food scene today?
DJ: It used to be that you found the best immigrant food in inner cities, where the immigrants came, like the Lower East Side of New York—the Germans, the Irish, Russians, the Italians. Not anymore. Now Silicon Valley is the classic immigrant suburb. The exciting ethnic food is not in San Francisco but in the Valley—Milpitas, Cupertino, Fremont—that’s a huge change.
The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
by Dan Jurafsky, (W. W. Norton & Company; $26.95; September 2014)
*You can find The Language of Food locally at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Omnivore Books in San Francisco and nearby Barnes and Noble stores.