I ordered the Cajun Pasta, all shrimp (that is, with extra shrimp replacing the chicken and andouille sausage), and the server asked, “Are you a vegetarian, or do you just like shrimp?” As it happens, I just like shrimp. But I noticed the word vegetarian, used here to refer to someone who doesn’t eat red meat or poultry but does eat seafood — a usage that annoys strict vegetarians mightily.

What’s at issue here is superficially a matter of language, but at root has to do with categorization, in this case the categorization of foodstuffs. There’s a folk taxonomy here, in which the flesh of animals (in the broad sense of animal, as in “animal, vegetable, mineral”) is distinguished from food from plants, and within the FLESH category, the flesh of mammals (RED-MEAT) and birds (POULTRY), taken together (as MEAT), is distinguished from sea creatures used as food (SEAFOOD), and within the SEAFOOD category, there’s a division into FISH and SHELLFISH.

This is a folk taxonomy, not a scientific one, and like folk taxonomies in general it’s imperfect. The labels I’ve given, in all-caps, are just (suggestive but ad hoc) names for the categories, not expressions used by English speakers to refer to these categories. (Taxa in folk taxonomies don’t necessarily have ordinary-language names.)

The question is then how ordinary speakers of English talk about these matters.

As usual, there’s a lot of variation, and a certain amount of disputation about usage.

Many speakers of English reserve the word vegetarian for reference to people who do not eat things in the FLESH category (including SEAFOOD). But some (like, apparently, the server in the vignette above) extend the word to take in the eating of things in the SEAFOOD category. For this, some people use pescetarian (or pesco-vegetarian or piscatorian).

A certain amount of confusion is sown when vegetarians (in the narrow sense) tell people that they “don’t eat meat” — and then risk being served fish, because, as their hosts explain, “fish isn’t meat”. Some time ago I learned not to say of (strict) vegetarian friends that they didn’t eat meat, and opted to say that they were vegetarian. But now I see that this won’t do either, and I’ll have to say that they don’t eat meat or fish.

In any case, the MEAT category (excluding SEAFOOD) plays a role in our culture, at least for those who are familiar with religious bans on “meat” on Fridays or during Lent. Fish, however, was fine, and meals on “meatless” days tended to involve eggs, cheese, or fish.

Meanwhile, for many people in many other contexts, meat denotes the category I’ve labeled RED-MEAT: beef, veal, lamb, pork, venison, rabbit, etc. In a discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list last November, several people suggested red meat as the label for this category, but many are reluctant to call pork or rabbit (or, sometimes, veal) “red meat”, especially given the advertising campaign to market pork as “the other white meat”.

To make things more entertaining, the Wikipedia entry for Red_meat gives two technical usages:

Red meat in culinary terminology refers to meat which is red-colored when raw, while in nutritional terminology, it refers to meat from mammals.

CULINARY-RED-MEAT then excludes pork, rabbit, and veal while taking in duck and goose, so it’s far from RED-MEAT. The nutritional definition, however, picks out the RED-MEAT category.

(There’s always some indeterminacy in these things. Goodness knows what people do with turtle meat, alligator meat, frog, snake, etc. I assume that they’re not acceptable to ordinary vegetarians, nor would they be acceptable on “meatless” days. But if your doctor tells you to “avoid red meat”, are they in or out?)

12 Responses to “Vegetarian?”

  1. Paul Wilkins Says:

    When it comes to precision, I like to say that I practice vegetarianism. What I mean by that is that I will eat chicken or fish (depending on the origin/species) from time to time, but for most days, my diet is either true vegetarian or even vegan. So when my diet follows vegetarian principles, I am practicing, and conversely, when it does not, I am not.

    I think this phrasing helps people realize a couple of things, such as this is a well-reasoned, and spirituality-based diet, that I don’t care to debate what constitutes a vegetarian and that I am not a vegetarian. It also helps lead to a more structured discussion when I link it to Juddhism.

    It is a point of veggie rage, though, as you indicate, it is never enough to be even slightly circumspect about what you will eat. It’s also quizzical, because it seems to be pretty well-known what it means to eat kosher (my first set of dietary guidelines) and few folks would choose to debate the individual/community that follows kosher standards of food preparation or eating. Same for halal. On the other hand, those poor vegetarians are the target of constant misunderstanding and ridicule, despite the fact that all they are doing is thinking for a minute about what they put in their mouths and its connection what’s divine.

    (Aside: I think that for the topic of word rage, the term vegetarian and its derivatives stir up quite the visceral storm in most of the omnivore community. Curiouser.)

  2. mollymooly Says:

    When I first heard the term “lacto-vegetarian” I thought “lacto” was cognate with “lax”.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Well, I think “rage” is inappropriate, given that people who self-identify as “vegetarians” will eat anything from fish to eggs-and-cheese to chesse only through plants only. As I have a sister who calls herself a vegetarian (though not from spiritual reasons of any sort) who eats seafood very often, I’d get miffed if a “vegetarian” was enraged with me for not knowing what precise brand of vegetarianism he followed.

  4. J. Says:

    Going vegan avoids all this confusion.

    Except that – until recently – saying ‘snuffleupagus’ got more recognition from waitstaff than saying ‘vegan’.

  5. Dick Rawson Says:

    Some part of this confusion surely results from inattention. I have no concern about eating meat (in whatever sense). So, I haven’t paid attention to the terminology for various diets that are particular about eating meat (in various senses). When I suddenly need to express a distinction about this, I’m not ready!


  6. Ian Preston Says:

    I am one of those people who eat seafood but not meat and those are the words I would typically use to describe myself; I don’t find there is any term for it that is generally understood. I am also happy, in principle, eating terrestrial animals such as insects, snails, worms, crabs and so on, though. I think it would come close to describing my position if I were to say that I don’t eat any species that I can imagine exchanging meaningful eye contact with.

  7. Hawthorne Abendsen Says:

    I sometimes tease my spouse, who calls herself vegetarian, yet would eat the occasional shrimp or lobster, that she will only eat animals that are delicious!

  8. Philip Says:

    Today’s Los Angeles Times has an article about the placement of the chiguiro (capybara in English) on the endangered species list in Colombia. The chiguiro is the largest rodent on the planet, and it has virtually disappeared from neighboring Venezuela. Why? Because it’s a church-sanctioned substitute for red meat during Lent and Holy Week.

    A traditional Venezulan Holy Week dish is pavilon: white rice, black beans, fried bananas, and carne de chiguiro. Tasty stuff, for sure, and mighty meaty, too.

  9. indigo Says:

    I too use “strict vegetarian” for vegetarians who never eat any kind of meat at all, won’t eat things that have touched meat, &c. Back in the day (approx. mid80s to mid90s) when I described myself as “not a strict vegetarian”, what that really meant was that I would bend & eat seafood in the (infrequent) company of family who didn’t know what to do with me except feed me fish. It was a workable compromise for all concerned, as my reasons for being veggie had more to do with environmental impact & personal preference than anything religious/spiritual (which is where strict veggies often come from).

    Anyway, I think this sort of arrangement was fairly common, & probably still is whenever you have these cultural divides between veggies & people who can’t begin to imagine what veggies really eat. I think this kind of compromise is the slippery slope responsible for a lot of cluelessness like your waiter’s: well, the one vegetarian I know eats fish almost every time I see her, therefore vegetarians eat fish.

  10. Robert Cumming Says:

    Is this confusion solved to any extent in other languages than English?

  11. Kivi Shapiro Says:

    For what it’s worth, the kosher system–which carefully distinguishes among dairy, meat, and neutral foods–places fish in the third category, along with fruits and vegetables and miscellaneous items like salt and honey. The point being that traditional Jews, like Catholics, don’t consider fish to be meat.

  12. Does this contain any X? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] written on this blog about the hazards of trying to get vegetarian food: on top of varying understandings […]

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