What a difference 30 years makes

Just arrived: Dan Jurafsky’s delightful The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (Norton, 2014):

I’ll have more to say about the book later; here I’m focusing on chapter 1, “How to Read a Menu”, because it takes up a topic than Ann Zwicky and I wrote on in 1980 (“America’s National Dish: The Style of Restaurant Menus”, in American Speech 55.83-92; available on-line here). A lot has changed in 30+ years.

(Some Jurafsky food background: his excellent Language of Food blog and a NYT Sunday Review interview column of 5/11/14, including a note about his Stanford freshman seminar on the language of food, an interview summarized here on AZBlog on May 13th, in “Linguist in the media”.)

Z&Z on menus was a qualitative study,

based on a sample of about 200 menus (from restaurants in a variety of price ranges, offering many different sorts of food, in diverse regions of the United States and Canada) and on material specifically designed to instruct restaurant owners in the writing and layout of menus (p. 83)

(The sample was collected by us and a number of helpful friends, to which we added menus in two compendia, for restaurants in Washington DC and Columbus OH.)

The sample was quite small, and none of it was on-line; we could do no systematic searches or meaningful statistical analyses.

The world has changed. On p. 8 of his book, Dan refers to “New York Public Library’s online menu collection” – 10,000 menus, starting with an 1843 Astor House breakfast menu. A startling resource. But, more important, on p. 10 he describes a carefully assembled sample used by him and a set of collaborators:

a very large dataset consisting of 6500 modern menus (describing a total of 650,000 dishes) culled from the web, covering restaurants in seven cities… This allowed us to control for the city, the neighborhood, the type of cuisine, and many other factors that economists control for when studying restaurant price

Stunning stuff. The sample permits statistical analysis of associations between non-linguistic factors and linguistic features of the menus, and of the linguistic (and other) factors that contribute to the price of dishes. And then Dan goes on to suggest interpretations for these associations. All way beyond what Z&Z could do in 1980.

(Some side comments on the book. One, it’s very much grounded in San Francisco, in the way that Calvin Trillin’s food writing is grounded in New York City and Kansas City. Two, the book benefits from Dan’s considerable experience in cooking and eating in a number of cuisines. And three, it bubbles with Dan’s characteristic enthusiasm, which carries the reader through quite a lot of etymology and cultural history.)

4 Responses to “What a difference 30 years makes”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Love Dan Jurafsky’s rambling style – I just bookmarked his blog. My unfavorite word in Restaurese is Rice Pilaf – not enough rice, and no, you can’t have any more.

  2. chrishansenhome Says:

    Just ordered the Kindle edition, which will be delivered Monday here in the UK.

  3. Ellen Says:

    Sounds wonderful; I’ll look for a copy. It’s a shame that the late great James McCawley (one of whose talks on “many brownies vs. much baklava” I was privileged to hear) isn’t around to see it….

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Now gathering interest in the media: NPR, here and the New York Times, here.

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