Edible adjectives

The xkcd cartoon (#1774 Adjective Foods) from the 19th:

Mark Liberman posted this on Language Log on the 19th, with a link to a 2004 posting of his and with the video of Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog” sketch. Ordinarily, I’d just add that link to my Page on postings about xkcd cartoons, but this time I want to elaborate some on my own.

The modifiers (mostly adjectives) in the cartoon are of several types, but primarily they have to do with sources or modes of preparation. Of two rough types (a few other modifiers not in the cartoon are in square brackets):

describing sources or general modes of preparation: kosher, [halal], [housemade] / homemade, [natural] / all-natural, organic, artisanal, locally-sourced, craft / [crafted], bespoke, cage-free, [free-range], [custom], [grass-fed]

describing specific preparations: smoked, glazed, fire-roasted, barrel-aged, sun-dried, stone-ground, flambė

Otherwise there are modifiers attributing high quality:

premium, gourmet, authentic, grade A, [top quality]

And those describing specific qualities:

extra sharp (of cheese) / [sharp, medium, mild], original flavor, lite, low-calorie; whole / [sliced, chopped, …], [spicy, hot, mild], [sweet]

I’ve posted a number of times on kosher foods, once on housemade ‘made in-house’ vs. home-made, and several times glancingly on natural and organic. And I’ve got a posting in preparation on halal ‘allowed’ (vs. haram ‘forbidden’).

Now back to Mark Liberman in 2004, on “Modification as social anxiety”, comparing menu items at several different restaurants, aimed at different clienteles. Some striking differences involved the use of modifiers (and consequently the length of the menu descriptions). For example:

where the White Dog has “Organic Wild Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Oil and Winter Herb Pesto” (11 words, 69 characters), Le Bec Fin has “Risotto aux champignons sauvages/Wild mushroom risotto” (7 words, 56 characters in both languages)

(Mark also includes a reference to Zwicky & Zwicky (1980) on the language of restaurant menus; discussion of adjectives there to come below.)

Forward to a 9/6/14 posting of mine, “What a difference 30 years makes”, about Dan Jurafsky’s delightful The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (2014), where in chapter 1, “How to Read a Menu”, Dan and his collaborators looked at a huge database of restaurant menus and subjected the data to an assortment of statistical tests (two things that Z&Z were unable to do).

They uncovered significant connections between item price and several other factors, among them: length of words; use of exotic or spices (“exotifying” language); and use of “linguistic fillers”, of several types, including:

positive but vague words like delicious and synonyms tasty, mouthwatering, flavorful, scrumptious, and savory, or words like terrific, wonderful, delightful, and sublime… Another type is whar my colleague Arnold Zwicky calls “appealing adjectives”: words like zesty, rich, golden brown, crispy, or crunchy. These aren’t completely uninformative … but whether something is zesty is a matter of opinion.

The more expensive the restaurant, the more sparing in linguistic fillers it is. Dan makes an explicit connection to Gricean reasoning (based on relevance), and refers to Liberman on status anxiety.

Meanwhile, in a 6/13/14 posting “DILF days”, I looked at “ornamental adjectives” in some ad copy for porn:

[There were] ornamental adjectives (juicy twice in this small sample, in juicy donkey-meat and juicy cum-hole; raunchy dad; eager mouth; enormous 9-inch meat — what 9-inch cock is not enormous?).

The ornamental adjectives are familiar from the domain of enthusiastic food writing, especially on restaurant menus. From p. 89 of Zwicky & Zwicky, “America’s national dish: The style of restaurant menus” (available on-line here):

TASTY ADJECTIVES. Adjectives that do not refer specifically to methods of preparation are common but often uninformative.

So with porn puff, designed to make the reader hungry to sample the videos.

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