Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Language of Food (Quote of the Week)

Tyler Cowen of the always-interesting Marginal Revolution blog tipped me off to the Language of Food blog--a creation of Stanford professor Dan Jurafsky, who teaches an occasional linguistics course under the same name (I'm a nerd, so yeah I checked the syllabus and have been trying to track down some of his assigned readings).

Jurafsky has some fascinating insights into the way we talk about, market, and derive names for the foods we eat (and the processes we use to create them). What's the difference between "roasting" and "baking"? Why do we come up with names like "Rocky Road" and "Mississippi Mud" for our ice creams? And what the hell does "all natural" mean? These are the types of questions that Jurafsky aims to tackle on his blog, and I for one found some of his posts to be fascinating (if somewhat academically wonky).

Here's an excerpt from his most recent post, which considered the language used in the marketing of potato chips:
The political season is well upon us and that means a lot of politicians talking about strugglin' and rollin' up our sleeves, especially when speaking to working class audiences. Since the pioneering work of sociolinguists like Bill Labov, linguists have studied the ways we chose variants, like "-in" to project a working class authenticity but "-ing" to project an educated or professional persona...
This use of linguistic variables to mark identity and authenticity occurs in the language of food as well. Josh Freedman, a young political researcher, was an even younger freshman in my Language of Food seminar at Stanford four years ago when he became interested in how the language of food advertising reflects socio-economic class...
Josh and I looked at 12 bags of potato chips, 6 more expensive (Boulder, Dirty, Kettle Brand, Popchips, Terra, Season's, averaging 68 cents per ounce) and 6 less expensive (Hawaiian, Herr's, Lays, Tim's, Utz, and Wise, averaging 40 cents per ounce). We coded up all the advertising text from the back of the chips and then examined how the words differed between the two classes of chips.
What factors characterized expensive chips? You may be surprised to learn that potato chips are a health food; almost all chips (expensive or not) emphasized the healthiness of their products by using phrases like "low fat", "healthier", "no cholesterol", or "lowest sodium level". But these health-related claims  occur on expensive chips 6 times as often as on inexpensive chips (6 times per bag versus once per bag). This difference in health language is not, as far as we can tell, due to actual differences in the chips. No chips in our sample contain trans fats, but only 2 out of the 6 inexpensive chips talk about it. By contrast, every one of the 6 expensive chips mentions the lack of trans fats.
Expensive chips also turn out to be much more natural. Phrases such as "natural", "real", or "nothing artificial" are 2.5 times more likely to be mentioned on expensive bags (7 times on each expensive bag but under 3 times on each inexpensive bag).
Finally, expensive chips are 5 times more likely to distinguish themselves from other chips, using comparative phrases like "less fat than other leading brands", "best in America", "in a class of their own". or "a crunchy bite you won't find in any other chip". Where text on the inexpensive chips focuses on the chips themselves, ads for expensive chips emphasize their differences from "lesser" chips...
In his famous book "Distinction", sociologist Pierre Bourdieu showed that our position in society heavily influences our tastes, whether in food, music, film, or art.  He argues that "hip" or "fashionable" tastes are just a away for the upper class to display their high status, to distinguish themselves from other classes. Taste, says Bourdieu, is "first and foremost... negation... of the tastes of others". The fact that expensive chip advertising is full of comparison (less fat, finest potatoes) and negation (not, no, never, don't) suggests that Bourdieu is right, that the notion of upper class taste in food advertising is defined by contrast with tastes of other classes; what it is to be upper class is to be not working class.  
Potato chips as a vehicle for drawing societal metaphors and understanding class distinctions? Now that's a nerdy concept I can get behind. "Taste... is first and foremost... negation... of the tastes of others". That's so simple and yet so profound. In fact... I'm going to make it my Quote of the Week. So there.

[Language of Food]  
(h/t Marginal Revolution)

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