Delicious linguistics “The Language of Food”

It’s not so often that a book significantly changes the way I look at the world. But that’s just how I feel about Dan Jurafsky’s book “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu.” After reading it, I can’t look at a menu or a bag of potato chips without thinking about how the language reflects the price of the food. I can’t go to Baskin-Robbins without noticing the vowels in the flavor names and thinking about the connection between sherbet and syrup or the role of gunpowder in the invention of ice cream. And I can’t get through a meal without sharing at least one etymological tidbit about the food served.

Over homemade ceviche (inspired by the book), I informed incredulous guests that ceviche, fish and chips, tempura, aspic and escabeche are all descendents of sikbaj, a sweet-and-sour beef dish favored by ancient Persian royalty, transported around the world and transformed (and renamed) by merchants, sailors and missionaries. When someone mentioned “Yankee Doodle,” I explained why he “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” (long story) and added, “Have you ever wondered why macarons, macaroons and macaroni sound so similar?” At a Mexican restaurant: “Salsa, sausage, sauce and salad all come from the word ‘salt!’ ” As my daughter dipped her fries in ketchup: “Did you know that ketchup is a Chinese word for ‘fish sauce?’ ” And when someone asked for jam: “I just learned that marmalade comes from the Portuguese word for ‘quince.’ ”

But Jurafsky’s book is more than a collection of fun facts about etymology and cuisine. It also teaches us about cultural contact: We have so many similar-sounding words for various foods because the foods — and their names — were borrowed into British or American cuisine at different times from different cultures, sometimes based on the eclectic tastes of upper-class trendsetters. Jurafsky sums up the process of culinary and linguistic borrowing and change on the last page: “Each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisine: macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbaj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just as the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal’s obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails” (p. 189).

Jurafsky is the perfect person to write this book. A professor of linguistics at Stanford and recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, he has been teaching and blogging about the language of food for several years. He brings to the table an impressive knowledge of linguistics and food history, unrivaled skill to analyze large data sets and an engaging writing style. He enriches his historical and linguistic narratives with anecdotes from his personal experiences eating in China, Malaysia, the Basque country of Spain, his adopted hometown of San Francisco and his grandmothers’ Yiddish-inflected New York kitchens.

Not surprisingly, readers are treated to Jurafsky’s childhood reminiscences of whitefish, stuffed cabbage, corned beef and Passover macaroons. But elements of Jewish interest are also peppered throughout the historical narratives. A 10th-century Jewish merchant brings sikbaj from China to Oman, a 13th-century Jewish apothecary in Cairo gives us a recipe for rhubarb syrup (using the Arabic word sharab, which, through Latin translation, became English for “syrup”), and in the 19th century, fried fish was a specialty of the London Jewish community, eventually to become the fish and chips Brits know and love. We learn about biblical Hebrew libations, Yiddish descriptions of drunkenness, and Rashi’s use of a word like “vermicelli” (related to the Yiddish word chremsel). After reading the book, I got the sense Jurafsky could write an additional book on the language of Jewish food.

In short, “The Language of Food” makes a great present for foodies, history buffs and language enthusiasts. Just one caveat: Do not attempt to digest this information on an empty stomach. You will come away hungry — not just for the delicacies described in the book, but also for more of Jurafsky’s brilliant and accessible analysis. 

Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion and adjunct associate professor of linguistics at USC, wrote the book “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism.” 


Oh Jerusalem

On June 6, or Iyar 28, we will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) in honor of the day Jerusalem was reunified during the Six-Day War in 1967.

An Original Word

Etymology – this means “the origin of a word,” or where the word came from. For instance: the word “cap” comes from the Latin word caput, meaning “head.”

Answer these etymological questions:

1. The Assyrians called it Ursalimmu; the Greeks and Romans called it Hierosolyma. What do we call it today?

2. If you got the first question right, answer this one:

The last part of the word is oka.

What does this word mean in Hebrew?

3. And finally: did you answer the second question? So, what does the name of the city mean? It is the city of ________.

Unscramble these letters to get the name of a town in Massachusetts that has a similar name to Jerusalem. (Hint: it wasn’t a very “peaceful” place. They had witch hunts there in the 16th century.)


Why are so many weddings in June?

Fill in the blanks with the following words to get some interesting information about the month of June:

bath, custom, May, flowers, good, smell, married

Next time your Mom reminds you take a bath, think of this fact: back in the 1500s, most people got ______ in June because they took their yearly ____ in _____, and still smelled pretty ______ by June. However, they were starting to ______, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.

That is how the _______ of a bride carrying a bouquet got started!


For the Kids

November Madness

In Old English, the month of November was called "blood month." It was a month of animal sacrifices that took place to prepare for the long winter. But what is the etymology of the word "November?"

Here’s a hint: The Roman calendar began in March (similar to the Jewish calendar, which begins in Nissan, around Passover). Send in the answer for a prize.

Autumn Arrives

Joshua Goldberg, 12, wrote this poem for his history class at A.J. Heschel Day School:

I peer out of my window to gaze at the autumn sky.

The wind whispers

through the trees.

A scent of roses fills my nose.

Leaves fall on to my windowsill — how I long to feel their smoothness.

It starts to drizzle and I can taste the little droplets on my tongue.

The feeling of autumn surrounds me, now it’s time to embrace it’s presence…