Food for thought: How language affects our eating habits

By Samita Sarkar

Editors know that language is a powerful tool. In fact, ourfood world is shaped by the language we use and the ways we communicate with each other. The language we use changes the way we see things. The rhetoric of war, for example, is used to dehumanize the enemy, and the rhetoric of law is used to plead a case or pass a bill. There is also the rhetoric of food, which is used by chefs and restaurant owners to make us feel hunger.

In an interesting book entitled Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists, author Jason Del Gandio describes rhetoric as “the science of discourse…what people say, how they say it.” Rhetoric is persuasive. Moreover, it evokes emotion. Del Gandio points out that rhetoric can be defined not only as discourse, but also as “the practice and study of how people create their realities.” He pursues a powerful example with the term collateral damage, questioning how phrases that minimize implied violence affect the public mindset.

Consider terms such as escargot and caviar in comparison to cooked snail or salty fish eggs. The first two terms denote wealth, luxury, and delicacy; the latter two seem meagre and unappealing—reptile food, maybe—but they wouldn’t sound appetizing to too many humans. Some food for thought: most people have never considered what it means to eat an egg, which is the reproductive waste of a chicken.

In our culture, most people eat meat, which is defined by Wikipedia as “animal flesh that is eaten as food.” This implies that meat is food and animal flesh is not. Regardless of our personal dietary preferences, we are taught to associate the word meat with food, to the extent that a good friend of mine once told me that when she looked at a picture of a baby goat, she saw a goat-meat sandwich. That takes quite the imagination, but it also illustrates the power of words.

The rhetoric of meat-eating, created by an omnivorous society such as ours, prefers certain phraseology. Terms like beef are preferable to cow flesh because beef arouses the appetite. Animals bred for consumption are livestock, evoking the emotion that they are peacefully grown on farms alongside the crops we harvest. Animals hunted for fun are called game. Similar to the war term collateral damage, all three of these words—beef, livestock, and game—evade acknowledgement of violence, as if there is no being to be harmed when one eats beef, tends to livestock, or hunts for game.

The view that humans are at the top of a food chain—or rather food pyramid—with everything else beneath us has been normalized in our society, and the way we speak reflects this reality we’ve created.

Samita Sarkar is the owner of Blossoms Editing Services, a contract writing and editing company that emphasizes good customer service. She is also EAC Toronto branch’s member relations vice-chair.

This article was copy edited by Sylvia McCluskey.

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