The vocabulary used in restaurant menus and dining reviews reflects a lot more than the food being described. Writing in the Financial Times last week, Stanford University professor Dan Jurafsky explained that there is a psychology to the word choices involved; “the language of food” (also the title of his forthcoming book) often distinguishes expensive restaurants from lower-priced ones.
As one might expect, fancier restaurants use fancier language—but they also tend to be more tight-lipped. Unlike the “wordy” menus of lower-priced restaurants, which sometimes go overboard with adjectives, high-end menus are “shorter and more implicit,” according to Jurafsky.
At price-conscious establishments, vague, positive adjectives (“delicious,” “tasty”) clutter the item descriptions, because, as Jurafsky concluded, “only the cheapest restaurants must overly protest the toothsomeness of their treats.” At pricier places, the freshness and deliciousness of the food is pre-supposed; at lower-priced restaurants, where that’s not quite the case, “the surfeit of adjectives” on the menus is “a kind of overcompensation, a sign of status anxiety.”
Jurafsky and his colleagues also conducted a meta-analysis of over 900,000 restaurant reviews online. The most interesting pattern was what emerged when positive reviews of cheap restaurants were compared with positive reviews of expensive restaurants. Reviewers who enjoyed the food at cheap restaurants frequently used language associated with drugs and addiction, as in “the chocolate in their cookies must have crack.” In posts about enjoyable food from fancier establishments, sensual, even sexual language abounds; desserts are “orgasmic” and foie gras is “seductively seared,” for example. Jurafsky posits that the difference exists because some foods (like cheap cookies) make us feel guilty—we want to blame the food itself for the fact that we have eaten it—while other foods (like expensive goose liver) make us feel hedonistic. Accordingly, we relate their deliciousness differently.