You’re Paying For That Well-Chosen Adjective

Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food examines the vocabulary of restaurant menus:

Mr Jurafsky ploughed through the descriptions of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. Mid-range restaurants repeatedly insist that their food is “fresh”; this “overmentioning”, he explains, is a symptom of status anxiety. Cheap eateries swear their food is “real”. Expensive restaurants avoid such terms. The mere mention that the crab is real or the plums ripe is sufficient to conjure in diners’ minds the possibility that they might not be—the “maxim of relevance” in linguistic terms.

Pricey joints also use longer words. Mr Jurafksy calculated that every one-letter increase in the average length of the words describing a dish adds an extra $0.18 to the price. Phrases like “exotic Ethiopian spices” inflate prices too. Such foods would not be exotic to real Ethiopians. Places that label their food thus are not catering to native eaters who consume it every day; “that exotifying or orientalist stance is instead directed at non-native eaters,” he writes. Vaguely positive words, however, such as delicious or tasty, “linguistic filler words” used when restaurants have nothing genuinely valuable, such as caviar, to talk about, bring the price down by 9%.