I was recently interviewed about food naming for The Allusionist, the language podcast conceived and hosted by Helen Zaltzman.* Helen wanted my take on plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods, an industry that’s seen a lot of growth lately, and also a fair amount of pushback from Big Carnivore. (See the final item in my July Linkfest for a news story about Mississippi banning the use of “burger” and “hot dog” in the names of vegan substitutes. Across the Atlantic, the EU has also attempted to restrict the use of meat-associated words for vegetarian substitutes.)
The BLUF: Names of vegan foodstuffs are a lot less imaginative than the ingredients and technology that go into producing them, and generally rely on familiar terms from the world of animal protein.
The names fall into four broad categories:
Meat plus. These names append an adjective (Impossible, Beyond, Ultimate) to a noun usually associated with an animal (burger, sausage). They’re telling us to expect a familiar mouthfeel and taste … but better (for our health and the health of the planet).
Meat less. Literally: These names incorporate an animal-forward component (beef, sausage, crab), but add the -less suffix to tell us what we’re not getting. The downside: The names don’t tell us what we are getting.
Beef-less and sausage-less at Trader Joe’s.
Qu’irk’y. A third category of names relies on idiosyncratic orthography – tweaked spelling, odd punctuation – to signal “something’s different” or (in the case of the apostrophe’d chik’n and its ilk) “something’s missing” (i.e., the chicken). I wrote about some of these twisted names – my favorite remains WYNGZ – for the Visual Thesaurus back in 2011.
Rebel Kitchen dairy-free “mylk.” Rebel Kitchen, which is based in the UK, also sells a dairy-free “yogurt” that it calls “Mylk Yog.”
Gardein (a portmanteau of “garden” and “protein”) Stea’k and E’ggs. I’m tempted to pronounce those words as though the apostrophes were glottal stops.
Portmanteau. Tofurky, a blend of “tofu,” which it contains, and “turkey,” which it does not, is the leader in this category. The original product, a turkey-shaped tofu-wheat bolus, was introduced in 1995; since then the company, also called Tofurky, has expanded far beyond Thanksgiving substitutes to offer Tofurky “ham,” “sausages,” and even, yes, “chik’n.” (Here’s an interesting history of the Tofurky brand, published in the New Yorker in 2017. “The name was silly, sure, but who could fail to remember it?”)
Tofurky Original Italian Sausage at Trader Joe’s.
All of these names are based on an assumption that meat-words are the default and plant-based versions can only aspire to that standard. In most cases, though ,the “meat-words” are meaty only from custom, not etymology or history. Burger is a truncation of “hamburger,” which was originally half of “hamburger steak” or “hamburger patty”; hamburger simply means “from the city of Hamburg, Germany,” where the recipe may or may not have been dreamed up. Frankfurter, later shortened to frank (and then colloquialized to “hot dog”), likewise means “from the city of Frankfurt, Germany”; meatiness is implied but not inherent. Sausage comes from Latin salsicus, which means “seasoned with salt”; it came to denote tube-shaped chopped meat, but that’s not how it started out. A fillet was originally “a little headband”; the word means “a thin strip or filament.” And patty is related to “paste” and “pasta.” It doesn’t get more vegetarian than pasta.
There are, of course, other ways to approach the naming challenge. Consider another animal-derived product: fur. When synthetic alternatives became desirable in the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturers didn’t call their products MINK-LESS or F’URR. Instead, they created names that conveyed innovation. One of the most successful names, and products, was Dynel, and a long-running ad campaign created by the legendary Jane Trahey, proudly staked its claim: “It’s not fake anything,” read the tagline, “it’s real Dynel.”
* When it’s edited and posted, this will be my second outing with The Allusionist. My first interview, in 2016, was about names and name development more generally.