Take a close look at that restaurant menu. Do the words seem particularly long? Instead of using a term like “sides,” does the restaurant call these dishes “accompaniments” or “complements”? Does the place prefer the word “decaffeinated” instead of the abbreviated form “decaf?” If so, prepare to open your wallet, warns Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University. Longer words on the menu, he has discovered, are associated with higher prices for your meal.
“Every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 18 cents in the price of that dish!” Jurafsky writes in his new book, “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,” to be published in September.
Jurafsky conducted a study with Carnegie Mellon researchers Victor Chahuneau, Noah Smith and Bryan Routledge, looking at 6,500 menus offering 650,000 dishes at restaurants across the price spectrum — expensive ($$$$) to cheap ($) — in seven major cities.
Among the longer words frequently popping up on the menus of expensive restaurants: “traditionally,” “specifications,” “overflowing,” “exquisitely.” Watch out for references to “exotic” or “spicy” dishes. “Our study found that every use of the word ‘exotic’ or ‘spices’ raises the price of a dish,” the author writes. “That ‘exotifying’ or orientalist stance is . . . directed at the nonnative eaters, food tourists like me who want something different and, fair is fair, get charged more for it.”
Menus that mention the origin of the food — the names of the farms that have produced it — also set off price alarms. Jurafsky writes: “Very expensive ($$$$) restaurants mention the origins of food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.”
The meal descriptions at lower-priced restaurants contain their own secrets. Who hasn’t opened a menu to see a cascade of enticing words: “delicious,” “tasty,” “mouth-watering,” “flavorful,” “savory,” “scrumptious”? Jurafsky calls these terms “linguistic filler” and notes that they appear on the menus of cheaper restaurants. “For each positive vague word like “delicious,” “tasty” or “terrific” you see on a dish, the average price of the dish is 9 percent less,” he writes. These filler words are just that — they fill in for the absence of something more substantial or specific on the menu. An expensive restaurant offering angus beef from a named farm can highlight that on its menu; lacking such concrete value, the cheaper restaurants use positive but vague words like “delightful” and “sublime,” Jurafsky says.
And keep an eye out for the words “fresh” and “ripe.” Of course, you’d expect the ingredients of your meal to be nothing but fresh and ripe. So why are these terms spread liberally over the menus of the cheaper eateries but are absent from the descriptions of the dishes at the more expensive restaurants? Jurafsky points out that it’s all a matter of expectations. “Expensive restaurants don’t use the word “ripe” (or “fresh” or “crispy”) because we assume that food that should be ripe is ripe, and everything is fresh,” he writes. “Middle-priced restaurants are worried that you won’t assume that because they aren’t fancy enough, so they go out of their way to reassure you. Protesting too much.”