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Why Drugs Are a Metaphor for Some Foods, and Sex Is a Metaphor for Others

Exploring the language of Yelp reviews

We are a nation of opinion-holders. Perhaps we always have been: in De Tocqueville’s prophetic study of the American character, the 1835 Democracy in America, he noted that in the United States “public opinion is divided into a thousand minute shades of difference upon questions of very little moment.” 

Consider online restaurant reviews, those summaries of the wisdom of the crowd that have become a familiar way to discover new places to eat. Take a look at this sample from a positive restaurant review (a rating of 5 out of 5) on Yelp (modified slightly for anonymity): 

I LOVE this place!!!!! Fresh, straightforward, very high quality, very traditional little neighborhood sushi place. ... takes such great care in making each dish ... You can tell the chef really takes pride in his work. ... everything I’ve tried so far is DELICIOUS!!!!

And here are bits of one negative review (a rating of 1 out of 5):

The bartender was either new or just absolutely horrible ... we waited 10 min before we even got her attention to order ... and then we had to wait 45—FORTY FIVE!—minutes for our entrees ... Dessert was another 45 min. wait, followed by us having to stalk the waitress to get the check ... he didn’t make eye contact or even break his stride to wait for a response ... the chocolate soufflé was disappointing ... I will not return.

As eaters we use reviews to help decide where to eat (maybe give that second restaurant a miss), whether to buy a new book or see a movie. But as linguists we use these reviews for something altogether different: to help understand human nature. Reviews show humans at their most opinionated and honest, and the metaphors, emotions, and sentiment displayed in reviews are an important cue to human psychology.1 The way people talk about skunky beer, disappointing service, or amazing meals is a covert clue to universals of human language and the metaphors we use in daily life—like, why sex is a metaphor for some foods, but drugs are a metaphor for others.

Let’s start by talking about sex.

Adrienne Lehrer, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, studied how wine reviews changed over time from 1975 to 2000. She noticed that in the 1980s wine reviewers began to increase their use of the body as a metaphor, starting to use words like fleshy, muscular, sinewy, big-boned, or broad-shouldered. At the same time, influential wine writers like Robert Parker began to emphasize the sensual pleasure of wine, repeating words like “sexy” and “sensual,” describing wines as “supple and seductive,” “offering voluptuously textured, hedonistic drinking,” or even “liquid Viagra.” Literature professor Sean Shesgreen says that all this erotic talk about wine as “pretty and caressing,” “ravishing,” “pillowy,” and “overendowed” affirms that “in the kaleidoscope of Americans’ fixations, gastronomy has eclipsed sex.”

This metaphor of sex seems especially associated with expensive foods as well. We examined this in the million restaurant reviews by extracting every mention of sex (or related words like sexy, seductive, orgasms, or lust) in the reviews. We then used regression, a statistical technique that allowed us to ask how these mentions of sex were associated with people’s ratings of a restaurant, after controlling for factors like the type of cuisine and the city. 

Reviewers who liked a restaurant were indeed more likely to use sexual metaphors. But we also discovered an economic interaction; mentions of sex like these are especially frequent for expensive restaurants:

the apple tarty ice cream pastry caramely thing was just orgasmic 

sumptuous flavors, jaw-droppingly good, sexy food

succulent pork belly paired with seductively seared foie gras

The association is quite strong: the more mentions of sex in a restaurant review, the higher the price of the restaurant.

People use a very different metaphor when they like the food at cheap restaurants. In reviewing inexpensive restaurants, they use the language of addiction or drugs instead of sex to talk about their fries

or garlic noodles … are now my drug of choice

these cupcakes are like crack

be warned the wings are addicting

... every time I need a fix. That fried chicken is so damn good!

I swear the fries have crack or some sort of addicting drugs in them

The examples above show what we “crave” or are “addicted to”: chicken wings and fried chicken, cupcakes, garlic noodles, French fries, and burgers. It’s the snack foods and bar foods, guilty pleasures because of their fat, sugar, and deep-fried goodness that invite the comparison to drugs. Researchers still aren’t sure of the biochemical link between junk-food cravings and drug addiction, but in any case the cravings for fat and also sugar are quite strong. A study that varied the fat and sugar in chocolate milkshakes suggests that sugar may light up the reward center of the brain even more effectively than fat. Writer Adam Gopnik describes nights during his experiment in giving up dessert when he would wake up and—like a golem controlled by external command—sleepily wander toward the freezer and the ice cream.

In any case, the linguistic ubiquity of this metaphor of drugs demonstrates how deep this addictive understanding of junk food and desserts is embedded in our culture. By placing the blame on the food, we’re distancing ourselves from our own “sin” of eating fried or sugary snacks: “It’s not my fault: the cupcake made me do it.” Our research also found that women are more likely than men to use drug metaphors in reviews, suggesting that they are especially pressured to conform to healthy or low-calorie eating.

What are people eating when they talk about sex in reviews? We can study this by looking at food words that occur more frequently near sexual words. Two kinds of foods are associated with sex. One is sushi, because of the modern trend of giving sexy names to sushi like these: 

sex on the beach roll sexy mama roll

foreplay roll sexy lady roll

sweet temptation roll hot sexy shrimp roll

orgasmic spicy tuna roll sexy lizzy roll

The other food most frequently associated with sex is dessert:

molten chocolate cake ... honestly an orgasm on a plate 

I still lust for the silky panna cotta and tantalizing sorbet

marshmallows ... so ... sticky and sweet, they’re nearly pornographic 

warm chestnut mochi chocolate cake ... seductively gooey on the inside

The examples above also exhibit another class of words associated with both dessert and sex: texture words like sticky, silky, gooey. Here are the sensory words most commonly used to describe desserts in the million reviews:

rich moist warm sweet dense hot creamy flaky light fluffy sticky dry gooey smooth crisp oozing satin soft velvety thick melty silky oozing thin crunchy spongy

All of these are from the sensory domain of “feel,” of textures and temperatures. When we talk about desserts, we talk about their feel in the mouth, not their appearance, smell, taste, or sound. Americans usually describe desserts as soft or dripping wet, a tendency that linguist Susan Strauss, in her comparison of TV advertising in the US, Japan, and Korea, found to be a general property of food advertising in American English. US commercials emphasize tender, gooey, rich, creamy food, and associate softness and dripping sweetness with sensual hedonism and pleasure.

This association between soft, sticky things and pleasure isn’t a necessary connection. For example, Strauss found that Korean food commercials emphasize hard, texturally stimulating food, using words like wulthung pwulthung hata (solid and bumpy), thok ssota (stinging), and elelhata (spicy to the extent that one’s nerves are numbed).

The link between dessert and sex is visible in many aspects of our culture, from the sensual advertising of chocolate to women (like Ghirardelli’s slogan, “Moments of Timeless Pleasure”) to modern music, where my students Debra Pacio and Linda Yu found that recent songs like Kelis’s “Milkshake” or Li’l Wayne’s “Lollipop” use dessert and especially candy as a metaphor for sex. There is a gender effect with dessert too. Our study shows that women are more likely than men to mention desserts in their reviews.

Dessert is also so prized that people find it very difficult to say anything bad about it. Notice the overwhelmingly positive sentiment of the 20 most frequent sentiment words associated with dessert:

delicious amazing yummy decadent divine yum good OK wow fabulous scrumptious delectable wonderful delish refreshing awesome perfect incredible fantastic heavenly

In fact, the more Yelp reviewers mention dessert, the more they like the restaurant. Reviewers who don’t mention a dessert give the restaurants an average review score of 3.6 (out of 5). But reviewers who mention a dessert in their review give a higher average review score, 3.9 out of 5. And when people do talk about dessert, the more times they mention dessert in the review, the higher the rating they give to the restaurant.

This positivity exhibited by reviews, filled with metaphors of sex and dessert, turns out to be astonishingly strong. Although languages do have a very rich vocabulary for negative sentiment that is visible in the reviews, people are actually much more positive than they are negative.

One sign of our positive nature is word frequency. Positive words, though weak in variety, occur much more often in reviews than negative words. Restaurant reviewers use words like great, delicious, and amazing 3 to 10 times more often than words like bland, bad, or terrible

Review scores themselves are also skewed toward the positive. Reviewing scores on most sites go from 1 to 5, so the median score should be 3. Instead the median score, whether for restaurants or beers, is about 4 out of 5. My colleague Chris Potts has shown that this skew is true wherever people review things on the web—books, movies, cameras, you name it.

This tendency toward the positive is not a recent trend caused by the Internet, but has been shaping our language for millennia. Linguists are deeply interested in linguistic phenomena that hold across all languages, key to our goal of discovering true human universals. A bias toward positivity in vocabulary is one of the strongest universals we have found. This idea that people are positive is called the Pollyanna effect, after the heroine of Eleanor Porter’s 1909 book for children, Pollyanna, an orphan who always looked on the bright side. In common usage “Pollyanna-ish” describes a naïve or foolish optimism, but the Pollyanna effect is a more neutral observation of humans’ remarkable tendency toward optimism.

The Pollyanna effect is not just specific to reviews. If you ask Google how frequent a word is (or check the frequency in a carefully constructed academic database of texts), positive words are (on average) more frequent than negative words. English good is more frequent than bad, happy than sad; Chinese kaixin 开心 (happy) is more frequent than nanguo 难过 (sad); Spanish feliz is more frequent than triste

More subtly, positive words have a special linguistic status called unmarked. Markedness has to do with oppositions: in pairs of words like happy/unhappy, good/bad, capable/incapable, or honest/dishonest, the first of each pair is unmarked or neutral and the second is marked. There are many linguistic cues to which member of a pair is unmarked. The unmarked form is shorter (marked unhappy and dishonest have an extra un- and dis- than unmarked happy and honest). Unmarked words tend to come first in “X and Y” phrases like “good and evil” or “right and wrong.” Unmarked words are neutral in questions. Asking “Is your accountant honest?” is the neutral way to find out about the honesty of your accountant. If I instead ask, “Is your accountant dishonest?” that suggests that I already have some reason to believe you have a cheating accountant. Sure enough, across languages, the unmarked form is much more likely to be positive (happy, honest) rather than negative (unhappy, dishonest); it’s very rare across languages for a negative word like sad to be the basic form and unsad to be the way to say “happy.” Thus we have English words unhappy, incapable, uncomfortable, but not unsad, un-itchy, unklutzy.

The Pollyanna effect has been confirmed in dozens of languages and cultures, and comes up in all sorts of nonlinguistic ways as well. When psychologists ask people to think of items or remember them from a list, they name more positive things than negative things. When people forward news stories, they are more likely to forward the positive stories than the negative ones.

In other words, although humans do use a rich vocabulary for negative events and traumatic situations, and although we differ in all sorts of ways, perceive different tastes and smells, and range hugely in our personalities, these differences only serve to highlight a fundamental similarity as humans: we are a positive, optimistic race. We tend to notice and talk about the good things in life. Like dessert. And sex. 

And all of this, joy and trauma, is visible in those reviews on the web, offering a little insight into the human psyche along with advice on where to go for dinner. 

Just don’t forget to order dessert.

  1. In a series of studies, my colleagues and I have employed the techniques of computational linguistics to examine these reviews. With Victor Chahuneau, Noah Smith, and Bryan Routledge from Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve investigated a million online restaurant reviews on Yelp, from seven cities (San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, LA, Philadelphia, Washington), covering people’s impressions between about 2005 and 2011. With computer scientists Julian McAuley and Jure Leskovec, I looked at 5 million reviews written by thousands of reviewers on websites like BeerAdvocate for beers they drank from 2003 to 2011.

Excerpted from The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Copyright © 2014 by Dan Jurafsky. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.