The Atlantic Wire, “The Rise of the Food-Tarians”

April 24, 2013

Jen Doll, “The Rise of the Food-Tarians” (The Atlantic Wire, Apr. 24, 2013)

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer told me, “I find it odd that he [Mark Bittman] says ‘at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted, as has vegetarian.’ This ‘perversion’ of vegetarian has been going on for more than a century (fruitarian is in the OED from 1893 and nutarian from 1909). Flexitarian is just another variation on the -tarian theme. My favorite is breatharian, from the crackpot notion that you can get all the nutrients you need from breathing air.”

If there is a reason “flexitarian” is more pure or accurate as a descriptor than vegetarian, maybe it’s because it’s also infinitely more general, seeking to describe the flexible nature of one’s eating rather than what one won’t eat. “Semi-vegetarian” in contrast, sounds pretty mealy-mouthed. And flexitarian has a certain of-the-moment cache, maybe because it seems slightly less culturally saturated than vegetarian. But it’s also just another of those food words that have sprung up to indicate a particular type of person eating a particular type of food. Like locavore (named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007; someone who “seeks to consume only locally grown food”), opportunivore (“a person who eats whatever is around”), freegan (“eating food that’s been discarded”), and all of the many “tarians,” those who are eating flexibly are just eating in their own way. We’re all a bunch of eat-tarians. We all eat food.

Zimmer writes that the suffix tarian “has proved even more productive than -vore for naming new classes of eaters. Starting with vegetarianin the 19th century, there have been fruitarians (fruit eaters), nutarians (nut eaters), pescetarians (fish eaters), and flexitarians (flexible vegetarians). Lately there have also been plantarians, who promote a plant-based diet as a healthy lifestyle choice. If all of these X-tarians sound like religious sects (along the lines of Unitarians or Trinitarians), that’s only fitting: the advent of vegetarianism in the US and UK in the 1830s-40s was tied to ethical and religious movements to improve society.”

Read the rest here.

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