From Pythagoreans to soysages: words relating to vegetarianism and veganism in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

From Pythagoreans to soysages: words relating to vegetarianism and veganism in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

As we were updating the entries soy and soya this quarter, we took the opportunity to review our coverage of words for vegetarian and vegan foods and diets in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED). Here is an overview of some of the categories we reviewed and some of the updates we made.

Terms for vegetarians and vegans

Let’s start with the concept of vegetarianism itself. Although there have been people following vegetarian diets since ancient times, the concept was not lexicalized in English until the 17th century, as we can see from the HTOED category vegetarian or vegan. The earliest words referred to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras: while there is some debate about what Pythagoras’s dietary practices actually were, the belief that he advocated avoidance of meat led vegetarians to be described as Pythagorean (as an adjective or noun), as in one 1651 description of a “little garden made for..the feasting of a few Pythagorean herbe-eaters.”

But it was in the 19th century that many more words for vegetarians were coined in English, as this type of diet became more widespread. One was another eponymous term, Grahamite, referring to followers of Sylvester Graham, an American minister who advocated a diet based on plants (and especially homemade bread) and is now mainly remembered for the graham crackers inspired by his dietary advice. From the early 19th century we also find various short-lived terms for vegetarians beginning with veg-, including vegetizing and even vegetable as an adjective in the sense ‘vegetarian’ (in an apparently one-off use by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in 1812 wrote to a friend that “I continue vegetable”). As is often the case, it took some time and experimentation before the central word for the concept was established: the word vegetarian itself was first used in 1842, shortly before the first Vegetarian Society was formed in Britain. This was followed by terms for more specific types of vegetarians: fruitarian in 1893 and nutarian in 1909; and in 1944, the term vegan was coined by the founder of the Vegan Society. Other 20th-century coinages in this semantic field include veggie (1942) and plant-based (1971).

One of the changes we made to HTOED this update was to rename the category containing these words, which was formerly simply vegetarian. The vegan diet can be thought of as a type of vegetarian diet (vegans are sometimes described as ‘strict vegetarians’), and thus the word vegan can be regarded as a hyponym of vegetarian; therefore an option for HTOED would have been to create a subcategory vegan within vegetarian. However, historically there is often not a clear boundary between the two concepts; indeed, before the word vegan was coined, many uses of vegetarian referred to what would now be described as vegan. For this reason, we expanded the category heading to vegetarian or vegan, to allow for both or either type of diet, and to acknowledge the growing significance of veganism as a term and concept.

Terms for vegetarian and vegan food and drink

While of course there has long been an abundant lexicon referring to food suitable for vegetarians – vegetables and rice and beans and so forth – it is mainly in the last century that we have had terms in English for specifically vegetarian or vegan alternatives to dishes typically made with meat. Soy and soya have been productive words in this respect. From the end of the 19th century, soy flour or soy protein began to be used in various foodstuffs, and this use of soy became particularly widespread during the Second World War, when shortages in animal products created a need for alternatives: as suggested in the 1945 book The Useful Soybean, quoted in OED’s soy entry, “Soy is an army ration as revolutionary as mechanized warfare.” Around this time there was a surge in usages such as soysage (1943) and soya burger (1953), as well as more ad-hoc combinations such as soya bacon, soy meat loaf, and so on (see soya, n. C1a and soy, n. C1a in OED). Originally not all of these items were necessarily meat-free, some using soy protein as a ‘meat extender’ rather than meat alternative, but by the mid-20th century the majority of uses of the terms referred to specifically vegetarian or vegan products. We have added a new category to HTOED, vegetarian or vegan alternatives to meat dishes, to accommodate the growing number of terms of this kind, including those with soy and soya, and also compounds such as vegeburger (1945)and garden burger (1966).

Milk alternatives have a longer lexical history, as can be seen in the recently expanded and renamed HTOED category milk substitutes or alternatives, which includes oat milk (1844), soy milk (1906), soya milk (1911), plant milk (1959), and rice milk (1986). The longest-lived term in the category, though, is almond milk, first recorded in a 14th-century recipe.  It may only be relatively recently that your local coffee shop has offered oat milk or almond milk as a dairy alternative, but these terms have been around for a long time.

In total, HTOED links have been added to over 2,300 senses in this update. These include entries and senses added to the OED this update (there are HTOED links at new additions such as anorakish, bulldozer as a verb, cringe as an adjective, come-we-stay, escorting, folx, gomesi, ignorati, queue voting, sass-box, soysage, unjabbed, unprocedural, and many more), as well as senses already in OED but now with a new HTOED link.

For more information about HTOED and its uses, see this blog post.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.