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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Michael Pollan


(1980’s | scientese | “plant,” “vegetable,” “vegetarian”)

Confirmed carnivore that I am, I’m always a little bemused by this expression — I concede that it makes sense, though “plant-rooted” might be more poetic. At its broadest, it means “made from things that grow out of the earth.” A plant-based diet means you eat predominantly, but not exclusively, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fungi, and things made from them. (Lovely Liz from Queens likes to quote Michael Pollan’s dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) The emphasis is more on avoiding animal products than on supplementing them. So it’s veganism with room for backsliding, but the foundation is clearly vegetarian. That would seem to warrant the firmness and solidity of “based.”

“Plant-based” existed in the seventies, but no one used it to talk about food. That was true as late as 2000. The first citation I found (1979) modified ethanol, intended to distinguish it from petroleum-based gasoline back when we started talking about using it as an additive. (No one was thinking about climate change in those days, just the fact that fossil fuels had gotten expensive and corn prices kept going down.) It might also be used for pharmaceuticals or vaccines, and it frequently modified “product.” It still does all that, and it may have an abstract use as well, as in “plant-based business” or “plant-based lifestyle.”

The beauty of the phrase is its sheer reach; just about anything can be plant-based. We tend to think of it first with reference to food, and it continues to have a strong bias toward products with animal counterparts — fake meat, fake leather, etc. After all, most plant-based products make no attempt to impersonate flesh or hide. “Plant-based” is also widely employed to imply that the product so described is safer and/or healthier to use and less harmful to the environment, and, if food, minimally processed — is a vegetable “plant-based,” or simply “plant”? — even if the details are not spelled out.

Much is made in some circles over the resources required to produce meat, and the point is well taken. Growing animals in order to slaughter and eat them is wasteful, shockingly so in some cases. Plants are more efficient, but they too are born of the earth; exploiting plants means exploiting the planet. Maybe we’ll wear our old earth out a little slower if we switch to plant-based diets, but we will still wear it out. The earth’s carrying capacity cannot be made infinite, no matter how good we get at extending it.

What will happen to this expression and its relatives if we, as a species, consume less and less of our fellow animals? It will last as long as we find it necessary to distinguish alternatives to animal flesh from the real thing, and such distinctions seem likely to be needed for at least a few more decades. If veganism becomes the norm, we may have to go the other way and start saying “animal-based” instead. Presumably, “veggie burger” will go extinct at that time as well. Anything that eases the ubiquity of the vastly irritating “veggie” is all right with me.

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