I should begin by saying I am not a vegetarian or vegan. I am not attempting Veganuary this year. I continue to eat meat.
I have done my best to cut down on meat where I can. Eating red meat is a rarity, and even some dishes I used to eat with chicken are now meatless. I have done this, partly as I am trying to lose weight and choose healthier options, partly because I am concerned about the impact animal rearing is having on the environment. You might say I am a reductarian, someone trying to cut down on meat, but personally I think the label is a little silly so you will never hear my call myself it outside this blog post.
Despite not being vegetarian or vegan myself, I have been thinking recently about meat substitute products. For some people, cutting meat out of their diet means simply removing it and replacing meat with vegetarian alternatives such as beans and tofu. I am fairly sure if I ever became vegetarian I would not be able to do this entirely. I do like the taste and texture and smell of meat (and dairy for that matter) so for me to become a vegetarian, I would need to include meat and dairy substitutes in my diet.
I am sure you will have seen some of the current options available, with Quorn and Linda McCartney dominating the options in my local supermarket meat substitute aisle, while soy, hazelnut and oak milk are the options of choice for replacing cow’s milk.
But already, we have come across the problem I have been thinking about more and more. We define these animal-free products on their similarity or otherwise to animal products, rather than products in their own right. This is further complicated by EU rules that require only products made with animal milk to be labelled as such. Soy and hazelnut and oat (milk) are often labelled as simply drinks (or as the article linked to suggests, mylk). In everyday parlance, and when my wife orders a coffee with soy drink (!!) we continue to say ‘soy milk’, but I have been wondering if it is not time to develop new names entirely. Yes these products are often used to replace animal products, but they can be seen as unique products in their own right.
So, I have decided to have a good at creating alternative names for meat and dairy substitutes (concentrating on milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt). I am aware I am not the first person to try and name meat and dairy substitutes, and I am under no illusions that my ideas will be readily taken up as the accepted naming. Rather, this is a chance for me to think a little about how we use language to describe the world around us, and what to do when we have a concept which does not come with a ready formed name.
Before we consider the name options I have come up with, we need to think about what we need from the name to increase the likelihood it is actually used by people.
Firstly it needs to be pronounceable by people who speak English (of course throughout this post I am considering only English as it is the only language I can speak). There is no point creating a complex word with click consonants and the like, as English speakers will struggle to even say the word. Similarly, it needs to read well. It can be tempting when creating a new word to use unusual letters and letter combinations, Xs and Zs for example, but the words created are clearly artificial and not what I am trying to achieve in creating a new name for animal-free foods.
Secondly, the word needs to be appetising, by which I mean it needs to be a word people would be able to associate with food. If I say meat you know exactly what I mean, and crucially for people who eat meat it will seem appetising. Consider if I used the word flesh or muscle tissue. Both flesh and muscle tissue are correct in that they describe what meat is, but they do not have the same mouthwatering property you get with a word like meat.
Finally, the word needs to be to a degree unique. English has a wonderful, and at times frustrating, habit of reusing words, either spelt or pronounced the same, for ideas of different meaning. The best example is the word set which can have a myriad of meanings, and the reader or listener needs to determine meaning from the context it appears in. However, as we are trying to create new words with a new meaning, it seems to me best that the words do not already have a meaning associated with them. Mylk is a clever way around marketing restrictions, but it is only clearly a different product when written down, not so much when it is spoken (although for some reason I cannot help but pronounce mylk with a generic Norse accent. Clearly Ikea has a lot to answer for).
So, with those criteria in mind, let us begin exploring some of the ideas I have contemplated.
One option for choosing a name for meat-free alternatives could be to use a popular brand associated with the products already available. Biro and Hoover are almost synonymous with ball point pen and vacuum cleaner, so it could be tempting to do this for meat substitutes as well. To a degree this has already occurred, the aforementioned Quorn commonly used to denote meat substitutes, and I wonder whether this trend will continue regardless of what I or others say. The problem with using a brand for any meat substitute lies in the variation which can occur between products, with Quorn focussing on mycoprotein, and bearing little resemblance to say a product made using tofu. I think this is a sufficient problem alone to discount it.
Instead of using brands which already exist, another option would be to name the meat-free products according to what they contain. Milk substitutes are usually named for the nut of grain they are produced from, and this could be extended to meat substitutes as well.
Most meat substitutes are made from mycoprotein, as I mentioned above for Quorn. This is protein produced by fungi which is then formed into the final product. If we drop protein from the name, then our meat substitute could be named myco.
The issue I have with this is it still sounds clinical and artificial. It might be as I am a doctor, but whenever I hear myco, I automatically think of mycology and fungal infections, definitely not what you want to associate with food. Choosing a name based on the products contents might work for some options, but it is clearly not the best option available.
The next option I considered was the use of an anagram of the words we use for animal products. There are several options of anagram we can create from meat and milk and cheese and butter and yoghurt, and this has the advantage of retaining a link with the animal alternative.
Anagrams which seem to fit well with the criteria I have outlined above include;
Meat: etam, atem or tema (words such as team and tame of course having a meaning already)
Milk: kilm, limk or mlik
Cheese: seech or hees (there is not reason all the letters need to be used)
Butter: rube, tubet or terub
Yoghurt: hurg, turg or hoyur
I’ll admit, some of those anagrams are better than others. I do like the idea of kilm, while etam is not bad either. I am not sure about hurg or tubet though, it does not seem appetising to me.
The final option I have consider is to create a name from scratch*. This is obviously more challenging, especially to be compliant with my three criteria, but I have had a go anyway at coming up words (*not entirely created de novo I admit) which seem to fit for me.
Meat: Mami (basically a shortened version of umami, one of the five tastes commonly associated with cooked meat)
Milk: Cerea (a short form of cereal, the food I most commonly have milk with)
Cheese: Ched (probably does not need explaining, a short form of cheddar, my favourite cheese)
Butter: Pred (from spread, the most common way of using butter with bread)
Yoghurt: Illa (vanilla is probably the most common flavour of yoghurt eaten and a close association for me)
Despite having created these names, I am not sure any of them are perfect, although I am sure I could grow to accept cerea with my breakfast and illa for dessert. These names seem a little alien now, but then so do most words when we first learn them, and it is only with repeated use that they become natural and familiar.
As I said at the beginning, I am under no illusion that I am going to change the way people speak just from this blog post. Hopefully it will have given you a chance to think a little about our use of language, and if you have any ideas which you think better fit a particular product then I would love to hear about it in the comments. Until then, I am going to enjoy an etam burger with ched and preded bun, a glass of oat kilm on the side, and follow it up with a pot of illa for dessert.