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Word of the Week: ‘vegetarian’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘vegetarian’.


It’s National Vegetarian Week. When better to announce that veggie sausages and burgers may, for your delight and delectation, be renamed ‘veggie tubes’ and ‘veggie discs’? 

New EU rules proposed in Brussels this week seek to ban producers of vegetarian food from using meat-related names to describe their products – and have been approved by the European parliament’s agricultural committee. What’s their beef? Among other things, supporters of the move hope to “protect meat-related terms” and ensure “people know what they are eating”. The proposal for this rather meaty piece of legislation is set to be put to all MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) after May’s European election. 

Those MEPs critical of the move suggest Europe’s powerful meat industry is to blame – and that the proposal is borne out of fears about a growing trend toward vegetarian and vegan diets, especially among young people. Not everyone’s complaining though. Producers of meat-substitutes like Beyond Meat – whose stock has tripled since selling shares to the public last month – are reaping the rewards of this new culinary trend.

Why do we care? Well, with the assertion from climate experts that the best thing we can do for the planet is ditching meat in favour of ‘vegetarian’, plant-based diets, the excitement surrounding Gregg’s veggie sausage roll and the fact that there are now over three million vegetarians in the UK – digging into the meaning of the word ‘vegetarian’ seems worthwhile.

What does ‘vegetarian’ mean?

The definition of ‘vegetarian’, as a noun, is: “a person who does not eat meat. Someone whose diet consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and sometimes eggs or dairy products”.

Or, as a derogatory entry on the Urban Dictionary states – in answer to the question ‘what is a vegetarian?’ – ‘a bad hunter’.

The first known use of ‘vegetarian’ dates back to between 1835-45. A compound, the word ‘vegetable’ and the suffix ‘-arian’ (in the sense of ‘agrarian’ relating to the cultivation or protection of land) came together to create this week’s Word of the Week. 

It is thought the word came into more frequent use following the formation of the British Vegetarian Society in 1847. However, though the word had not yet been uttered, the concept of ‘vegetarianism’ – of choosing to abstain from the consumption of animal products – dates back much further.

Famous vegetarians

One of the original and most prominent veggie thinkers was Pythagoras. The ancient Greek philosopher and mathematical theorist began a foodie trend so hot that they named a whole diet after him, and vegetarianism in this period became known as the ‘Pythagorean diet’. 

Later, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was known for staunchly promoting a ‘vegetarian’ diet until, while travelling on a ship, he witnessed a smaller fish being removed from the stomach of a bigger fish. His response? “If you eat one another, I don’t know why we mayn’t eat you!” and thus ended his ‘vegetarian’ commitments. 

After experimenting with being ‘vegetarian’ at university (join the club), romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley became a firm advocate of the cause and began to write prolifically on the subject. It’s interesting to note that in Frankenstein – written by his wife Mary Shelley – the infamous monster is portrayed as a ‘vegetarian’: “I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment."

Was Shelley slyly trying to suggest her veggie husband was a bit of an uncouth monster? No, as lovers of the gothic text will know, the monster is actually represented as a being of a much higher, civilised and sensitive order. Shelley here was giving those committed to being ‘vegetarian’ some serious kudos.

I’m actually a Fruitarian

From the ‘vegetarian’ movement has sprung a number of others, all varying in degrees of extremity and, sometimes, laughability. To name a few, there’s the pescatarian, the flexitarian, the fruitarian, the nutritarian, the reducetarian, the ovo-lacto vegetarian and of course, the vegan. 

The number of options, the lingo and the barrage of articles around the subject (especially during National Vegetarian Week) is often overwhelming. But one thing’s for sure, once these new EU labelling laws come into play there’ll be no need to get your ‘veggie tubes’ in a twist as you search for the nosh that caters to your latest diet.

Read more:

Word of the Week: ‘throne’

Word of the Week: ‘censorship’