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Vegetarian means nothing.

March 3, 2012

Vegetarian?What does the word “vegetarian” mean anyway? Well, I think I know what it means. I’ve been referring to myself as such for almost 14 years, but do I have a dialectal interpretation of the word that does not apply outside the “vegetarian” community? Dictionaries would have you believe that vegetarian has a common meaning in the English language. Well sort of.

Merriam-Webster defines “vegetarian” as: “one who believes in or practices vegetarianism”.

Right. So what is “vegetarianism”?

In turn, Merriam-Webster defines “vegetarianism” as: “the theory or practice of living on a vegetarian diet”.

How is this even a dictionary?? Let’s try to find a dictionary that does not define the word using the word it is defining in a different form. (Elementary school tells us that an appropriate definition of a “human being” is not “a being that is human”.)

The Collins English Dictionary fares a bit better. It defines “vegetarianism” as: “the principle or practice of excluding all meat and fish, and sometimes, in the case of vegans, all animal products (such as eggs, cheese, etc) from one’s diet”.

From this definition, it is implied that meat is not fish and that there are inconsistencies and indefinites in the concept (e.g., sometimessuch as, etc). Furthermore, it only refers to diet, not lifestyle at all.

But what is meat? Simple question? No. “Meat” according to the Collins English Dictionary does not include fish or even poultry:

“the flesh of mammals used as food, as distinguished from that of birds and fish”

That’s astounding. Nut job Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “meat” is simply “food”, so I think it’s safe to say that we shall no longer counting on this dictionary for any sort of useful definition.

MacMillan Dictionary defines “meat” as: “the flesh of an animal or bird eaten as food”.

That’s funny, because I’m pretty sure birds are animals. And if birds are not considered animals according to MacMillan, then I assume fish aren’t either.

So, I better stop here, or I’ll start looking up definitions for “animals” and I have already taken too many steps away from my initial investigation, namely, what the hell does “vegetarian” mean anyway?

Dictionaries aside, my experiences within the “vegetarian community” in Canada (or at least, certain parts of Ontario) have led me to believe that “vegetarian” means the principle or practice of excluding all meat (which includes the flesh of all animals encompassed by the Kingdom Animalia) from one’s diet. “Vegan” incorporates this definition, but goes a step further and involves the exclusion of all animal products as well (anything derived from an animal), and often this transcends just diet to include also lifestyle. Of course, there are subtypes of both groups, such as lacto-ovo-, lacto-, ovo- [vegetarian], and vegans that do or do not eat honey and/or processed sugars, to name but a few differences. In fact, from my definition it would seem like we have some stability and common understanding of the term. But we don’t.

“Vegetarian” has become a catch-all for any diet that excludes various types of meat, but not necessarily all meat. For example, it is not unheard of for someone to call themselves vegetarian, whose only restriction is abstention from red meat. Many self-proclaimed “vegetarians” eat fish and/or seafood (in addition to eggs and dairy), and some even include poultry (or just chicken and turkey). Some “vegetarians” don’t eat any meat, unless it is chopped up in little bits or dissolved in their food so that it can’t be seen, others only eat meat at restaurants and dinner parties, but never at home, and finally, you have those who are “vegetarian”, but sometimes they will occasionally eat steak.

The last paragraph gives an illustration of the unfortunate bastardization of the word, possibly originating from the lack of a clear consensus in terms of a meaning even among reputable English language dictionaries. People have come to appropriate the word without really knowing what it means. There have been various attempts at trying to return to a more consistent understanding of “vegetarian”, by contrasting it with word such as “pescetarian” (instead of “vegetarian who eats fish”) and “flexitarian” (instead of “vegetarian who eats meat sometimes”). I’ve even heard of “pollotarian” (instead of “vegetarian who eats poultry”). However, I’m not sure how widespread these neologisms are and whether or not they are even understood among those who do use them.

And don’t even get me started on “vegan”. Most people do not know what that word means, let alone what an “animal product” is.

So, I have come to the conclusion that “vegetarian” means nothing. Or at least it means something different to each person to the extent that the word has become meaningless for all intents and purposes. This isn’t a nihilistic conclusion, but rather an acceptance of where we’re at socially and so I need to be prepared for and accepting of people’s shortcomings. For example, my partner and I love this small restaurant in Ottawa. It is not “vegetarian” by any stretch of the imagination. However it does have a “vegetarian” section to its menu. We know the owner quite well as we frequent the restaurant at least once every 1-2 weeks. We also always get the same “vegetarian” soup. Yesterday we went to get our “usual”. He proudly came up to us and asked us if we noticed a difference in the soup. We did not. He told us that they had been experimenting with the broth and that they have decided from now on to make the broth purely vegetable-based and wondered if we preferred it. I politely inquired as to what the base of the broth had been previously (in all the countless times we had consumed the soup at his restaurant). He told us it had been a chicken broth. Without faltering, I told him that the new broth was delicious and it was a good decision to change to the vegetable broth. My partner asked if I were ok. I was. Years ago I may have been outraged, but now, I feel like this is just par for the course, and I accepted this new information about my beloved soup. Nowadays, I almost expect to be deceived or misled to eat non-vegetarian meals at non-vegetarian restaurants serving allegedly vegetarian meals, given the current ignorance of most people (especially restauranteurs) regarding what is truly considered to be “vegetarian”. And given the above confusion on the word, I would say that it isn’t really their fault, and there is no vindictiveness or intent to mislead on their part.

The offending restaurant owner above had no idea that we would be absolutely horrified to hear that the broth had been chicken-based before the big change, as he smiled and presented us with the updated dish. And I am not going to fault him for that now. I more fault myself for not being more on my guard. We “true vegetarians” just need to be more careful. To be sure we are not consuming animal, we should restrict our dining out to vegetarian restaurants or to restaurants that we know use the right ingredients or have a definition of “vegetarian” that is in line with our own. My one solace is in the fact that, for whatever reason unknown to me, this particular restaurant decided to make their “vegetarian” soup actually vegetarian (as I would have it defined). At least that is a step in the right direction.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. xxxooo permalink
    March 3, 2012 12:26 pm

    Ahh I love your writing!!
    ………..and possiibly love you too;)

  2. March 4, 2012 9:30 am

    I think you’ve made some good decisions towards being able to live in the world without being constantly disappointed. I’ve recently had similar conversations with a vegetarian who eats fish, but perhaps isn’t even aware that this would not meet the requirements of other vegetarians. Best to buy your own farm, grow and prepare your own food!

  3. March 15, 2012 7:10 pm

    One of your best posts yet! Interesting, humorous and blatantly disheartening all at once.


  4. April 7, 2012 10:54 am

    uggghh….i’m sorry that happened to you! I’ve learned the hard way that even if something appears very safe (vegetarian-wise), it’s always best to clarify your dietary needs. Soups, salads, salad dressings, sauces and desserts (e.g., gelatin) are all fair game. “Vegetarian” soups with beef broth is one I’ve caught a few times, along with “vegetarian” pad thai with fish sauce.

    Though, it can feel somewhat awkward, uncomfortable or annoying to check with your server, I now see it as serving a few purposes. Aside from increasing your comfort while you consume your meal, it is also a way of raising vegetarian awareness. I’m sure if a server comes across a few vegetarians (of differing persuasions) who mention their dietary needs, they will have a better understanding of how to better serve the different variants of vegetarianism. There are some servers who know immediately what to ask when I mention that I’m vegetarian (e.g., there’s no meat or fish, but are you ok with egg?, do you mean that you’re vegan?), possibly due to some earlier patrons who asserted their dietary needs.

    I think ultimately, your experience is a triumph. Not only have you educated the owner, you’ve increased menu options for future vegetarian patrons :) Thank you!

    While I love home-grown food, I think I disagree with the early post…if we isolate ourselves and only eat at home, we’re reducing our consumer power. Vegan/vegetarian options can only survive (and thrive) in restaurants, if there are customers willing to order them.

  5. philosophia permalink
    April 10, 2012 11:57 am

    Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “meat” is simply “food” – that’s actually the archaic meaning of “meat”. I try to keep that in mind when I’m discussing animal products; really, an animal is no more “meat” than a plant is. The word distances people from what they’re actually consuming. In the same vein, I don’t call, say, veggie burgers, “fake meat” anymore, just “vegetable meat”. Cows AND plants both require processing to become a burger.

    Great post though, just wanted to clear that up!

    • April 11, 2012 10:38 pm

      Thanks for your message! The definition of “meat” meaning simply “food” is largely obsolete in modern-day English. There are certainly some remnants left from the old days, such as “nutmeat” when referring to the edible portion of a nut. However, I personally would not consider this to be the first definition of “meat” that comes to mind for the everyday Anglophone. That was why I was surprised that Merriam-Webster would have listed this rather outdated definition of the word first (i.e., my surprise was not in the definition itself, but rather in the ranking it received). Personally, when I refer to “meat”, I refer generally to the flesh of an animal and I believe that most people do too (though some consider this synonymous with “red meat” and thus do not include fish/poultry). And so I would tend to disagree with you on your denomination of animal “meat” and plant “meat” since nowadays, very few people consider non-animal “meat”, as defined by M-W, meat!


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