Vegetarian means nothing.
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., sometimes, such 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.