Addiction And Seduction On Yelp: The Language Of Food Love

Stanford linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky co-authored a study of almost 900,000 restaurant reviews on Yelp.com. His research shows that those online comments say as much about us as the restaurants.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here are a couple of online reviews for expensive restaurants off Yelp.com, the popular site where everyone is a critic.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The apple tarty ice cream pastry caramely thing was just orgasmic.

SIEGEL: And: Succulent pork belly paired with seductively seared foie gras.

CORNISH: Robert, I'm sensing a theme here.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I think it's sex.

CORNISH: Right, well, Stanford professor of linguistics Dan Jurafsky examined these reviews and many, many others; almost 900,000 for a new paper he co-authored. And he found that Yelp reviews tell us as much about the reviewer as the reviewed.

SIEGEL: Among his findings: People who go online to review those expensive restaurants want to be thought of as sophisticated, so they use the language of seduction. They also use big words.

DAN JURAFSKY: Sumptuous or vestibule, espalier, gastronomy caricatures. So these long, fancy, multi-syllabic words suggest they're well-educated and they're kind of high-class consumer.

SIEGEL: However, people who write positive things online about inexpensive restaurants and food often choose a different vocabulary: the language of drugs and addiction.

JURAFSKY: These cupcakes, they're like crack. Or: Be warned, the wings are addicting. Or: Every time I need a fix, that fried chicken is so damn good.

CORNISH: Jurafsky theorizes that calling cupcakes crack allows us to distance ourselves from those indulgent foods.

JURAFSKY: Somehow if it's a drug or we're addicted, it's really not really our fault. It's really the fault of the food which is this awful drug-like thing. It wasn't my fault. I had to eat that cupcake. It made me eat it.

CORNISH: Yeah, shame on you cupcake.

SIEGEL: And finally, let's not forget those negative reviews. Our Stanford professor found that one-star restaurant reviews are not usually written because of bad food or ambience but bad service.

JURAFSKY: You go to a restaurant and the service is so bad that you feel personally attacked. You feel traumatized. They're displaying the linguistic symptoms of trauma. And we can spot that in the reviews.

SIEGEL: According to Professor Jurafsky, people use words of collective grief: not I and me, but we and us.

CORNISH: For example, we wanted that cupcake so badly but we were told to wait.

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