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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Eat an apparently simple verb which one would suppose to have simple equivalents in all languages. However, one example will suffice to show that this is not so.

The Maya languages (see maya food) divide up the world of edibles in quite a different fashion from English categories (flesh food, fruits and vegetables, breadstuff, etc.). Thus in the Tzeltzal language the verb ‘to eat’ is used only when asking the question: ‘What are you eating?’ Otherwise the verb differs according to the substance being eaten. One verb is used for things that are chewed and the pulp spat out, as is done with sugar cane and maize stalks. Another verb is used for things that melt in the mouth, like candy. Still another verb is used when bread, in the broad sense, is being eaten, and yet another for the consumption of meat, mushrooms, and chilli. Finally, there are two verbs the use of which depends on the texture of the matter being eaten. One verb applies to mushy, gelatinous, overripe, and overcooked things, of which brains, bananas, and avocados might be examples. The other verb is appropriate for discrete, firm objects, among them young maize, popped maize, beans, and squash seeds. A food such as avocado might move from one category to another as it ripens or according to how it is cooked, and could thus partner either of the two verbs.