Practical Issues >
Health - Index >
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: January 30, 2005
"By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race,'' wrote the passionate poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1813, ''I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system.'' The cardinal rule of that blithe spirit: ''Never take any substance into the stomach that once had life.''
That philosophy of diet was first recorded by Pythagoras of Samos who munched on his veggies around the fifth century B.C., with Greek philosophers like Plato, Epicurus and Plutarch embracing fleshless eating with enthusiasm. A few decades after Bish's endorsement (the teenager he seduced and later married, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, called him Bish), the diet was being called vegetarian, a word popularized by the formation of the vegetarian Society at Ramsgate, England, in 1847. After its planting, that word grew (from the Latin vegetare, ''to grow'') for a century.
Then along came the Yorkshireman Donald Watson, a woodworker in Britain and a devotee of greens, who was looking for a name for his newsletter. ''We should all consider carefully,'' he wrote his early subscribers in 1944, ''what our Group, and our magazine, and ourselves, shall be called.'' He was tired of typing the long word vegetarian thousands of times and believed nondairy was too negative: ''Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as food. We need a name that suggests what we do eat.'' He rejected vegetarian and fruitarian as ''associated with societies that allow the 'fruits'(!) of cows and fowls.'' (That's milk and eggs; the poet Robert Lowell wrote in 1959 of a ''fly-weight pacifist,/so vegetarian, /he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.'')
Watson suggested to his readers that the newsletter be called The Vegan News. ''Our diet will soon become known as a vegan diet, and we should aspire to the rank of vegans.''
As his subscribers swallowed his coinage, Watson promptly made it an -ism : ''Veganism is the practice of living on fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome nonanimal products.'' He thus dissociated his strict -ism from that of vegetarianism, a less rigorous regime that usually permits the eating of eggs, dairy products and honey, as well as the wearing of animal products like leather, wool and silk. (To get the vitamin B12 in animal products, many vegans drink fortified soy milk or take a vitamin pill. Mother's milk is permitted for babies.)
Vegetarian has another offshoot besides the aforesaid fruitarian: ''Pescetarian is a frequently used term for those alleged veggies who eat seafood (but not meat or fowl),'' noted a writer in The Guardian in 2002, ''and irritate meat eaters and genuine vegetarians the world over.''
One who exclusively noshes on crudités (a Yiddish-English-French phrase) is called a rawist. Also coined in the early 90's is flexitarian, one who eats vegetarian dishes at home but will go along with meat, fish or fowl in a restaurant or as a guest. (A food pollster would call these loosey-goosey gourmands swing eaters.)
In the recent presidential campaign, Ralph Nader revealed his food flexitarianism -- no meat, but fish is O.K. -- while Representative Dennis Kucinich firmly asserted his status as a vegan. The strict term can be politically parodied: the humorist Dave Barry, in a healing postelection column, urged readers not to stereotype red-state voters as ''knuckle-dragging Nascar-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating'' rednecks, nor blue-state voters as ''tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts.''
Vegan, too, has its offshoot: a freegan is an anticonsumerist who eats only what others throw away. Unlike a dumpster diver, a freegan (hard g) limits his scrounging to edibles. I believe this term is too close to euphemisms for copulation to be more than a nonce word.
Do not confuse the noun vegan with the intransitive verb to veg out. The latter is based on vegetate, ''to exist passively,'' coined in that sense by the playwright Colley Cibber in 1740. It means ''to droop into such a state of insensibility as to appear to become a vegetable.''
My problem with vegan, now affirmatively used as self-description by roughly two million Americans, is its pronunciation. Does the first syllable sound like the vedge in vegetable, with the soft g? Or is it pronounced like the name sci-fi writers have given the blue-skinned aliens from far-off Vega: VEE-gans or VAY-gans?
For this we turn to the word's coiner: ''The pronunciation is VEE-gan,'' Watson told Vegetarians in Paradise, a Los Angeles-based Web site, last year, ''not vay-gan, veggan or veejan.'' He chooses the ee sound followed by a hard g. That's decisive but not definitive; some lexicographers differ, and pronunciation will ultimately be determined by the majority of users.
I'll go along with the coiner's pronunciation of VEE-gan. He's a charmingly crotchety geezer who began as a vegetarian. ''When my older brother and younger sister joined me as vegetarians, nonsmokers, teetotalers and conscientious objectors,'' Watson says, ''my mother said she felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs.'' He obviously inherited her feel for language. I'm a carnivore myself -- an animal that delights in eating other animals -- but won't treat this guy like a fad-diet freak: Watson has a major coinage under his belt, and he's a spry 94.
Send comments and suggestions to: