Where Did The Word “Vegan” Come From?

There are, of course, many complex ethical, environmental, and nutritional reasons for choosing vegetarianism in all its different forms, but we wanted to know—where did the words themselves  come from? Who invented veganism?

Vegetarianism has been around for a very long time. Some studies of mummified Egyptians show they had vegetarian diets. Historians also date this diet back to Ancient Greek philosophers, and religious sects of Buddhism and Hinduism have encouraged vegetarianism for hundreds of years.

When did vegetarianism become popular?

The word vegetarianism itself came into common usage in the 1840–50s. During this era, a diet abstaining in meat was associated with religious conservatives, some of whom also campaigned for the temperance movement to ban alcohol. (To this day, the Church of the Seventh-Day Adventists encourages a vegetarian diet.)

It is not completely clear who invented the word vegetarian. It may have been the founders of the British Vegetarian Society in 1847. Regardless, its linguistic roots are very clear. The Latin word vegetābilis meant “lively or animating” and came to describe foods that made one lively or animated. The suffix –arian changes an adjective into a personal noun, as in librarian or veterinarian. From the 1840s onward, the word was in common English usage. (What actually makes a vegetable? Or a fruit? Learn more.)

Why vegan though?

Where did this short word that connotes radical vegetarians come from? Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society, coined the word vegan in 1944 as a statement against vegetarians who ate dairy products. He took the first and last letters of the word vegetarian to create his orthodox version of vegetarianism. Today, as many as 5 percent of American adults say they follow a vegetarian-inclined diet, but .5 percent of adults are strict vegans: they omit all animal products from their diets.

Most people who describe themselves as vegetarians are technically lacto-ovo-vegetarians; that is, they eat eggs and milk. If you want to get really specific in describing your diet, you could use some of these terms: pollotarians (if you eat chicken, but not meat from mammals), pescetarians (if you eat fish), and freegan (if you eat food only when it’s free).

But what about flexitarian?

More recently, a new word has entered the dietary lexicon: flexitarian. Though the term was invented in the 1990s, only in the past few years has it acquired common currency. The first flexitarian cookbooks (such as The Flexitarian Diet by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner) came out in the 2000s. Many celebrity chefs, including Mark Bittman, now advocate for a “plant-based diet,” meaning one that focuses on plants but can include a little meat.

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma uses a different nomenclature to talk about similar issues. By calling us omnivores, Pollan suggests that we should not be herbivores (or carnivores, for that matter). The language he uses closely resembles the words that biologists use to talk about animals. Owls are carnivores; rabbits are herbivores. As with most attributes, though, we prefer to have different adjectives to describe the same behavior in animals and in humans.

What do you think about inventing new words to describe how and what we eat?

Previous Is English an innately positive language? Scientists say yes. Next Dictionary.com's Exclusive Interview with Will Shortz: Part 1