Pseud for thought: even John Walsh has been guilty of overelaboration / Teri Pengilley

Research shows that restaurant reviews now use language associated with sex, addiction and trauma. John Walsh wonders when writing about food became such a mouthful

Are we getting carried away in our response to the simple business of putting food in our mouths? A touch hysterical in our dismay when dinner doesn't go the way we had hoped? Well, a study of almost 100,000 restaurant reviews of 6,500 restaurants in seven American cities suggests we might be overdoing things a lot.

"Men are likely to use the language of trauma in one-star restaurant reviews," reported Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, California. "The language is very specific. They distance themselves from the event by putting it into the past tense. They use the first-person plural to show that a bad thing has happened to us as a group, and we're going to get through it together" – as if they're writing about a trauma, such as a bomb scare or a bank robbery.

If ever there were a definition of a First World problem, this would be it. Six people dine out in Chicago. Jerry finds his kale soup under-seasoned, Marion thinks her onion and asparagus quiche smells eggy, Harlan sends back his game terrine for being too truffly, Dan's disappointed by the beef fore-rib and Candy thinks the waiter served her crème brûlée in an offhand manner. So, collectively dismayed, they all go home and write one-star reviews, describing the place in terms that suggest they've narrowly survived an al-Qaeda kidnap…

How did we get this way? First, by allowing the savouring of food to gain such a foothold in the hierarchy of national importance. The past 15 years have seen a revolution in our attitude to food preparation and consumption, as if both were comparable to major surgery or aesthetic achievement.

"Such a devotion to food in the general culture represents a kind of perversity or decadence, an inward-turning dissipation of psychic and intellectual resources," complained Steven Poole in You Aren't What You Eat. "We are crowded and harangued by people of evident thoughtfulness, who are infatuated with food when they could be doing so much else with their time and creative energy."

Second, by having everyone with access to TripAdvisor think that they must report on every meal they consume only in terms of shocked dismay or orgasmic bliss. And amateur food critics quickly learn that the lexicon of negativity is far larger and more colourful than the one that tells readers everything's delicious. But Professor Jurafsky has news for us there, too. "The more expensive the restaurant, the more likely you are to describe the food in terms of sex," he says, while diners at cheaper restaurants tend to discuss what they're eating as if it were a drug whose craving must be satisfied.

We're dealing here in cultural expectations. If we're paying £30 for a roast guineafowl in a Madeira-and-shallots reduction and it smells good and parks a lingering aftertaste at the back of our throats, we've all learnt to go a bit Nigella about it, a bit over-the-top gastro-porny, as if the satisfying of greed were cognate with the slaking of lust, as if a cooked game bird weren't a bird but a seductive little minx and a pudding not just a pudding but a happy finish.

Of course, you don't need to be in an expensive restaurant to express your appreciation of food in a sexual way. I once appeared in Private Eye's "Pseuds Corner" because I'd described a "trio of lamb", served in a modestly priced eating house, with a faintly saucy metaphor: the long-braised shoulder and barely seared pink rump, I wrote, "offered a brilliant contrast, as if you were eating both mother and daughter in the same dish".

If I remember rightly, I was alluding simply to the apparently contrasting dowager-and-debutant ages of the two lumps of meat – I wasn't thinking about oral sex at all. But now Professor Jurafsky has rumbled me, I'll have to be more careful in future. Pass me that plate of bosoms, would you? I mean burrata.

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