Feeling Cheesed Off

It’s been a big week for cheese.

No, there isn’t some kind of international cheese shortage, and no, we haven’t been attacked by rounds of mutant camembert. Instead, the opening of a humble vegan shop in Brixton in South London has pushed the issue of what we actually mean by the word ‘cheese’ into the mainstream news agenda.

La Fauxmagerie markets itself as a ‘Plant-based cheesemonger’, and quite clearly states that it is selling cheese-like products for the vegan market. Early sales have been excellent, and the prospects for the fledgling business look good.

Except of course the vegan cheesers have found themselves at the centre of a storm, after Dairy UK got in touch to say that they were violating EU law by using the word cheese and they should desist immediately.

Dairy UK was quoted as saying: “It concerns us that consumers are being misled with the use of dairy terms like cheese by the plant-based sector. Only products which are real dairy cheeses can use the term ‘cheese’.”

Vegan cheese
A vegan cheese

By the letter of the law, Dairy UK are right. The EU ruled in 2017 that dairy terms should not be used by the non-dairy sector to describe their products, though it is still down to individual countries to actually apply that law.

But by the law of common sense, this is patent nonsense. Fauxmagerie is very clear about what it is selling – people buying products from there know full well they are not buying actual cheese but rather are getting something akin to cheese which fits in with either their ethical or health requirements. A consumer who buys any food marketed as an alternative product has only themselves to blame if they don’t know what they are getting. Additionally, by using a word such as ‘cheese’, it is describing to the consumer the type of produce they are buying.

The dairy industry would no doubt lobby for a new word to encompass this type of product. But bluntly, they fail to recognise the fact that language changes, and the reason that cheese continues to be used is that, frankly, people understand what it means in the vegan context. As I mentioned back in January, attempts to rename Vegan Cheese as Gary a couple of years ago were always doomed to fail, for a whole host of self-evident reasons.

And if we are going to attack the use of Cheese in the vegan world, then clearly, we need to come up with an entirely new dictionary of terms for all the vegetarian and vegan dishes now flooding our supermarkets. The reason? Well if you look up actual dictionary definitions of words like sausage, milk, butter or even haggis, you will find that those official definitions all reference the meat or milk which are constituent parts of their make-up. So if you take the argument to its logical conclusion, you could never have a vegetarian sausage or toast with peanut butter. And as for a Soy Latte, when the word Latte is itself an Anglicisation of the Italian word Latte, meaning milk, well that clearly should be consigned to history.

The world has moved on and language, as it always does, has moved on as well to encompass the changes in our 21st-century lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the terms for food with which we are all familiar, and we should welcome rather then resist their adaptation to the new eating habits which are now becoming more popular.

I don’t think anybody is confused.

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A New Year’s Resolution

A Gap Year is the standard term for a year off. I’d like to claim that the near 12-month hiatus in writing any new entries for Wordability is the result of a life-changing time away in which I have visited countless new places, met hordes of fascinating new people and learned to grow my own vegetables.

Sadly, none of the above is true. The simple fact is, writing Wordability had stopped being fun. When I started the blog, back in 2011, I knew there would always be enough material to keep it fresh. Its remit was to pick up new words as they emerged and write about where they came from, how they were being utilised, and whether they appeared to have the stamina to remain part of the ever-changing English Language. And more than 200 posts later, this blog has fulfilled that remit.

Last year I found that the constant trawl for new words was becoming a chore, or when I did see something I was convinced was novel, it actually turned out to have been around for two or three years, thereby breaking the slightly draconian rules I had created for myself when the blog started. And so I got out of the habit.

But the bug to be part of the conversation about language remained, and it was helped by the realisation that since this is my blog, then I can amend the rules I use to decide whether a word can be featured. So what if a word has been used for a year or more when I first come across it? It’s still pretty new, and still represents change and creativity in English, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

So, I thought to myself, rather than constantly hunting for newsworthy items, and only writing about them if they fit strict criteria, what about simply celebrating things which are new to me or other people, even if they are not freshly minted. And while I’m at it, how about removing the pressure I sometimes placed on myself to get something out as soon as I came across it, and instead simply write one post a week that covers whatever I have seen over the last seven days. Now that sounds a lot more entertaining.

So what I have seen this week? Well, I have decided not to hark back to the words of last year, though I did enjoy the American Dialect Society’s various words of the year, mostly because their slang word of the year was Yeet, a word my daughter often uses when sending me messages, for no apparent reason. Entertainingly, she had been using it with no idea for what it meant, and seemed uninterested when I told her it is an ‘indication of surprise or excitement’. This raised a wider concern to me that people may simply be putting random words onto instant messages without worrying overly about what any of it means, which is slightly perturbing for the future of communication in general.

I have also decided to leave Donald Trump and Brexit well alone this week. I am confident that over the course of the next 12 months, they will contribute reams of material to me, as they continue to dominate political landscapes on either side of the Atlantic.

However, veganism has featured prominently in my mind, largely because I thought I had seen a new generic word for Vegan Cheese. Sky News used the term Sheese to describe this product this week, but on further investigation, it looks like Sheese is simply one vegan cheese product, and not a catch-all for the category.

Having said that, a generic term for vegan cheese would prove quite useful, on the basis there isn’t one at the moment. Vegan cheese eaters spotted this a couple of years ago, and an online movement to rename it Gary was born. Hard to imagine really how this didn’t catch on. But while we wait to see whether further first names are hijacked to become monikers for vegan fare (“Do you want some melted Gary on that fried Bert?”), it is worth nothing that the term ‘plant-based’ instead of vegan is beginning to be used with increasing frequency, primary as a way of countering the ire with which veganism is greeted by some. Veganuary is in full swing now, and while it is yet another of those remodelled months which has so irked me in the past, it does demonstrate that words about what we eat are set to dominate and evolve as the next 12 months passes.

As people are happy to say, we live in interesting times. The English language is bound to reflect that as the year progresses, and it will be fun to see what changes.