The BIG idea

When the dish on the menu called Plaice a l'Orly with Pommes Frites a la Mode turns out to be plain old fish and chips, you don't need a PhD in computational linguistics to know it will cost you dearly.

But Stanford University linguist and computer scientist Dan Jurafsky and colleagues have confirmed a truth universally known to seasoned restaurant patrons: the fancier the words on the menu, the more expensive the restaurant.

In a study that computationally analysed thousands of US restaurant menus, "we found we could predict the prices just from the words on the menu", Jurafsky wrote in a recent piece for the Financial Times. Difficult foreign words – the kind you have to ask your wait staff about, like "tonnarelli", "persillade" and "oyako" – signal top dollar. Middle-priced menus, they found, are liberally doused with adjectives like fresh, mild, crisp and tender. Vague but positive words –delicious, tasty, savoury – are the preserve of el cheapo establishments.

Jarefsky explains: "High-status restaurants want their customers to presuppose that food will be fresh, crisp and delicious. The surfeit of adjectives on middle-priced menus is thus a kind of overcompensation, a sign of status anxiety, and only the cheapest restaurants, in which the tastiness of the food might be in question, must overly protest the toothsomeness of their treats."

The same status-conscious language pervades restaurant reviews on websites such as Yelp. Expensive places get written up with big words like "commensurate", "sumptuous" and "vestibule". The reviewers are trying to tell us about themselves as much as the food, signalling that they're "high class" like the restaurant. Positive writing about expensive restaurants tends to use sexual and sensual metaphors – orgasmic pastry, voluptuous cake, seductive glazes. The reviewers want to demonstrate their sensuous, hedonistic nature. We are what we eat, after all.