Mark Bittman has a new column in The New York Times. It's about food, but also it's about the way we eat in these trying food times. "The moderate, conscious eater — the flexitarian — knows where the goal lies: a diet that’s higher in plants and lower in both animal products and hyperprocessed foods, the stuff that makes up something like three-quarters of what’s sold in supermarkets," he writes: "That’s the kind of cooking and eating I’ll be exploring in this monthly column," which is named The Flexitarian. He hopes to "marry the burning question 'What should I be eating?' with another: 'How do I cook it?'”
Flexitarian eating is not dieting, it's a way of life, he explains, and this will be an eating—not a diet—column. But what is this word flexitarian, which sounds like it was made up for comedic purposes? (It is in the dictionary: "one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish"; or more generally, one who eats flexibly.) Bittman explains that he picked the word in particular over omnivore for several reasons, including because it "suggests a regimen that includes more whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables than the Standard American Diet." Flexitarian has a healthier connotation, maybe, and we all want to eat "better." If calling ourselves flexitarian helps, so be it. And, he says, "at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted, as has vegetarian," with offshoots like pescetarians or chicken-eating vegetarians (pollotarians), or people who eat chicken and fish but call themselves vegetarians anyway.
But is this really true, semantically speaking? Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer told me, "I find it odd that he says 'at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted, as has vegetarian.' This 'perversion' of vegetarian has been going on for more than a century (fruitarian is in the OED from 1893 and nutarian from 1909). Flexitarian is just another variation on the -tarian theme. My favorite is breatharian, from the crackpot notion that you can get all the nutrients you need from breathing air."
If there is a reason "flexitarian" is more pure or accurate as a descriptor than vegetarian, maybe it's because it's also infinitely more general, seeking to describe the flexible nature of one's eating rather than what one won't eat. "Semi-vegetarian" in contrast, sounds pretty mealy-mouthed. And flexitarian has a certain of-the-moment cache, maybe because it seems slightly less culturally saturated than vegetarian. But it's also just another of those food words that have sprung up to indicate a particular type of person eating a particular type of food. Like locavore (named the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007; someone who "seeks to consume only locally grown food"), opportunivore ("a person who eats whatever is around"), freegan ("eating food that's been discarded"), and all of the many "tarians," those who are eating flexibly are just eating in their own way. We're all a bunch of eat-tarians. We all eat food.
Zimmer writes that the suffix tarian "has proved even more productive than -vore for naming new classes of eaters. Starting with vegetarians in the 19th century, there have been fruitarians (fruit eaters), nutarians (nut eaters), pescetarians (fish eaters), and flexitarians (flexible vegetarians). Lately there have also been plantarians, who promote a plant-based diet as a healthy lifestyle choice. If all of these X-tarians sound like religious sects (along the lines of Unitarians or Trinitarians), that’s only fitting: the advent of vegetarianism in the US and UK in the 1830s-40s was tied to ethical and religious movements to improve society."
Just don't call them "foodies."