Have I seen you be -vore?

Posted by on June 14, 2011

Although the Latin word vorare (devour, swallow quickly) is no longer very familiar to many of us, we see its root hidden in plain sight in several common words. Some, such as devour and voracious, retain the sense of greediness or great hunger; others, such as herbivore, carnivore and omnivore, refer more neutrally to the act of eating and in particular to the type of food.

The -vore suffix has been especially productive in scientific terminology, where it’s a standard way of describing a life form’s dietary preferences. The three terms just mentioned are well known. In more technical contexts we may also come across words like insectivore, piscivore, nectarivore, frugivore (fruit-eater), detritivore, and granivore (eats seeds, not grandmothers), and their adjectival forms: insectivorous, etc.

In these cases, -vore signals the act of eating, and what precedes it indicates what is eaten. But more recent coinages work differently, signalling a shift (or lapse) in how the suffix is used. One of these is locavore, sometimes localvore. Although superficially it has the same form as the traditional -vore words, it does not work quite the same way: it has nothing to do with eating locals.

Locavorism is about sourcing food locally. The word is part of green English vocabulary. Locavores prefer food that is grown or farmed by the locavores themselves or by someone in the surrounding area. Fewer food miles generally implies a lower carbon footprint – and hence a lower cookprint, which is “a measure of a meal’s environmental impact”.

Still more unorthodox is femivore. You might guess that the fem- part has to do with female or feminism, and you’d be right – it’s the latter – but the word’s meaning is still far from obvious. This NYT Magazine article about femivores describes the efforts of a small group of feminists seeking to reconcile feminism, home-making, and eating ethically and self-sufficiently.

The concept is fine, but I don’t think femivore is a well-formed term: it joins two familiar affixes in a cryptic fashion that requires considerable elaboration. Even ‘reading into’ the word, we’re left guessing about it, and there’s a strong probability of misreading it. More -vore words are likely to be created given our love of both food and wordplay. It would be worth our while to make them make sense.

Comments (11)
  • I recently edited a book that used “vegevore”: http://www.wordspy.com/words/vegivore.asp. I’m not sure I like it, but I can see how people who eat lots of vegetables yet don’t eat them exclusively would want an option to “vegetarian.” “Vegetable enthusiast,” anyone?

    Posted by Erin Brenner on 15th June, 2011
  • That’s an interesting one, Erin, though like you I have mixed veg feelings about it. Vegetable enthusiast is fine too, but it’s rather a mouthful, and to me carries suggestions of gardening more than eating – probably because I associate enthusiast with hobbyist. Veg lover is another option, as is vegephile.

    Posted by Stan on 15th June, 2011
  • An enthusiast” as a hobbyist is a good point. I like “vegephile,” but will the vegevores?

    Posted by Erin Brenner on 15th June, 2011
  • That’s a meaty question.

    Posted by Stan on 15th June, 2011
  • [...] “Have I seen you be -vore?”, I examine the -vore suffix, which comes from French -vore, from Latin -vorous, from vorare [...]

    Posted by The green stuff « Sentence first on 11th July, 2011
  • Clearly a femivore would be someone who eats females – though it doesn’t specify their species. I suppose a humavore would have to be the new version of a cannibal – perhaps a womavore is a cannibal who only eats women? Unless, of course, “humavore” refers to man-eating (well, human-eating) tigers and sharks and the like? Perhaps a cannibal would have to be (borrowing further from the French) a soivore?

    On a different (but sort of related) note, what about the ending -cide? Pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, fratricide, etc… What is the origin of -cide? And any new green words there? How about nullicide – for vegans, who don’t want to kill anything to eat? Maybe what we really need these days is some expendicide – the new word for drastic budget-cutting? Though in the US I think what we actually need is Republicide – they’ve gone overboard with their expendicide!

    Posted by Joy on 11th July, 2011
  • Thanks for your amusing comment, Joy. Your humavore made me think of hummavore or hummuvore: someone who eats hummus. They would overlap quite a lot with the vegevores, I think.
    The origin of -cide is similar to that of -vore: from Latin via French. I don’t know about new green words using the suffix, but Arnold Zwicky recently documented laundricide and telephonicide. They’re rare words, but not as rare as your expendicide; you might be the first person ever to use that one!

    Posted by Stan on 11th July, 2011
  • Joy: The Latin verb caedere means to beat, chop, or strike, and by extension to kill. The suffix -cide is a reduced form of this, found in words like homicide taken directly from Latin. Like many Latin and Greek suffixes, it now has a semi-independent life in English, and can be found in many novel words for different types of killers.

    Posted by John Cowan on 11th July, 2011
  • @Stan – I think a hummuvore is someone who eats Hummers, not hummus! Or maybe you have been spared hummers in Ireland? Excessively large gas-guzzling cars modeled on Humvees – military vehicles.

    Though perhaps what we need in the US is hummucide (hummecide?) – hummers must be gotten rid of because they are excessive gasovores (or maybe on your side of the pond you’d call them petrovores?)!

    @John – thanks for the etymology of -cide. My Latin is far to back in my memory to remember that. Are there any English words directly coming from caedere other than the -cide words? I can’t think of any, but that doesn’t mean much!

    Posted by Joy on 12th July, 2011
  • Unfortunately, Joy, we have not been spared hummers in Ireland. I live in a small medieval city with a lot of streets that were never meant for such hefty, petrovorous vehicles! Petrovoracious, even.

    Posted by Stan on 12th July, 2011
  • [...] meanings of -vore. (Thanks [...]

    Posted by Food Links, 30.11.2011 « Tangerine and Cinnamon on 30th November, 2011
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