I’m not a vegan, nor am I planning to go vegan either. And I’m not a vegetarian either. I really like meat a lot. I did pretend to be a vegetarian once, though the pretence didn’t last long. But that’s another story. I really want to look at the word vegan.
I spotted it today while in a café, and started to wonder about it. There’s nothing hugely mysterious about it: it’s clearly related to vegetable and vegetarian. But why specifically is it vegan? That intrigued me, especially as it’s a relatively new word, and was therefore deliberately coined, designed if you will, rather than evolving naturally like most words. So I decided to investigate.
The word was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society (who better?) He suggested it on the second page of the first edition of the The Vegan News (somehow I feel he’d already made his made his mind up about the term and was only soliciting opinions and suggestions from his readers as a token gesture). The only hint of his thinking he gave was that all those used to typing out vegetarian would appreciate the benefits of a short word.
But as is often the case, there’s a neat little story behind the word. In a 2004 interview, Watson stated that he chose the word vegan because it was the beginning and end of vegetarian. Vegetarian. See!? How clever! What a lovely combination of form and meaning with the actual construction of the word mirroring how Watson actually thought about veganism.
I know I’m often cynical about such seemingly too-good-to-be-true stories, usually because that’s not how words ever really come about. But, this is a word that was deliberately coined fairly recently, and the creator himself makes the claim.
I wonder though: why didn’t he mention that in the beginning? Not that I mean to doubt him only… Imagine such a situation. Sometime in the 60s or 70s, a fan gets to talk to his hero, and says:
-and I love the word vegan itself! It’s so clever how you took the first and last letters of vegetarian, to represent how you say veganism as the beginning and end, the logical conclusion, if you will, of vegetarianism. That’s obviously what you were going for, right?
-Oh, yes… Yes! Yes of course, that was precisely my intention! How perceptive of you!
I want to give Watson the benefit of the doubt, but imagining that vegan is a combination of veg- and -an is exactly the kind of idea people imagine and then spread once a word has become established.
I’d ask a vegan, but then I might end up having to pretend to be a vegan, so let’s just congratulate Watson on his witty wordsmithing!