November 12, 2007

Locavore or localvore?

One of the more enjoyable duties I have as an editor at Oxford University Press is working with OUP's lexicographers to select the Word of the Year. This year the selection is locavore, used to describe those who endeavor to eat only locally grown foods. You can read all about it, along with the runners-up, over on OUPblog.

When I researched the brief history of the word since its 2005 coinage, I found that there are actually two competing forms: locavore and localvore. The four women in San Francisco who launched the movement two years ago prefer locavore (and run the website But soon after the Bay Area initiative, other regional groups took up the cause, sometimes (as in Vermont) spelling it localvore. (Still others prefer locatarian, but that seems to be running a very distant third.)

Locavore and localvore are new enough that people are still trying to decide which variant to use, often making their choice for personal, stylistic reasons. The blogger Cincinnati Locavore explains: "I settled on locavore for reasons of simple laziness: it's easier for me to pronounce." Noe on My Live Earth agrees that locavore is "a little easier to say," but finds it "a bit too close to 'locovore.'" Locovore does actually show up as an occasional variant, and there's even some precedent for using loco- as a prefix for 'local' in "loco-descriptive poetry," though the OED says the loco- in loco-descriptive was "erroneously taken as a combining form of L. locus place" based on the word locomotion. In any case, Spanish loco 'crazy' would now preclude the spread of locovore and may even cause some semantic interference with locavore — after all, loca is just the feminine form of loco. And who wants to be misinterpreted as a crazy eater (or an eater of crazy things)?

Despite the loco complaint, it looks like locavore has emerged as the preferred form, and the "ease of pronunciation" rationale might have something to do with it. Granted, there are plenty of words in English with the [lv] consonant cluster appearing intervocalically, like silver, pelvis,  and salvage. Historically, the [lv] cluster has been simplified to [v] in some environments, as in halve, calve, and (for some speakers) salve, indicative of a more widespread process of l-dropping in Middle English before labial or velar consonants (see also talk, folk, calm, etc.). In those cases, however, [lv] appears word-finally, so what's the problem with medial [lv], especially when it straddles a morpheme boundary, as in local + -vore?

I think in the case of localvore, the fact that the preceding vowel is unstressed (as opposed to silver, etc.) means that the [lv] cluster is more prone to l-dropping or l-vocalization, even among speakers whose dialects don't normally make them l-vocalizers. In American English, at least, the second [l] in local and hence localvore is typically a "dark l," making it more susceptible to vocalization or reduction. It seems roughly equivalent to speakers who drop (or reduce) the [r] in words like neighborhood but are otherwise rhotic. (Note the similar stress patterns of localvore and neighborhood, with the liquid [l/r] occurring at the end of a syllable with an unstressed nucleus and before a syllable with secondary stress.) So that means, unless you're being very careful, localvore may end up sounding like locavore anyway. And if you're pronouncing it without the [l], why not spell it that way too?

This phonological situation may, in fact, have had something to do with the coinage of locavore in the first place, since there's no precedent that I'm aware of for using loca- as a prefix meaning 'local.' Maybe when the San Francisco group was tossing around possible names for their movement, someone suggested localvore and it was construed by someone else in the group as locavore. Unlike other word formations lost in the mists of time, this is a case where the origin can be firmly pinpointed, so perhaps the true story of loca(l)vore will be revealed in more detail by the coiners themselves.

[Update, 11/13: The coiner of locavore explains how she came up with the word here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 12, 2007 12:44 PM