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Mind your language

‘Clean eating’ is a great word of the year… for 1906

A century ago this currently modish phrase had an entirely different meaning

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

The word of the year, according to Collins, the dictionary people, is binge-watch. It means to watch DVDs consecutively or, more voguishly expressed, a box-set back-to-back. But I was taken by the runner-up, clean eating.

This is a trend. There is a magazine called Clean Eating and the definition is not simple. ‘The soul of clean eating is consuming food in its most natural state,’ it says, if that helps. You should avoid artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate, trans fats, some common food dyes and sulphur dioxide (which I admit makes dried apricots taste horrible). There’s plenty more.


We have been here before. In Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906), about immigrants, a character envisages magazines devoted to enthusiasms of the time: eugenics, Nietzsche and ‘Horace Fletcher, the inventor of the noble science of clean eating’.

Clean eating referred principally to chewing. ‘The Fletcherites,’ wrote a wag in The Practitioner in 1907, ‘so far from not giving two bites to a cherry, insist on 32 to a mashed potato.’ Fletcher (1849–1919) became know as the Great Masticator, and his doctrine as Fletcherising. P.G. Wodehouse expected his readers to be familiar with the term. In The Adventures of Sally (1921), a dog fight on the beach was ‘no ordinary dog fight. It was a stunning mêlée, which would have excited favourable comment even among the blasé residents of a negro quarter’. One ‘raffish mongrel was apparently endeavouring to fletcherise a complete stranger of the Sealyham family’.

Fletcherism reminds me of the contemporary fad of Couéism, named after Émile Coué (1857–1926), whose motto was ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better’. This too passes the Wodehouse test of familiarity, being mentioned in the short story ‘Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure’ (collected in Blandings Castle, 1935) and featuring in one of Wodehouse’s lyrics for the Jerome Kern musical Sitting Pretty (1924).

I think Coué’s slogan remains more familiar that Fletcher’s obsession, though people often refer to Gladstone chewing every mouthful 32 times. Clean eating seems to have made a clean break from its previous incarnation.


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