Let’s start with a little tone association. What kinds of phrases does each of these words – veg, veggie, vegan – bring to mind? Here are some that come to me.
“Meat an’ two veg.” “I’m just going to veg for a while. I’m bagged.”
“I’ll have the veggie burger.” “So go ahead and have fun livening up your menu with lots of fresh healthy veggies!”
“Don’t you have any vegan options on your menu?” “She’s a vegan, so we have to consider that in the menu planning.”
So. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ has, in my world, a distinctly British tone, and is especially associated with the phrase meat and two veg. But veg meaning ‘vegetate’, as in ‘relax and do nothing of any importance’, is quite common in Canada and, I suspect, much of the US (I note that the Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from a Canadian newspaper, and two of the five it cites are Canadian). Sometimes you’ll see it with out (i.e., veg out).
Veggie meaning ‘vegetable’ seems perky. Too perky sometimes. The sort of forced perkiness that you often see in lifestyle writing. It’s a common word, of course; I suspect many people say veggie more often than vegetable.
Did you know that both of these words have, in the past (not so much in the present), also meant ‘vegetarian’?
Veg meaning ‘vegetarian’ showed up first in the 1880s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Veg meaning ‘vegetable’ first showed up even earlier, in the mid-1800s. It’s very difficult to do a proper Google Ngram search to see historical frequency, because veg. is also used as an abbreviation in technical documents, which doesn’t really count. So I don’t know when exactly it became really popular. But meat an’ two veg (in literal reference to a standard menu) shows up in the early decades of the 1900s.
Veggie meaning ‘vegetarian’ (noun) shows up first in the 1950s; meaning ‘vegetarian’ (adjective), which is the same as meaning ‘vegetable’ (attributive noun), shows up first in the 1940s; meaning ‘vegetable’ (noun) shows up first in the early 1900s. But if you do a Google Ngram, you will see that it was used barely at all until the late 1970s, and then it just shoots up. (It’s still running way below vegetable and vegetables, though.) So it’s really a fad term of the last few decades. (Don’t bother checking the post-2000 numbers on the ngram, because a large number of historical books were added and it registers them erroneously as when they were added rather than when they were first published, so the numbers for recent terms slump.)
Both veg and veggie can also be annoying to many people named Reg or Reggie, who may occasionally be called Veg or Veggie, since vegetable also has an unpleasant use referring to someone who is comatose or brain dead, and it seems to bleed over when these words are used on a Reg or Reggie. I suspect it’s more of a nuisance for adolescents than for adults. My brother, Reg, is over 50 now. I should ask him whether he still has a distaste for the words veg and veggie.
How about vegan? Does that seem like an even newer fad? When was the first time you heard of vegans? I heard of them in the 1980s. You know what a vegan is, right? If not, here’s a quote from the person who invented it, in the place where he introduced it:
‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ of cows and fowls, therefore… we must make a new and appropriate word… I have used the title ‘The Vegan News’. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as the vegan diet, and we should aspire to the rank of vegans.
This is from the first issue of the The Vegan News, published by Donald Watson in November, 1944, wherein he started a society for people who eat nothing that has come from animals, living or dead.
So yeah. Veganism has been around for 72 years.
And while we associate veg with either working-class vegetables or just classlessly vegetating after work, and veggie with perky colloquial vegetables, many of us associate vegan with dietary difficulty and restriction. After all, it’s just so hard to find food that doesn’t use things made from animals or animal products!
Well, less hard than it used to be. (And most alcoholic beverages just happen to be vegan. So, by happenstance, do many other treats, such as Oreo cookies.) And there are all sorts of other things we could eat but we don’t. Generally in our society we don’t eat cats or dogs or certain parts of cows and pigs, or sheep’s eyeballs or live monkey brains, and we get along fine.
I’m not a vegan, but I do know some vegans. I even work with two of them. While vegan might, for food, seem first of all to many of us to involve restriction, and for some might call to mind militant animal rights activists, all the vegans I can think of whom I personally know are happy, pleasant, good looking, and healthy. (And not averse to a drink or two.)
I wonder if people named Regan are at all bothered by the word vegan. People named Megan ought not to be, since it doesn’t rhyme with their name, anyway. But vegan doesn’t have any connotation of the sort vegetable has. It just has that confusion with Vegan, which means someone or something from Vega.
Vega, aside from being a model of car, is a star. The star is so named because in ancient Egypt the constellation it was part of was called the Vulture, and the Arabic al-nasr al-wāqi ‘the vulture coming down’ was shortened and mutated to Latin Vega.
So, um. That set of people who distinguish themselves by not eating dead animals or anything to do with animals have a name that coincidentally is the same as a name that traces back to a vulture, an eater of dead animals. Well, at least this should help ensure vegans get enough irony.