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I've heard that the words "non-veg" and "non-vegetarian" are not legal English words (i.e aren't in the dictionary). Is this true? If so, what is the right way to say that something contains ingredients that are not pure vegetarian or that someone eats meat?

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I've always used meatatarian, myself. –  Armstrongest Aug 13 '10 at 14:40
Hum, how many "non"-prefixed words ARE in the dictionary? –  delete Aug 13 '10 at 15:05
Can you use these in sample sentences? –  MatthewMartin Aug 13 '10 at 16:18
@MatthewMartin: "This meal is non-vegetarian - it contains meat" or A: "Are you a vegetarian or non-vegetarian?" B: "I'm a non-vegetarian and I eat meat everyday". The people answering seem to have (correctly) assumed these are the usages I was talking about. –  Umang Aug 14 '10 at 4:38
Legal means based on the law, concerned with the law, appointed or required by the law. –  kiamlaluno Aug 22 '10 at 11:33

9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

If you are speaking to English speakers from India, these will perfectly normal and familiar words. In other English-speaking cultures, people probably aren't as familiar with the word, but I doubt they would have much trouble understanding what it means. So I would say it is okay to go ahead and use the word in any context.

In India, a larger portion of the population (maybe even a majority?) is vegetarian, so vegetarian food is kind of the default choice, and non-vegetarian is more of an exception. Whereas in other regions, the vast majority of people eat meat, and vegetarians are the exception, so no word quite like "non-vegetarian" has been invented. ("Carnivore" and "meat-eater" are ok substitutes for the noun, but for the adjective I think you'd need to use a phrase like "meat-containing" or just reword it.) If you're interested in a linguist's brief musings on this topic, you can read this blog post on Language Log.

Also, regarding "not legal English words (i.e aren't in the dictionary)": dictionaries describe how the language is used, not prescribe how it should be used. New words get added to dictionaries all the time, and old words get marked as "archaic." For example, "spam" wasn't added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2009, but that wouldn't have meant it was invalid to use the word in 2002.

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+1 for the Language Log link which has a fascinating series of comments at the bottom. –  nohat Aug 14 '10 at 7:12
I believe it's a minority of the population, but a significant one still. –  Noldorin Aug 14 '10 at 15:50
It's about 30% of the population, with a higher proportion among the upper classes (but decreasing). –  ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 16:16
This is "legal" english because it is a word with a standard prefix. That's my take on it. –  Arlen Beiler Sep 11 '10 at 11:18

Affixes (prefixes, suffixes, and the like) can be characterized by what linguists call “productivity”. A productive affix is one that can freely be applied to most any word of the class it applies to. For example the prefix pro- can be added to most any noun, common or proper: pro-choice, pro-Clinton, even whole noun phrases, as in pro-meat-eating. On the other hand, a suffix like -ment is substantially less productive, and can only be applied to the set verbs it is already established as affixing to, and can’t be applied to any old verb, such as *createment or *destroyment

The prefix non- is a very productive prefix. It can be applied to most any adjective, even if the combined form is not listed in a dictionary. The meaning of any such word is plain: not the meaning of the base adjective.

In a mostly or frequently vegetarian context, such as in a magazine about vegetarianism, or, say, in India, the word non-vegetarian is perfectly understandable and therefore grammatical. The abbreviated form non-veg is not a “standard” abbreviated form and therefore would have to be considered pretty informal.

There are 15 incidences of non-vegetarian and 8 of nonvegetarian in the Corpus of Contemporary American English

Note: an asterisk (*) appearing before a word means “not grammatical”.

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Yeah, "non-vegetarian" is extremely common and standard in India, meaning both products that contain meat/fish and people who are not vegetarian. I'd imagine language would be quite awkward without the word. ("Non-veg" is common too, especially in speech.) Further slang: a "non-veg joke" is a naughty/dirty ("unclean") joke. ;-) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 1:36
I've usually seen the * described as "unattested" rather than "non-grammatical". –  Richard Gadsden Oct 16 '10 at 9:47
@Richard Gadsden, * means many things to linguists. You are right that in the context of historical linguistics, it means “unattested” but in discussions of grammaticality, * means “ungrammatical”. This usage can be seen throughout The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example. –  nohat Oct 16 '10 at 17:02

Personally I have trouble with the concept of a "legal" word. Remember: the dictionary has finite space in it and can only fit in words that A) were known at the time it was printed, and B) were deemed important enough to include, and C) were not deemed too inappropriate for the audience of the dictionary.

That being said, I can imagine several definitions for "non-vegetarian", depending on the context, but it seems pretty clear what this word means.

Consider that in many ways it's perfectly legitimate to create "new" words by adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words. The context should make it clear what you are saying. If the speaker and listener agree on the meaning then it is a perfectly cromulent word.

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+1: for both 1st and 3rd paragraphs. Dictionaries, including the OED (at least according to /Fowler/) only ever list a selection of the more common "non-" compounds. Thus the lack of "non-vegetarian" in any dictionary could be either lack of references or lack of space. –  Richard Aug 13 '10 at 15:48
On the theme of "the dictionary has finite space", some earlier (think hand-copied) dictionaries would omit definitions for common words that everyone knew (such as "the")--the economic cost of copying them was simply too high to justify their inclusion. –  sblom Aug 13 '10 at 16:41
Nice answer. Thanks! I'll remeber what you've said about a "legal" word. –  Umang Aug 14 '10 at 5:02

There is no such thing as "the dictionary."

English dictionaries are almost all constructed descriptively, not normatively, in that they aim to encode language as used, rather than prescribe how language ought to be used. (If a dictionary does that well, its pronouncements may acquire normative status.) The mere fact that an "English word" isn't in a given (or any) dictionary doesn't mean that it isn't a word. It might well be that the lexicographers have yet to catch up with the usage that they describe.

That doesn't mean that one can say whatever one likes and defend oneself by claiming that lexicography is slow. But, in any field subject to fairly quick change, it is not rare for the needs of speakers to get out front of the work of the lexicographer. It seems to me that with vegetarian diets becoming more common in many English speaking parts of the world, the vocabulary here is likely in flux. For a clearer case, consider how foolish it would have been in 1999 to insist that 'blog' wasn't really a word on the grounds that it did not appear in the OED.

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The dictionary is wiktionary.org, it just hasn't been filled yet. ;-) –  Arlen Beiler Sep 11 '10 at 11:21
+1 for an excellent post, even if it's a bit tangential. The word "blog" is in dictionary.com, so at least one good authority now considers it a perfectly cromulent word. As a further tangent, as of the date of this comment, dictionary.com also recognizes "cromulent" as a cromulent word. dictionary.reference.com/browse/cromulent –  Andy Feb 17 '11 at 20:13

I've found out that Macmillan dictionary has a definition for it. The majority of the dictionaries don't contain the "non-vegetarian" word but it is extensively used. If you google for the word "non-vegetarian" there comes up lots of results.

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A slight side issue: given the wide meaning attached to vegetarian, the term non-vegetarian is just as vague. One person's vegetarian meal that happens to contain an egg is another persons non-vegetarian meal. As an octo-pesco-vegetarian who is happy to eat cheese with rennet, many would consider me to be non-vegetarian.

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Something that "contains ingredients that are not pure vegetarian" is 'unsuitable for vegetarians' in my terminology. (This is often how you see it labelled on packages, with variations for nuts, dairy, etc.)

Someone that eats meat should most likely be termed an omnivore, or possibly a carnivore, though it is exceedingly rare for a human to only eat meat.

People would most generally know what you mean by 'non-vegetarian', though it does seem like a rather round-about way of stating they follow the dietary practices of the great majority of the human race.

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it is more direct to say "I am not a vegetarian". Of course, in India, this is easily understood to be perfectly normal, since you are not in the majority anyway. –  Arlen Beiler Sep 11 '10 at 11:23

I think non-vegetarian is perfectly acceptable. For example there is vegetarian cheese, and if one had to label the other kind,

non-vegetarian cheese

would be acceptable.

There are words like "omnivore" and "carnivore" but I would not apply these to human beings, and I would not use them as adjectives, as in

? omnivore cheese


? cheese for omnivores

or something (the ? here is to indicate questionable usage, see the meta site).

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The New Oxford American Dictionary (which reports also words used in British English, though) doesn't report the word non-vegetarian.

Non is added to

  • adverbs (nonuniformly)
  • verbs to form adjectives (nonskid, noniron)

That doesn't mean that non-vegetarian is not correct.

To notice that the prefix non- has a different connotation of un-.

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