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The OED confirms my long-held suspicion that the original use of the term 'food chain' is becoming supplanted by an altogether different meaning.

The term 'food chain' was used extensively in the 1950s when scientists first became aware of the dangers associated with the pesticide DDT. The poison built up in the food chain until it reached humans at the top.

The OED says: under Ia. A series of organisms, each of which is dependent on the next for food, esp. by direct consumption or predation. 1920 Sci. Monthly Oct. 295 Each such fish has its ‘food-chain’..leading back from the food of man to invertebrates upon which it preys and then to the food of these. 1980 R. Mabey Common Ground i. 32 The accumulation in the birds of toxic agricultural pesticides, passed down the food chain from dressed grain to seed-eater to bird-of-prey. 2005 New Scientist 12 Nov. 44/1 Food chains here [sc. at deep ocean vents] are based not on photosynthesis, but on a process called chemosynthesis.

Nowadays the term 'food chain' seems most frequently to be used to describe the various events necessary to bring food to the table, from agriculture, to distribution, to packaging, to preparation and sale.

OED 2.

The system or sequence of events by which food comes to be consumed by human beings. 1951 Ecology 32 351 The base of the human food chain is the production of plant organic matter. 1993 Independent 23 Oct. (Weekend section) 35/1 An elongated food chain involving numerous intermediate links—processors, packers, hauliers. 2003 Observer 5 Jan. i. 8/1 Defences against a bioterrorist attack involving animal diseases such as foot and mouth are to be stepped up to prevent rogue groups targeting Britain's food chain.

We have thus arrived at a confusing situation. How, in the view of subscribers to this site, should 'food chain' be used. If both are to continue how do we make it clear to readers and listeners which one we are talking about?

  • 1
    In their entry for street boy, OED also record the increasingly-common "facetious" usage: 2005 V. Swarup Q&A Street boys like me come at the bottom of the food chain. Above us are the petty criminals, like pickpockets. Presumably readers and listeners will do what they've always done - figure out the intended sense by context. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '14 at 21:47
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    With expressions like this I'm not sure it means much to say there's a "principal" meaning. There are just several meanings, and in practice it would normally be really obvious which one was intended. We should be able to assume the writer is aware of multiple meanings (including, in context, nationwide chains of retailers who specialise in selling food/groceries). So if the meaning isn't clear, I'd place most of the blame on the writer anyway. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '14 at 22:02
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    The second meaning is probably derived by analogy to supply chain, which I find slightly ironic as the people I would stereotype as obsessed with food sourcing are not exactly business school types. – choster Jan 17 '14 at 22:10
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    @FumbleFingers Well, the original meaning, as the OED dating makes clear, was the one about a series of organisms, each succeeding one the predator of the former. 'The food chain' was used with the definite article. So it does seem altogether perverse that an entirely different process is described today as 'the food chain'. Personally I would avoid the second meaning, even though it is recognised by the OED. – WS2 Jan 17 '14 at 22:18
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    @choster I think a good alternative expression, for the second meaning, might indeed be 'the food supply chain'. – WS2 Jan 17 '14 at 22:20
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I would say the second definition is a metaphoric subdivision of the first: the meaning of the chain is extended to include steps that aren't one organism eating another, but rather one group of people processing organic material to pass it on to another group, and to the next, etc.

As to how to distinguish between the two, I think context will usually make the intended meaning clear: if you're talking about processed food for humans, it will usually be the second definition; if it is about a wild animal, it will be the first definition.

  • It's not metaphoric, the first refers to a chain of actual food, one eating the other, and does have a common metaphoric use. The second refers to farms, factories, trucks, shops etc. which doesn't really fit any metaphorical view of the first. – Jon Hanna Jan 18 '14 at 2:00
  • @JonHanna: I can't prove it, and another explanation is possible. But the metaphorical view is that what happens in nature stands for what happens in our economy, so nature stands for human society. I certainly agree that, if this is/was a metaphor, it is not at least partly dead. – Cerberus Jan 18 '14 at 6:28
  • With respect to Jon Hannah, it almost fits the dictionary definition of 'metaphor', but the problem is that the two are close enough (both about food) as to be confusing. I am not sure that people using the second definition actually appreciate that they are speaking metaphorically. So it becomes a metaphor which threatens its parent figure. There may be others around like this and perhaps there should be a name for such things. – WS2 Jan 18 '14 at 21:01
  • @WS2: Yeah, that's very common, dead metaphors eating their "parents"...oops, I used several metaphors at once there. It's just that metaphor is an extremely common, often trivial use we make of our language. P.S. See also conceptual metaphor. – Cerberus Jan 18 '14 at 21:25
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You left out 1b, which is the figurative sense of 1a, and very common.

I find utterly no confusion here though.

The two concepts both relate to a chain and both relate to food and do so understandably.

I could certainly create a deliberately awkward sentence such as:

Such a negative impact on the food-chain could upset the food-chain.

But that's no different to many other pieces of bad English, and less likely than many.

I did not mis-interpret your question's title as referring to the average movement of the sun along the ecliptic, or as being about a lamentation, though those are both senses of meaning.

As words go, having a mere two senses, with little in the way of overlap, makes it pretty unambiguous in each.

  • Actually, your example is ambiguous in the sense that the meanings for each use of "food-chain" can be inverted ;) – Canis Lupus Jan 18 '14 at 2:05
  • @Jim, yes I was trying to be bad on purpose. My point is that while one can come up with cases where there's a problem, one generally will not. – Jon Hanna Jan 18 '14 at 2:22

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