Does the Word “Paleo” Matter?
While the paleo movement is fast becoming one of my biggest passions, I am at heart a writer and a linguist. My degree is in foreign languages and literatures, and I have held different writing jobs over the past seven years in public relations and marketing, journalism, freelance writing and translation, and authoring my own books. I think a lot, if not constantly, about what words mean to us and how we use them, because words are, in the end, thoughts, and thoughts are always worth considering.
There has been lots of discussion within the paleo movement lately about whether “paleo,” is the best word we can use to describe ourselves. There have always been other variants: “caveman,” “ancestral,” “evolutionary,” and “primal.”
There has also been quite a bit of external criticism of “paleo,” which has mostly been divided into two arguments that the paleo movement itself has never really made: one being that there was one uniform “Paleolithic” lifestyle the movement seeks to duplicate, and the second being that we cannot eat modern agricultural or factory foods. Pick up and actually read any of the flagship books on paleo and you’ll find nobody is actually saying either of those things.
Yes, cavemen didn’t have modern (in)conveniences like plumbing, electricity, iPhones or Justin Beiber. But the argument is more that modern life and diet are not what we have evolved to thrive from, and we’d be better off not diverging so quickly from what we are genetically accustomed to.
The point is less that there was one specific lifestyle that all Paleolithic peoples followed, and more that it wasn’t sitting in front of the television eating Cheetos.
That being said, there is some truth in what the detractors are saying. We don’t live in Paleolithic times, so in that sense, we’re not truly “paleo.” Few if any of the foods that did exist in those times survive today in their ancient form, so we technically aren’t eating “paleo” foods.
Taking my own life as an example, every time I get in the car and drive the 30 minutes on Route 78 across the Newark Bay, the busiest global container shipping facility in the United States, stacked with stories and stories of steel shipping containers, to the Whole Foods where foods have again been shipped in from as many places close by as very far away, fill up my car with those groceries, and drive back to my home to put them in my refrigerator, which iscooled by electricity from a fossil fuel grid, I reflect on just how much I can actually call my lifestyle “paleo.”
The task of providing people with information on paleo, like say this essay or the recipes on FastPaleo.com, is one undertaken mostly in a modern, contrived pseudo-reality, the internet. All the paleo food bloggers and writers, myself included, spend as much time in front of a computer screen as they do lifting heaving things, swimming in cold lakes, or sprinting naked through the dew-covered early morning grass.
About the best I can say is that the vast majority of the time, what I put in my mouth is something that is going to nourish my body, and I move it in such a way that makes me feel happy and strong. And, I know that there is a reason for this that lies in human physiology, which ultimately lies in human evolution.
This isn’t to say any of this is wrong, but I think what I am doing is accurately describing what many would now refer to as a “paleo” lifestyle.
Part of the discussion revolves around the denotation of the word, the dictionary or literal definition. If you want to make the argument that the modern “paleo” lifestyle doesn’t mirror Paleolithic life, go ahead, but there’s nobody that’s ever really taken the other side, or frankly, much reason to. It’s mostly an academic argument, and a strawman at that, and in my book, ivory towers aren’t paleo.
The idea that we can control or dictate language has always been a bad one. Words change meaning and reflect different contexts as part of the evolution of human thought, and there’s nothing to say that that evolution has to be logical—random change is part of all natural systems.
How did we end up with the word “paleo” to describe ourselves? I think there certainly was a uniform, romanticized vision of primitive life that the movement wanted to cling to: strong, semi-clothed, sexy savages who ate meat, tossed boulders around and took naps in the shade by the creek when they felt like it. Symbols and images are important in any movement and necessary to visualization, and can be separate from the logic and reasoning that drives those movements. And, the sexy caveman and cavelady are attractive symbols.
Also, I should stand up for paleo and say that there are real connections to Paleolithic life, if not perfectly exact or literal ones. It’s true that people weren’t eating factory food products more than fifty years ago, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago. Whether you want to argue when exactly people began to eat agricultural grains en masse or not, the skeletal evidence of the adverse health effects of doing so doesn’t change. We can certainly agree eight hours a day of television wasn’t the Paleolithic norm, and that exercise involved more than walking to the microwave when the timer goes off for the popcorn-lung popcorn.
I think just as importantly, but also again randomly, is that “paleo” is a three syllable word with three vowels in it. It’s an easy word, and it “sticks,” and many times with language, that’s enough. People don’t typically get together and decide what the best words are for things—it kind of just happens (except maybe in France). People are part of nature, and language is part of people, so in a way it’s pretty contrived to say that any word tons of people use to describe a thing is right or wrong. Trying to engineer language is like trying to engineer food—futile.
What I think is also important, very important in fact, is what the “paleo” lifestyle stands for, what it represents. I came to this lifestyle because it was the only thing that finally allowed me to break free from substance abuse and live a life of health and prosperity. It’s an extremely real thing to me, and it has a name to describe it. Paleo has had similar positive effects on many, and it only continues to grow and help more.
Somehow, despite this, it’s become fashionable in some paleo circles to say things like “Paleo doesn’t matter!” “Who cares, just eat what you want!” and “Just eat real food!” Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you’re already someone who is fortunate enough to have learned paleo and how it works for you. It’s also really selfish and dangerous, because there is a whole 70% of the population who are chronically ill, and that word represents a lot of truth and healing that those people still need. Being too cool for school only serves to take away one more voice that could reach them.
So, to answer my own question, “Is the word ‘paleo’ important?” First “no,” not in the sense of how much people who embrace it are living 100% like cavemen. But since that’s never been the point, it’s a pretty pedantic and useless answer to give. Argue it if you want, but you won’t be helping anybody.
Secondly, “yes” in the sense that what the word represents has proven itself capable time and again of giving thousands of people a lifeline to health that they can reach out and take hold of with their very own hands. Words are merely symbols, random utterances of sounds and combinations of script, and what is important is what they represent. The ship may have sailed on “paleo,” but the sailing has been quite smooth for everyone who has been fortunate enough to leap aboard. No reason to turn around now.