In a crowded place, when someone falls ill and a voice calls out for a doctor, as the joke goes, a unseen person at the back of the crowd responds, “I’m a vegan.” Though meant to denote the willingness with which some freely overshare their ideals, the truth is that, to many people, being vegan, compared to other dietary restrictions, is still a relatively new and misunderstood thing. On one hand, it’s not necessarily being the next “grade” of vegetarian, yet it also needn’t be overly complicated; moreover, it may come as a surprise to learn that the concept is a lot older than you might think.
Looking at the word itself, it was born from necessity. When denied a section of the Vegetarian Society’s newsletter to discuss “non-dairy vegetarianism”, a branch leader, Donald Watson, took it upon himself to create a new newsletter in 1944. Seeing this idea as figuratively and literally being “the beginning and end of vegetarian”, Watson created the word vegan, which comes from the first 3 and last 2 letters of the term vegetarian and means ‘pertaining to’ (from the suffix -an) ‘vegetables’ (from the shortened form veg-). The first usage of the term can be unsurprisingly found in Watson’s first newsletter, The Vegan News, from November 2, 1944, where he inaugurates the word, stating that: “‘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.”
While the term itself may just be 75 years old, the application of it as a lifestyle is far older. Forms of strict vegetarianism can be traced back as far as the Indus Valley Civilization to 3300BC, and though have been advocates for forms of vegetarianism throughout Western civilization, what we would consider to be veganism first emerged as a small sect within a larger interest in vegetarianism in the 19th century. Evidence of this can be found in Dr. William Lambe’s 1815 book, Water and Vegetable Diet, and the popularity of Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham’s (of graham cracker fame) Graham diet, which advocated mostly fruit, vegetables, water, and homemade bread.
Writing in 1945, the UK Vegetarian Society’s periodical, Vegetarian Messenger, states that: “A number of our members who do not use animal products of any kind formed themselves into a group which has since adopted the title of ‘The Vegan Society’.” So what makes vegans vegan and not vegetarian? Simply put, vegetarianism typically deals with the non-consumption of meat, whereas veganism typically extends this mentality to the non-consumption of animal-related products, such as dairy, eggs, and, potentially, anything that may be considered harmful to animals. As can be imagined though, beyond the basics, there is no consensus on things like natural fibers (clothing), honey, silk, or trace amounts of byproducts in a number of everyday products.
Of the reasons for becoming vegan in a recent study, most cited health (69%), animal protection (68%), and overall environmental concern (59%) as being their main motivation; however, it’s not an easy lifestyle to maintain, with a massive 84% of vegans/vegetarians ending up abandoning their diet. Moreover, the vegan lifestyle, at least dietarily, can, especially when unbalanced, create deficiencies and cause as many health issues as it can possibly prevent. Still, with more people attempting to live a healthier or more ethical lifestyle, it’s no wonder that vegan-friendly products are becoming more mainstream, occupying a greater portion of supermarket shelves, and having a greater overall economic impact.