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The word "vegetarian" seems to have come into use in England in the early 19th century, as The Oxford English Dictionary attributes one early reference to the actress Fanny Kemble writing in 1839. The British Vegetarian Society, led by Joseph Brotherton, held its first meeting on September 30, 1847 in Ramsgate, Kent, and in 1886 the society published the influential A Plea for Vegetarianism by the English campaigner Henry Saltwidely known as the first writer to make the paradigm shift from animal welfare to animal rights. In it, Salt acknowledged that he was a vegetarian, writing that this was a "formidable admission" to make, because "a Vegetarian is still regarded, in ordinary society, as little better than a madman."

Three years later, Rev. Sylvester Graham, the inventor of Graham crackers, co-founded the American Vegetarian Society. Graham was a Presbyterian minister and his followers, called Grahamites, obeyed his instructions for a virtuous life: vegetarianism, temperance, abstinence, and frequent bathing. As the controversy over the consumption of animal by-products intensified, The Vegetarian Society's newsletter published a vigorous debate between 1909-1912 on this subject. In 1910, the first vegan cookbook, No Animal Food, was published by Rupert H. Weldon, discussing the health benefits, as well as the ethical, aesthetic, and economic considerations for veganism.

The defence of the use of eggs and mild by vegetarians, so far as it has been offered here, is not satisfactory. The only true way is to live on cereals, pulse, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review, 1912

In November 1944, a British woodworker named Donald Watson announced that because vegetarians ate dairy and eggs, he was going to create a new term called "vegan," to describe people who did not. Watson decided on "vegan"pronounced "veegun" (/vin/), with the stress on the first syllablethe first three and last two letters of vegetarian and, as Watson put it in 2004, "the beginning and end of vegetarian." Tuberculosis had been found in 40% of Britain's dairy cows the year before, and Watson used this to his advantage, claiming that it proved the vegan lifestyle protected people from tainted food.

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