The dictionary is more than just a tool to help us define and spell words. Terms that end up in the dictionary make an impact on our culture. And as the world continues to grow and change, the fine folks at Merriam-Webster determine which new words have demonstrated enough ubiquity and staying power to warrant a place in its hallowed tome. This year’s additions highlight what our current fascinations are in the culinary world.
Merriam-Webster’s site explains how new words get added in simple terms: a word must be used by several people who all agree it means the same thing. Dictionary editors essentially spend their days reading national publications, social media posts, industry journals, captions for comic strips, and more, then create citations of newly appearing words and how often they’re used. (Merriam-Webster currently has more than 17 million of those citations.) Once a word is cited, it has to meet three criteria: frequent use, widespread use, and meaningful use. If it checks all the boxes, its inclusion in the dictionary will be considered, not guaranteed.
It’s not an easy or quick process, so when new words do make it in, they’ve really earned both their place in the dictionary and also in history.
This year words like “shrinkflation” reflect the state of the world, while an addition such as “pumpkin spice” simply solidifies society’s long-time obsession with fall flavors as dictionary-definable.
Other newly added food-related words (and their Merriam-Webster-sanctioned definitions) include:
- banh mi: a usually spicy Vietnamese sandwich consisting of a split baguette filled with meat and pickled vegetables, garnished with cilantro
- birria: a Mexican dish of stewed meat seasoned with chili peppers
- mojo: a sauce, marinade, or seasoning made primarily of olive oil, garlic, citrus juice, and spice
- oat milk: a liquid made from oats used as a milk substitute
- omakase: a series of chef-selected small servings or courses offered at a fixed price
- plant-based: made or derived from plants
- ras el hanout: a mixture of ground spices including coriander, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne pepper, and other spices, often used in north African cooking
- sessionable: alcoholic beverages having a light body and lower-than-average ABV
Over the last five years, a pattern has emerged in what kinds of food words are more commonly being added: those associated with international cuisine. Fairly recent additions include “chicharron,” “iftar,” and “gochujang.”
Of course, a look through the entries paints a picture of whatever was trendy at the time. Last year, “air fryer” and “ghost kitchen” were added—before 2020 people likely had no idea what the latter even was, and now it’s a common restaurant term. And slang words are slipping their way into the dictionary more and more as terms like “hangry” and “guac” earn an official place.
What do these “new” words mean for us? We have the power to create a meaningful impact on the future of the English language by simply saying things like “zoodle” over and over again. Start studying, kids, because these words can now officially be used in your next spelling bee!