How Merriam-Webster Decided to Add These Food Terms to the Dictionary
There are many words in the English language, but only a select many make it into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. And as of March 5, 850 new ones have received the honor. While terms like "embiggen" and the ever-relevant "dumpster fire" lead the pack, they're buffeted by several strong of offerings, including "aquafaba," the chickpea water key to vegan dishes and cocktails alike; "cotija," the Mexican hard cheese; "harissa," the spicy North African paste; "kombucha," and the raw seafood dish "poke" that's inspired so many bowl restaurants in recent years.
If you're wondering why these particular words, which also include "natto," "queso," "tzatziki," and, yes, "Arnold Palmer," have only been chosen now, Merriam Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster explains in a statement that “in order for a word to be added to the dictionary it must have widespread, sustained, and meaningful use."
But for more specifics, Food & Wine talked to Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, who offered further clarification on why this mix of recent trends, older drink names and loan words from other languages made it during this round.
First, he says, there's a reason that certain older food and drink like "Arnold Palmer," as well as "Shirley Temple," which was only entered a few years ago, feel so late: they must meet the three categories of "widespread, sustained, and meaningful use." Which is mostly from written English.
"We encounter these terms at parties and receptions," he says, "and they are much more frequently spoken than written." Plus, even if they are written, they're usually on a menu or list rather than a publication.
Sokolowski also adds that, for the past decade or more, food terms are "far and away the richest source of new foreign borrowings." This is because, he says, "as the world becomes smaller with faster communication and publications and TV shows about food, and sometimes specifically about combining food and travel." So if you're happy to see that this was the year that the Middle Eastern spice blend za'atar has finally found its way to the pages of Merriam-Webster, perhaps you should send your local culinary content creators a bit of thanks.