The Dictionary Just Got A Whole Lot Cheffier

Merriam-Webster has added 690 new words to the dictionary in 2023, including some fine-dining terms.

Lexicographers must be exhausted right now. Thanks to the internet, and the explosion of chatty social media platforms in particular, our language has shifted, expanded, and evolved at such breakneck speed that I can't imagine trying to catalog it all before it experiences 100% turnover. All due credit, then, to Merriam-Webster, publisher of "America's Most Trusted Dictionary," which has added 690 new words to the dictionary in 2023—many of which relate to food, cooking, and how we eat.

The words and phrases included in the dictionary tend to reflect the era in which they're added. In 2018, for example, the edible additions spoke to our impatient use of abbreviations for just about everything, including "avo" (avocado), "guac" (guacamole), and "marg" (margarita). Beyond the convenience of fewer syllables, these terms no doubt project a confident familiarity with the food in question, whereas using its fuller, more "formal" name might indicate that we're new to a particular cuisine.

The additions in 2023 seem to speak to the public's eagerness to engage more with high-end cuisine, with some of the most cheffy terms we've seen added in years—including "cheffy," an adjective meaning "characteristic of or befitting a professional chef (as in showiness, complexity, or exoticness)." It's probably no coincidence that we saw the release of The Menu and the return of The Bear within the same year that this word popped up in Merriam-Webster.

Other food-related terms added this year include:

stagiaire noun : a usually unpaid intern working in a professional kitchen as part of their training to become a chef : a cook who is doing a stage

stage noun 1 : a usually unpaid internship in a professional kitchen that is part of a chef's training 2 : a person who holds such an internship : stagiaire

emping noun : a slightly bitter cracker or chip popular in Indonesia that is made from the dried flattened seed of a melinjo tree (Gnetum gnemon)

jollof rice noun : a West African dish of rice cooked in a sauce of tomatoes and onions seasoned usually with garlic, thyme, hot pepper, and other spices and often accompanied by meat, fish, or vegetables

smashburger noun 1 : a hamburger patty that is pressed thin onto a heated pan or griddle at the start of cooking; also : a patty (as of beans or ground turkey) prepared similarly 2 : a sandwich featuring one or more such patties

I'm surprised to see "smashburger" added to the dictionary, though not because it's some as yet obscure food term; the burger style has gained immense popularity over the past decade, dethroning the thick pub burgers that came before them. Rather, I'm pleasantly surprised—and you'll have to forgive me for my copyediting shoptalk here—that Merriam-Webster chose to make it one word instead of keeping it an open compound. Making it one word instead of two is the true sign of its undeniable presence in culture.

A "stage," meanwhile, is what you saw in the most recent season of The Bear, when (spoiler alert) Richie spends a week at the upscale (and real!) Chicago restaurant Ever, learning all he can from the chefs about how to clean forks, expedite dinner service, and generally curate a special dining experience. A stage might not always result in the character-arc-shifting change of heart we see within Richie, though; there has been backlash to the notion that this unpaid labor is a prerequisite to getting hired within the industry.

Jollof rice and emping are additions to the dictionary that feel overdue, particularly since jollof rice is the subject of persistent debate among nations that each claim to have the best version. There might not be any definitive reason that 2023 was the year for these additions; it could be that these terms simply reached some sort of critical mass in English usage that made their omission progressively more glaring. (That's really the only reason I can think of that Merriam-Webster would have chosen to add "fluffernutter" to the dictionary as late as 2021.)

Sometimes even more significant than the food words added to the dictionary are the ones flagged for revision. In 2020, amidst growing anti-Asian sentiment stoked by COVID fears, there was a petition to redefine the offensive term "Chinese restaurant syndrome," used to describe feelings of drowsiness and nausea experienced by some consumers of American Chinese food. The aim was to clarify that there is no proven causal relationship between Chinese cuisine and these symptoms, and to add the context that the term persists largely due to xenophobia, not scientific evidence. Merriam-Webster's definition for the term has been revised, as has the definition of its counterpart, MSG symptom complex.

It's dizzying to think about what words might join Merriam-Webster's ranks in 2024. We could make the case for butter board, Mexican Pizza, and ube—which terms seem most pressing to you?

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