Eating our words

Ever wonder when 'pad thai' was added to the Oxford English Dictionary? It was 1978.

By , Cooked Books

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    Shake 'n Bake was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976. A study of when food words were added to the dictionary reveals the acceptance of certain foods by mainstream consumers.
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Merguez, orecchiette, tikka masala, veggie. What do those words have in common? They were all added to the Oxford English Dictionary in the same year, 1975.

Ryan Haley, an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse and librarian in the Art Division of New York Public Library (and born in 1975), recently published a limited edition artist’s book. In Autobiography, Volume One (1975-1993), he documents the first eighteen years of his life by chronologically listing the words added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in that time period.

On its website, the OED is described as "an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both past and present," and is the considered to be "the definitive record of the English language." Every year the OED adds new words to the dictionary, thereby cementing that word or phrase to the annals of history. When compiled together, as in this project, the list of words reads like a time capsule capturing the social history of a given year. And while most (if not all) of the added words had been in use before their entry date, their addition to the OED represents when they became more commonly used in the English language.

I was fascinated with the food words in this project, and how certain themes clearly emerge, specifically coffee drinks, ethnic foods, and name brands. For example: Espresso-macchiato and latte macchiato (1976), Shake 'n Bake (1976), kir royale (1977), pad thai (1978), pasta fagioli (1980), amuse-bouche (1982), microbrew (1985).

I asked Ryan some questions about Autobiography.

Cooked Books: Do you have any favorite food words from this project?

Ryan Haley: I really didn’t pay too much attention to the words as I was assembling the book. Once I had thought of and fine-tuned the idea, the words themselves ceased to be really important. I think it’s only recently as I’ve “read” through the book that I’ve started to notice the kinds of words that were added within that time and sort of ponder the cultural or historical moment that gave the word currency or legitimacy. For example, McDonaldization from 1975; used as a term for the corporatization of culture or for American cultural homogeny. What was happening then? Did a chez McDo open on the Champs-Élyssées? Did the last Mom & Pop restaurant close down in Peoria? Well, the OED references this book by Jim Hightower called Eat Your Heart Out: Food Profiteering in America as the first (popular/documented) use. I haven’t read it, but summary descriptions indicate that book was quite influential in some of the anti-corporate/back-to-the-land ethos of the late-70’s. Then in 1979 you get McDonaldize, which is somewhat related and in 1982 you have just plain old McDonald’s

CB: What do you think about the culinary themes reflected in these eighteen years?

RH: The first thing one notices is the cosmopolitan growth of the English language and how voracious we are at borrowing terms from other cultures. A lot of that has to do with the British and American empires – look at all the Hindi and Sanskrit words that in a bastardized form entered English in the 19th century (i.e., chutney). I think Autobiography reflects a slightly different universe of borrowing: science, technological boosterism, political terms, pop cultural references, and urban slang. These areas are heavily represented; whereas foreign terms are definitely in the minority. But back to the topic, I think it’s pretty evident that Americans have expanded our eating habits during my lifetime to encompass most of the world’s cuisines – we’re omnivores in more than one sense – and that’s reflected in our language as you mentioned with ‘pasta fazool’ and microbrew and also words like cavolo nero (1987). Currently, I think nothing of making Thai, Indian, and Mexican dishes; foods that my Scottish grandmother would have died had she seen and tasted.

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CB: Any favorite recipes or cookbooks?

RH: There are a lot of dishes that I come back to semi-frequently because they function as comfort food and I really enjoy making them: carbonnade à la flamande, Bolognese sauce (I’m uncertain which recipe is the best, but I’ve been gravitating towards Marco Canora’s), a Turkish lentil soup, and a pork shoulder braised in orange juice, whole spices, and beer. However, I’d say my all-time favorite recipe is nasi lemak, which isn’t in the OED incidentally, and which my sister turned me onto in Vancouver in 2001. It’s a Malaysian coconut rice dish with a few other components we had at a little restaurant for breakfast. Another is a dry-curried green bean dish with mustard seeds from Yamuna Devi’s Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking; which is probably my favorite cookbook and the 2nd or 3rd cookbook I purchased—I think the first was James Villas’ French Country Kitchen or the Dean & Deluca Cookbook that David Rosengarten wrote. Also, really important to me now is Diana Kennedy’s Art of Mexican Cooking. She’s written several really great cookbooks, including a new one about Oaxacan cuisine that I have on my wish list. And, because I’m a big nerd, I really like Harold McGee’s book and the Oxford Companions to Food and Wine.

CB: Are there any food words that you think should be added to the OED?

RH: I haven’t checked these, but how about lardo, guanciale, speck,…

You can purchase a copy of Autobiography, Volume One on the Ugly Duckling Presse website.

Rebecca Federman blogs at Cooked Books.

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