Now there’s further confirmation: Merriam-Webster added the phrase, along with 369 others, to its dictionary on Wednesday, marking the complete assimilation of pumpkin spice into the language. It’s defined as “a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and often allspice commonly used in pumpkin pie,” according to the entry, for those who somehow avoided grocery stores or cafes over the past decade.
Pumpkin spice won. It’s time to accept it and move on.
Pumpkin spice is among a list of food-related words added to the dictionary this year, alongside buzzwords such as ‘side hustle’ and ‘supply chain’ and slang like “sus” and “lewk”. The newly inaugurated terms speak to broader trends in the way we eat. There’s ‘oat milk’ and ‘plant-based’, revealing a collective interest in foods that don’t rely on animal products. “Sessionable” is a word we’ve been hearing a lot of lately, with people looking for low-alcohol beers, wines, and other beverages that allow drinkers to sip all afternoon without crashing. And a growing familiarity with foods from various cultures means ‘omakase’, ‘birria’, ‘ras el hanout’, ‘mojo’ and ‘banh mi’ make the list.
Some of them might seem like everyday words to a reader that long ago should have been recognized as such. But Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski notes that not everyone is exposed to the same words at the same time. “Banh mi may look so familiar to you, and there will be people who say you should have lived under a rock not to know what it is, but there will be others who might encounter it for the first time. time. time on our list,” he says.
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And for people who shop at Whole Foods or are familiar with vegan culture, he notes, “plant-based” may be old hat, but it’s not everyone. Now that the phrase is widely used in commercial products, he says, it belongs in the dictionary: “We see it on the labels – and talk about a mass audience for the text, for the words.”
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Tags are just one place editors look to see what words are being used. They monitor social media and user-generated texts, but they pay particular attention to “sites and publications with a large national readership”, according to an explainer of how the words are chosen.
“Each word must grow in itself,” says Sokolowski. Some words can almost instantly become part of our vocabulary – think “covid” and “coronavirus” – while others take longer (the first documented use of “pumpkin spice”, for example, dates back to 1931; “ras el hanout” was seen in English publication as early as 1875.)
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Another example of an increasingly popular food is birria: as our colleague Tim Carman noted last year, the rich Mexican hot-chili stew was once little known in the Washington area. But he “became an instant celebrity during the pandemic as our phones and Instagram accounts served as a lifeline to the outside world,” he wrote. You can now find it on menus — in tacos, burritos, and even ramen — across and around the city.
Sokolowski notes that food terms are one of the biggest sources of English language “borrowing” from other languages. And in modern times, a word is more likely to retain its original spelling and pronunciation, whereas in the last century those words tended to be anglicized. “The English language has an incredible ability to absorb words, just as culture incorporates different foods,” he says.