Verbiage

The Roman Catholic Church used to have an Index of books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) that the powers that be thought the world would be better off not reading. It was abolished in 1966.

Although such censorship might not be seen consistent with contemporary freedom of thought and expression, I think the Catholic Church was onto something when it comes to today’s food writing and TV commentaries.

So I propose that certain words and phrases that have seeped into many articles and most TV commentaries should be banned forthwith. It may be that I’ve become more curmudgeonly with age, but I find myself less able tolerate verbal laziness, intellectual indolence, failure of imagination and general feeble-mindedness the use of these words and phrases reveals.

Ok, I know, I know. There are those who have taken issue with my careless spelling, sloppy grammar and all-round lack of attention to linguistic precision. It was ever thus. ‘Carelessness spoils his work’ has been the cry from the beginning of my schooldays. I have wrestled with it ever since, and I have not won.

But there is a difference between an inability to spell properly (something I share with John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, incidentally), and a feckless reliance on meaningless cliché.

So here is my own list of words that should be banned from ever appearing in print or on the lips of chefs, judges and presenters on TV. No doubt you have your own. Please feel free to add them.

Cooked to perfection – What does this actually mean? Used it in place of knowledge or thought. Not even God can cook things to perfection.

Crispy – the word is crisp. Crispy is an abject contemporary aberration.

Cuisine – Pernicious Frenchism. What on earth is wrong with the English word ‘cooking’? [Incidentally, there’s also an irritating tendency to pronounce ‘homage’ as if it were French (i.e. hom-arge), when there’s a perfectly sound word in English, ‘homage’ pronounced ‘homage’ (i.e. hom-idge)].

Decadent – Why is pleasure in food considered decadent? It’s a pathetic Protestant puritan fallacy

Drizzle – Drizzle is fine rain that falls from the sky. Olive or any other oil or liquid can’t drizzle because the viscosity is all wrong for drizzling. Dribble yes, Drizzle, no.

Heavenly – Slovenly, pointless phrase making. What does this tell us about the nature of the food being eaten?

Heritage/heirloom – meaningless menu marketing-speak (see earlier blog).

The Humble (carrot, onion, potato etc) – why should anyone of sound mind think of vegetables or fruits as humble? Laziness at its most lazy. Vegetables and fruits may be badly or indifferently treated, but in themselves they are noble, splendid, magnificent, remarkable, potent, life-supporting, life-enhancing, never, ever humble.

Melt-in-the-mouth – Almost invariably used to describe meat. Invariably inaccurate. If meat melts in the mouth, see a doctor immediately. See earlier blog on this subject.

Moreish – tedious cliché. The meaning has been drained out of it like water out of a bog.

Mouthwatering – See heavenly.

Nice – Nice! Nice!! Nice!!!. I don’t want ‘nice’. I want a word that tells me something about the food being described as nice.

Nom nom nom – this really is a remarkable combination of the infantile and the barbaric.

Pan-fried – Twaddle. What else do you fry in? A kettle? There’s frying or deep-frying, that’s all.

Scrumptious/Scrummy – The sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Not to be used even as a joke.

Tasty – The product of contemptible mental idleness

To die for – A self-evident absurdity. No food is worth dying for.

Unctuous – I’m uneasy about this. My friend Bob Granleese wants it in, but he probably sees many more unctuouses than I do; and I have been known to use it myself (vide. Pork ‘as unctuous as an undertaker’).

Foodie – I’m tired of this expression. You’re tired of this expression. We’re all tired of this expression. So why do we use it? And why do we think that someone weird because they’re interested in food and are happy to express it? The Italians don’t seem to thinks so. Neither do the French, Spanish, Poles or Portuguese.

NB. Moist is almost universally execrated. However, I have a soft spot for moist. What is a really good fruit cake if not moist?

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89 thoughts on “Verbiage

  1. People have been using ‘crispy’ since at least 1600 AD. Leave it alone.

    ‘Pan fry’ annoys the hell out of me. What do you think I’m going to fry it in? A paper bag?

  2. I’m sorry but the idea of a ‘dribble’ of olive oil makes me feel queasy. I’d rather my olive oil was sprinkled like light rain, than glutinous like baby dribble. Also, to me, heritage means a varietal that is not neccessarily the most profitable, but which we should keep alive for biodiversity and consumer choice- e.g. a heritage apple- so it very much has a meaning.

  3. Can I add any mention of taste buds, especially tickling them, which even if it were possible would still not really tell you anything.

    1. I think the real problem here is that it is imprecise: A cool meadow in summer is nice. That old lady down the street is nice. That one skateboard trick done by your nephew is characterized by his friend as “niiiiiice”. And yes, some foods are nice. But clearly each of these are different things, and are nice in separate ways, so you are not telling me anything I cannot already assume (I assume if you are recommending a recipe, or giving a positive restaurant/product review that you do not consider it un-nice).
      Therefore, your task is what a reasonable person would already have presumed it to be. What are the flavours and textures? Are they strong, weak, singular, blended? What is the presentation like? I want to be able to imagine eating the food, so I can either be impatient to eat it myself or be glad I did not waste time and money on it. Alternatively, you might be giving the reader a view into the world of culinary skill – what preparation and execution goes into making a truly enjoyable dish?

  4. Agree! Silliest menu I once saw included (along with pan-fried) ‘oven roasted’, ‘hand torn’ smoked chicken and ‘hand formed’ burgers! I really hate ‘nom’. When did that become a word?

    1. I am undecided on nom, considering it is often used with tongue in cheek.
      As to the origin, Know Your Meme claims it was Sesame Street:
      knowyourmeme.com/memes/om-nom-nom-nom
      That page also gives us (while quoting Urban Dictionary, that is) the phrase “flavorological value”.

  5. “..on a bed of..” should be added. You don’t put beans on a bed of toast so why is my duck always on a bed of potato puree

  6. By and large you are right of course – “meltingly tender” is my current least favourite – ugly and stupid. But I think there is a case to be made for “pan fried” – if you saw “fried cod and chips” on a menu, what would you expect? I suspect if you saw “pan-fried cod” you might expect – and get – a different dish. So it can have significance.

  7. …but a “dribble” of olive oil sounds disgusting and conjures up images that at best can be described as unappetising…perhaps a “trickle”? Agree with all the rest especially “foodie”

  8. Delighted to see ‘scrumptious’ and ‘nice’ on this list, two of my peeves. Also get riled up by someone describing their own food as ‘damn good’. And then there’s ‘mouthfeel’…

    1. I think the only time I have heard that word in a context not talking about the word was a Roald Dahl story, wherein it fit because the story was meant to be over-the-top (and also not safe for work).

  9. What about ‘plating up’? Unless you have fallen foul of the downturn in the building trade and eat off slates, then eat off a plate. Put it on the plate, don’t ‘plate up’. Slate up, perhaps. Up on the roof, where they belong.
    Two rants for the price of one. Excellent.
    Best,
    Conor

  10. Moist always strikes me as rather obscene. I agree with the earlier commenter on ‘mouth-feel’. But I’m also slightly scared of you – I’m sure I’ve used drizzle, and I’ve wanted to use ‘the humble’ but never got round to it. Now I’m rather glad.

  11. “Nice” is for icecream. “Tasty” was used by James Joyce to describe the way somebody dressed. I was told recently, “what would you know about Art, you’re just a foodie?” !!

  12. I love the word “crispy”. It means something a bit different to crisp.

    Could I eye the waiter over my pince nez in the Chinese restaurant and, straight faced, ask for the “crisp duck”?

  13. In my early days on Twitter, I sent out something one night, saying I’d prefer to be called a paedophile or Bertie Ahern [self-serving, corrupt former Irish PM who did much to drag the country into the mire—and then some] than a ‘foodie’ – oooops!!! (I’ve used ‘unctuous’ several times in reviews but in response to a dare. Am guilty of a few others as well, though, of my own free will! 🙂

  14. Scrumptious is the worst word in the English dictionary by far. Moist makes me think of old ladies’ knickers (why? Why?) pan-fried, oven-roasted etc are abominations as is ” a lug” of anything – red, wine, olive oil, whatever. It’s an invention of J. Oliver Esq, prat of this parish. I also abhor ‘Jus’. It’s bloody gravy not jus.

    1. “J. Oliver Esq, prat of this parish” Well said Madam! A perfect description of the annoying little media clown (along with Messrs G Ramsay, A Harriott, N Lawson, H Blumenthal & AWT)

  15. Can we add ‘heat’?
    At least in America every cooking show host feels compelled to describe any type of spice as ‘heat’. Wasabi, cayenne, curry, actual flame….all heat. not the least bit descriptive and definitely pretentious.

  16. as the article is prone to some pedantry, can i ask whether you mean invariably, or nearly always. (and isn’t pan fried is a synonym for shallow fried and is used to differentiate from deep fried, so it’s not entirely redundant)

  17. Nom Nom Nom is indeed a crime against language.

    Om Nom Nom (the correct term) is an expression of unbridled food joy and long may it live.

    I can haz cheeseburger?

    1. Home made does it for me. I make home made food. If I go in a pub and order a home made meat pie do they nip off back to their gaff and start cooking? What’s the alternative? Industrial, factory formed chemical gloop?

      1. Problem with ‘freshly’ is that often you have to carefully consider the context. ‘Sandwiches made with freshly baked bread’ may be strictly true, but when were the sandwiches made? In the early hours, long before they opened for business (and it’s now lunchtime), perhaps? What is the chance of the bread still being fresh?

  18. You people are brilliant. Can I add ‘washed down with’ to the list? If you’re ‘washing down’ your food you haven’t chewed and swallowed properly and you’re probably going to accidentally choke yourself to death one day. Also, it slightly undermines the status of the drink in question – a fine wine or beer shouldn’t be used like some sort of oesophagal sink unblocker. Also, it’s gross.

  19. “Rustic breads”. It’s just badly cut bread. Also, I saw a menu once which offered apple pie “ankle-deep” in custard. Where would a pie’s ankles be exactly?

    1. More a presenting tic than writing but drives me nuts every time some “down with the kids” presenter comes out with it.

      While we’re on TV presenting also the constant reference to “my (name of dish)..” As in “My spicy cheesy sliders are sure to wow the ladies of the Cambridge fire brigade rowing team”.

  20. “Fresh” and “local” have been overused for several years now and have started to become meaningless on a menu.

  21. ‘homage’ and ‘hommage’ are completely different words. ‘Homage’ is where you admit your debt to someone more skilled than you are (and hope you may be someday as good as). ‘Hommage’ is copying someone else’s ideas and expecting to get all the praise because you’ve been clever enough to do so.

  22. Little to disagree with here, although I agree with Les that “crispy” and “crisp” have different meanings. To me, “crisp” describes a natural state of something, say, an apple or a stick of celery, whereas “crispy” describes a state which has been imposed on something by cooking.

    Out of this list it’s “mouthwatering” that troubles me the most. It’s both a linguistic and aesthetic abomination. It’s an inappropriate usage of verbization (to water—I’m OK with watering plants, but not with mouths “watering”) and I really do not want to hear about your saliva production, thank you very much if you don’t mind. Even worse, though, is the adverb “mouthwateringly” (see also “eyewateringly”). Not only is it a tedious cliché, it has far too many levels of wrong to be tolerated. There is nothing like an injudicious adverb to ruin literally style, especially in a medium such as food journalism which has so little style to begin with.

    “Drizzle” is another abomination—it’s a noun (and occasionally a verb) describing a certain kind of light rain that only occurs in Britain. Please leave it at that. How did we ever manage to prepare a salad without this gag-inducing little verb? I imagine that we managed quite well.

  23. And the worst of the worst: “foodie”. Every time I hear someone describe themselves or somebody else as one, it makes me want to puke. To puke.

  24. I agree with every one of these, Matthew – and I share your soft spot for ‘moist’.
    By the way, although not specifically food-related, what do you make of the expression ‘for free’? It has crept into common usage and to my mind is wrong. Surely, something is free, or offered free. Where did the ‘for’ come from?

  25. There are clearly some lazy cliches among the list and the additions in the comments section but Crispy is not a contemporary aberration having been around for some 600 years and toothsome ‘really’ means pleasant tasting and has been a word for 500 odd years…

  26. Removing all those words and phrases would render the presenters of Masterchef into silence. Hmm, that’s not a bad idea, maybe it would be just about bearable to watch if I couldn’t hear those pretentious t**ts.

  27. Great list.

    One more: A Masterchef-ism that now shows up on every old cooking show is “running through it”, e.g. “I’ll be serving the heavenly pan-fried crispy duck with a mouth-watering jus with plum running through it”. Once noticed, impossible to ignore. You’re welcome.

  28. Can’t agree with your complaints about pan-fried. As I see it, ‘fried’ by itself can mean either shallow- or deep-fried: ‘pan-fried’ or ‘deep-fried’. I’d accept ‘shallow-fried’ if you prefer, although it wastefully needs an extra syllable.
    Complaints: TV chefs who say sauté and then stir fry. The French verb sauter means to jump: it refers to the way you toss a pancake, or a practised chef throws the contents out of a pan and catches them shuffled round to present another side to the heat (I cam manage the pancake – probably because I first tried it when I was young & arrogantly confident – but in my maturity I’ve never managed a pan full of vegs without disaster).
    A well-known local commentator on usage on English (whose name I’m sure I’ll remember as soon as I press the post button) refers to chips as ‘not fried but boiled in fat’. Any ideas on what he regards as ‘fried’?

  29. Another vote against ‘plating up’. Granted it’s not something you’d usually see in a review but it shouldn’t be seen at all.

  30. I cringe when I hear the word “Crackle” . It’s “Crackling” always was always will be. And bloody “Protein”. Just tell us the cut of meat you’re using .

  31. I agree wholeheartedly with most of your list but then when writing about food I probably use all of the banned words – sometimes I just can’t find any other word that works in my less than Shakespearean foodie vocabulary.

  32. Ahhh such a lot of pointless frustration. Channel it into something more important than a snarky rant, like feeding those who would never have had the chance to eat decadent, melt-in-your-mouth food.

    1. Snarky rants are fun, especially when the reader knows where the writer is coming from, snarky comments, however are just mean spirited. Put that in one’s mouth and swill it around while tasting the aroma of badly disguised sarcasm and spit it into the receptacle of “what an idiot” …

    1. May not be heard West of the Atlantic, but ‘savory’ is a herb, found growing wild, and therefore heard whenever you tell the kids to go and gather some. We, of course, would distinguish it from ‘savoury’.

  33. “Plate up” (as already mentioned). Even accepting that the word ‘plate’ seems to have recently become a verb, why does it have to have a direction after it?

    1. One difference between the 2 sides of the Atlantic is that on the West side they tend to use more prepositions e.g. visit WITH someone, jump off OF a cliff.

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