Food: words that reflect our lifestyle

Many new words added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online recently involve food. Not just types of food, although there are always plenty of those to add as our eating habits become ever more international, but words that describe ways of life.

In some cases these are not lifestyle choices but necessities, such as food pantry, an organization that distributes food to food banks to provide for those who cannot afford to buy food. Food security, the state of having reliable access to enough nutritious food, has declined in many developing countries, leading to the opposite, food insecurity. While I regret the need for such words, perhaps their existence is at least recognition of the conditions of people whose employment and income are insecure, the precariat.

shutterstock_325346537Some words, such as clean eating, imply approval or disapproval, with implicit criticism of the opposites. If there is ‘clean’ food, then this suggests that other food is ‘dirty’, bad in some way and therefore unacceptable. Clean eating is about choices, choosing certain food groups, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, often organic, and nuts, pulses and whole grains, while rejecting others, mostly processed foods, and those high in fat or sugar. Followers can become obsessed with restricted diets, leading to a condition known as orthorexia, in which they consider all other foods to be harmful, and become ill through lack of a balanced diet. Like anorexia, orthorexia is derived from the Greek -orexia – ‘appetite’, and combined with ortho – ‘correct’, from Greek orthos – ‘straight, upright’. The popularity of energy bars and energy drinks plays further upon people’s desires to eat in the right way, or at least to believe that they are doing so. The sporty, healthy sound of these belies the fact that they can be packed with sugar.

The obsession with health, especially size and weight, is also reflected in body fascism, body shaming and fat shaming. All three terms are concepts involving criticism of someone’s appearance. The media, especially social media, has a lot to answer for, as those are the forums where such actions chiefly take place, either in personal comments or in journalism:

Body fascism is undoubtedly a factor in television casting.

Celebrities joined the fight against cyberbullying and body shaming.

Instead of embracing her figure and all its curves, and standing up to fat shaming, she caved in and gave in to peer pressure.

As well as pressure to conform to body image, there is also pressure to behave ethically in buying food and to dispose of leftovers thoughtfully. We can support fair trade by buying goods from employers who offer decent working conditions and a living wage. Is your leftover food compostable? If so, don’t throw it away, adding to landfill or causing pollution. Discarded cooking oil contributes to the creation of a fatberg, a large mass of solid waste found in the sewers beneath us.

Thinking of pleasanter matters, you might enjoy cooking up specialities, such as mousselines and other cheffy dishes involving complicated recipes and methods:

The five-course lunch included dishes such as poached eggs with artichoke mousseline.

Others prefer comfort food, often associated with childhood or home cooking:

Stews are the ultimate comfort food, particularly in cold weather.

My comfort food – the food that reminds me of being a child – is egg and chips.

And if you don’t want to cook, you could enjoy one of many takeaways available, for example a shawarma, another name for a doner kebab, a Middle Eastern food that’s popular all over the world.

How do new words come about? Words like shawarma and mousseline have been adopted into English from other languages, here Arabic and French, along with the food itself. Others, like orthorexia, are created to describe a new condition. Where medical and scientific terms are concerned, the origins are often Latin or Greek. Many new words are compounds where two or more words are put together, such as food hall, food security, food insecurity, comfort food, fair trade, body fascism, clean eating. They might have started as collocations, such as fair trade, or they might have been deliberately put together to create a concept, such as clean eating. Others are new meanings added to existing words, such as banger, which is not just a sausage (see Word of the Month, January 2018).

Eating habits and ways of life are constantly changing, adding flavour and colour to our expanding vocabulary. Check out all the new words and meanings recently added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site here.


Victoria Bull taught English in Sussex and London before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 2004. She has worked on a number of dictionaries including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the ESU award-winning Oxford Student’s Dictionary. She is the editor of Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Oxford Primary Dictionary for Eastern Africa and the Oxford Children’s Picture Dictionary for learners of English.

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