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‘Pumpkin spice,’ ‘banh mi’ among food words added to Merriam-Webster

The barbecue pork banh mi sandwich from Banh Mi D.C. in Falls Church. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Pumpkin spice has officially arrived. As grocery shelves were filling with orange-hued packages bearing all sorts of products featuring the flavor, we wrote last week that the category had matured well past flash-in-the-baking-pan to cultural phenomenon to … just another food flavor, alongside stalwarts such as strawberry and vanilla.

Now, there’s further confirmation: Merriam-Webster on Wednesday added the phrase, along with 369 others, to its dictionary, marking pumpkin spice’s full assimilation into the language. It’s defined as “a mixture of usually cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and often allspice that is commonly used in pumpkin pie,” per the entry, for those who somehow have avoided grocery shopping or coffee shops for the past decade.

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Pumpkin spice is among a list of food-related words added to the dictionary this year, alongside zeitgeisty ones 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 heard a lot recently, with people seeking out lower-alcohol beers, wines and other drinks that let imbibers sip all afternoon without crashing. And an increasing familiarity with the foods of varied cultures means that “omakase,” “birria,” “ras el hanout,” “mojo” and “banh mi” made the list.

Some of these might seem to a reader to be everyday words that long ago should have been recognized as such. But Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski notes that not everyone gets exposed to the same words at the same time. “Banh mi might seem so familiar to you, and there will be people who will be saying that you’d have to have been living under a rock not to know what it is, but there will be others who might encounter it for the first time on our list,” he says.

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And for people who shop at Whole Foods or who are familiar with vegan culture, he notes, “plant-based” might be old hat — but that’s not everyone. Now that the phrase is being widely used in commercial products, he says, it belongs in the dictionary: “We’re seeing it on labels — and talk about a mass audience for text, for words.”

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Labels are just one place the editors look to see what words are being used. They monitor social media and user-generated text, but they also pay close attention to “sites and publications with wide national readership,” according to an explainer of how words are chosen.

“Every word has to grow into itself,” Sokolowski says. Some words can almost instantly become part of our vocabulary — think of “covid” and “coronavirus” — while others take longer (the first documented use of “pumpkin spice,” for example, was in 1931; “ras el hanout” was seen in English publications as far back as 1875).

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Another example of a food becoming more widespread is birria: As our colleague Tim Carman noted last year, the rich, chile-heated Mexican stew was once little-known in the Washington area. But it “became an instant celebrity during the pandemic as our phones and Instagram accounts served as lifelines to the outside world,” he wrote. Now you can find it on menus — in tacos, burritos and even ramen — across the city and surrounding area.

Sokolowski notes that food terms are one of the most common instances of English “borrowing” from other languages. And in modern times, it’s more likely that a word will retain its original spelling and pronunciation, whereas in the last century, there was a tendency for those words to be Anglicized. “The English language has an amazing capacity to absorb words just like the culture incorporates different foods,” he says.

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