9 food words added to Merriam-Webster dictionary, banh mi among them

Seasoned food lovers may raise their eyebrows upon learning that some of their frequently used words, from American favourite pumpkin spice to Vietnamese banh mi, have only now been made official by the American English dictionary Merriam-Webster.

In an update to its long-standing list of phrases and terms, 370 new words have been added – nine of them food-related.

“When many people use a word in the same way, over a long enough period of time, that word becomes eligible for inclusion,” says Merriam-Webster in its announcement. “Names of foods from around the world become familiar to us through menus, recipes and cooking shows.”

Some have long been in the foodie vernacular, such as “omakase” – a Japanese phrase that roughly translates as “I’ll leave it up to you” and refers to the practice of allowing the chef to serve a menu without giving customers a choice.


In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is defined as “a series of small servings or courses (as of sushi) offered at a fixed price and whose selection is left to the chef’s discretion”.

Indeed, the word is often used in the context of a sushi meal, though in recent years it has become trendy to apply it to any multi-course menu, or use it in place of “tasting menu” or “degustation”.

It has even been co-opted by cafes and bars, who use it to sell coffee and cocktail flights.


Other popular food items made official include “banh mi”, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich , which is defined as consisting of meat, such as pork or chicken, along with pickled vegetables and garnished with coriander and cucumbers.

Oddly, the more defining characteristics of a “banh mi” – namely the rough pork liver pate and its airy, crusty loaf that differentiates it from a classic French-style baguette – are missing.

Ditto for “birria”, which is simplified as “a Mexican dish of stewed meat seasoned especially with chilli peppers”. Originating from Jalisco, the hearty dish is most commonly made with goat and is often recognised for its deep reddish hue from the use of dried red chillies.

Other spice-led terms such as “ras el hanout” (a north African spice mix including but not limited to coriander, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and cayenne pepper) and “mojo” (an olive oil, garlic, citrus and spice-based sauce or marinade) have also been added.


Most notably, “pumpkin spice” – defined as “a mixture of usually cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and often allspice that is commonly used in pumpkin pie” – has finally been included in the dictionary.

However, the dictionary shied away from referring to the most popular usage of the term pumpkin spice.

Created by Starbucks in 2003, the pumpkin spice latte has become a culinary icon, faced anticipation and derision, and defined the turning of the seasons. In 2022, the seasonal treat – Starbucks’ most profitable creation of all time, having sold 424 million cups worldwide by 2019 – returned to cafes on August 30.


Over the best part of two decades, pumpkin spice has spawned countless memes and pop culture references, so its addition to the list seems wildly overdue.

Other new additions are a bit more timely, reflecting the rising popularity of vegetarianism and veganism. There is “oat milk”, listed as “a liquid made from ground oats and water that is usually fortified (as with calcium and vitamins) and used as a milk substitute” as well as two definitions for the term “plant-based” (one: made or derived from plants; two: consisting primarily or entirely of food (such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and beans) derived from plants).

Lastly, “sessionable” has joined the pool of alcohol terms, referring to drinks that have a light body and “a lower than average percentage of alcohol” – perhaps another reflection of the recent trend for lower ABV beverages.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.


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