Our dependence on food both as necessity and for pleasure means our reactions to food adjectives can be very strong. Sometimes, when writers reach for the word that adequately describes the moment, they fall short, landing in a thorny nest of jargon or falling back on the easy and the meaningless.
None of us are perfect, and improving as a writer is a journey, not a destination. I have been guilty of a few of these word crimes myself over the years. As a writing community, we can all get better together.
Here are a dozen that can really just rub people the wrong way or don’t say much about the subject matter. As always, feel free to leave your own perspective in the comments below.
12. Delicious: It says absolutely nothing about food other than that the writer enjoyed it. It’s not a visceral, evocative description. Was the food chewy, salty, soft or spicy? These are the kinds of words that tell people what they want to know. Using “delicious” is a lazy catch-all. “Stellar” and “tasty” are close relatives (and I’m still having trouble avoiding those two).
11. Scrumptious: Similar to “delicious” except with a marketing-speak twist. What does this even mean? It may have evolved from the word “sumptuous,” an evocative term that means “lavish.” “Scrumpy” is a kind of potent cider made in small batches. We propose less “scrumptious” and more “scrumpy.”
10. Yummy: Similar to “delicious” except it also makes you sound like a five-year-old who just scored a candy bar. However, it’s acceptable when describing anything that comes with a cute character on the package.
9. Foreign: Unless describing “something that doesn’t belong in food,” like, “foreign object,” it’s probably better to leave this one alone. There’s unfortunately too much hate that surrounds the word “foreigner” in this country right now for this to not be a word charged with negativity.
8. Exotic: A way to sex up the words “unfamiliar” or “rare.” It’s exotic to whom? To you? For someone else, it’s a staple dish or ingredient, and in the great melting pot of America, you can bet that there are people familiar with it in your readership.
7. Cronut, cupcaroon and other portmanteaus: I’ve enthusiastically written about cupcaroons — and enjoyed them — but the word itself is like sandpaper. Creating a new food word from two other words is really more of a way to make marketing easier and avoid having to say the lengthier “round, iced croissant” and “macaroon-topped cupcake.” On the other hand, invented terms such as these can likely be trademarked (although recipes don’t get legal protection), and make it easier to find available Internet domain names, so chances are these compound food words are here to stay.
6. To Perfection: A phrase, not a word, but it should be here anyway. Freelance restaurant critic Nick Hall says the phrase drives him crazy as another example of lazy writing. “There's a difference between saying something was perfectly cooked (as in a technically correct preparation of an item) and saying everything was cooked to perfection," he wrote. People use it as a get out of jail free card for actually having to describe what they mean. A steak ordered black and blue that arrives with a hard sear and a cold red interior is perfectly cooked. "We ordered the roasted chicken and it was cooked to perfection," doesn't really tell me anything.”
5. Unctuous: It means “oily” or “greasy.” In a positive context, like a dish with flavorful fat, “silky” is a great alternative. Straight talk with adjectives that people don’t have to look up in a dictionary goes a long way.
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4. Impaled: A word that is a little too evocative. It’s impossible to read “impaled” without imagining it happening to you or remembering all those horrible stories of Vlad the Impaler. “Skewered” is at least more closely tied to a food noun, “skewer.”
3. Slurp: Some of us really, really detest the sound of others eating. Crunching, smacking, chewing — all of these are like nails on chalkboard. The worst, though, is slurping, and even the sight of that word stirs the imagination in the most cringe-worthy way. It’s most often used to describe ramen, but, really, no one wants to see others sucking a bunch of noodles and broth into their mouths. Ugh.
2. Smack: Related to slurp, this is another “sound word.” Smacking happens when someone chews with his mouth open, and didn’t your parents teach you that was rude? Someone smacking on gum or making mouth noises after eating anything that’s “lip-smacking” might inspire fantasies of another kind of smacking — upside the head.
1. Nom: Fine for goofing off on social media, but it has no place in professional writing, along with “nomerific,” “nommy” and “nomilicious.” That’s actually the incantation for summoning Guy Fieri to your chalk pentagram. He’ll give you a ride to Flavortown — and you won’t like it.