Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all: Some thoughts on food words

I frequent Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com probably more than most people, because what fun is speaking or writing if you can’t out-vocab someone? They’ve also got a great blog that I occasionally peruse when Gawker gets overly snarky or the BBC is exceedingly bleak, and today their featured post is “8 Tantalizing Terms for Eating” in honor of Thursday’s annual Thanksgiving celebration in the USA. They list seven verbs and one noun (grub), each with a different meaning or connotation than the next, but all equally under the mother verb to eat:  gobble, devour, scarf [down], grub, chow down, gorge, nosh, and gourmandize.

But while reading Dictionary.com’s definition and little explanation of each word, I realized that all these words, save gourmandize (which I’ve never actually heard anyone say), carry a rather unhealthy, gluttonous and panicky connotation. A few simple Google image searches will substantiate my claim:

To gobble down

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To scarf down

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To gorge

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To chow down (yes, this image comes up, it was an interesting idea in theory, a refreshing alternative to the tiresome car chase)

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And not to mention, grub actually means “a sluggish larva” like a maggot or worm. Et voilà.

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So as you can see, all these words are actually pretty GROSS. And no one wants to be grossed out when they eat! Especially not at breakfast <ranty-tangent>, so for the love of God don’t read #14 of NY Magazine’s 21 Surprising Relationship Last Straws Explained while taking your glorious morning meal (I physically could not get through the rest of my cereal after reading that. So upsetting but also, why would you go down on someone again after you described even just his breath as smelling like, and I quote, “a dead body”? Lesson is, NY Magazine Dumper #14, is that you need to do some serious reflecting here. I do not want to suffer your trauma, thank you very much)</ranty-tangent>.

A French person recently asked me how to say Bon appétit in English, and I responded…”Bon appétit”. The Spanish speakers say Buen probecho, the Italians Buon appetito, the Dutch Smakelijk … English speakers don’t actually don’t have our own expression for this, we occasionally just use the French one. Aside from the simple verb command “Enjoy!”, maybe the closest thing that English speakers might say is “Dig in!” But this expression doesn’t do the same as the others, it doesn’t wish you an enjoyable meal and eating experience, in fact, for me it just kind of conjures up an image of a fat person (it’s specifically Harold from Hey! Arnold) elbowing other people out of the way, fork in one hand, knife in the other, to scavenge every last speck of food on their plate. However, it seems that dig in is being appropriated by lots of farm-to-table/green eating organizations (as in, dig into the soil and uproot the vegetables yourself and then cook them and leave the Big Macs be), so hey, maybe that’s just me!

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Regardless, “Dig in” does not carry the same connotation as Bon appétit – the English expression instructs the diners to just go for it, get on in there and eat up, while the French expression projects something more more along the lines of, “Enjoy what you are about to eat, someone cooked that and that was really nice of them, and it’s probably pretty tasty.” Where’s the enjoyment in English?

I looked up the verb”to eat” on Thesaurus.com to see if I could prove myself wrong – There must be words in use in the English language that shed a positive and delightful light on the process of putting food in your mouth, chewing and swallowing. Ever optimistic, I was actually pretty surprised by the list – there really are none. I’ve pegged three different categories of variances on to eat: scientific/formal, gluttonous, and peckish. Take a look and see if you can figure out how I came up with those categories:

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According to Thesaurus.com, to enjoy” is not a synonym for “to eat”. You can eat scientifically or formally (ingest, take nourishment, masticate, dine); gluttonously (attack, devour, cram, gorge, wolf, feast, pig out, polish off); or pickily (have a bite, nosh, pick, nibble, graze). Except for “gormandize”, which I’m honestly unsure of even how to use in a sentence, none of these words have any sense of enjoyment to them.

Does this have anything to do with our eating habits? And I’m thinking of American eating habits here (Yes, I do realize English is spoken in other places, but I don’t know much about the eating habits or cultures in those places). However, American culture tells us to eat up as much of all the amazing, big, juicy, jam-packed whatever it is we whip up but also to diet and eat no carbs and egg white only please, and let’s just grab something to go and eat it on the way, I don’t take lunch, lemme get that in a to-go cup please, etc.

Now, obviously, in English there are a million different words and expressions to describe our foods in the best, most delicious, savory and gracious ways possible. But it is interesting that aside from “to eat” and other formal or scientific-y sounding words, the synonyms that exist are rather polarized on the opposite ends of the eating-style spectrum, and seem to reflect America’s twisted and oft unhealthy relationship with food – what to eat, when to eat, how to eat, and actually why to eat.

I admit, thesaurus.com is not the be-all-end-all of synonyms in the English language, and I didn’t get a chance to look into if other languages have more enjoyable words for to eat because I have homework to do. So I cannot make any huge, definitive statements on what this all means for us English speakers, especially as I did not even plan on peeling back all these gourmando-linguistic layers to the English language here, but I just did so why don’t you go take a moment to process all this.

Well, now that I’ve gotten all dark and heavy and culturally introspective, I just want to say that I hope all Americans around the globe enjoy their wonderful Thanksgiving meal on Thursday as well as the company of their friends, family, family-friends, neighbors, forced acquaintances since childbirth, your drunk uncle, immigrants, great Aunt whats-her-name, your cousin’s new girlfriend (how does he always have a girlfriend?) and that total rando seated next to Grandma! Whether you wolf it down, cram it in, smash it up, nibble at it, or chew it down to the very bone (Cousin Nate, I’m talking about you taking it way too far T-Day 2004), I hope you take a moment to savor and relish the great meal before you. Because we all know you sat around watching football while your mom’s been up in the kitchen since 7am basting the turkey (whatever that means).

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About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in America., Bad English, Bad Words, Culture, English, Expressions, French, FYI, Great Words that Don't Exist in Engilsh, Italian, Language, Learning English, Musing Articles, Portfolio, Rants, Untranslatable and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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