Our Updated, Not-So-Secret List of “Banned” Words
Back in 2012, Kenji published an article called “Our Secret List of Banned Words,” in which he shared the words and phrases that the Serious Eats staff agreed were so trite, ridiculous, or unpleasant to the ears that they should never, or practically never, appear in these pages.
Despite having nothing to do with food per se, the article generated an astonishing number of comments—214 at last count, more than Stella’s article on toasted sugar or Kenji’s very first AHT post, a chronology of reconstructing the Blumenburger—with most writers chiming in with the words they personally loathed. Apparently an audience of exacting cooks and eaters includes many who are particular about language as well, and I can’t say I’m surprised.
When I started freelance-editing for SE, in 2015, I received a link to this post, along with our style-guide documents, to put me on the lookout for the offending terms. On one hand, I was relieved: If we could spark heated discussion with a piece so clearly about words, not food, maybe I—accomplished in wrangling the former, not so much the latter—had a place here after all.
On the other hand, some of the words that had been locked away in this virtual Giftschrank, and the explanations offered for their banishment, raised my eyebrows. The idea that till can mean only a cash register, for instance. Or that the word addicting is verboten, but only because it’s used interchangeably with addictive and shouldn’t be, although Merriam-Webster thinks otherwise. Or that luscious is…bad…for some reason?
If there’s one thing the original article confirmed, it’s that people with opinions about language tend to hold very strong opinions about language, and (okay, two things) that those opinions are often just…opinions. Sometimes well argued, sometimes not. I’m not saying this to scold Kenji, or anyone who commented on his piece—strong feelings about words are my jam!—but when your only reason for proscribing a phrase is “UGHHHH,” you’re not presenting an airtight case.
With all that in our minds, joined by the fact that usage, over-usage, connotations, and priorities around language naturally change over time, we decided to attempt a revision. The list below isn’t comprehensive, but it should give you a more accurate view of our current attitudes than the 2012 post does. In a few years’ time, I fully expect that someone else on staff will stumble upon this article and start composing their own takedown. If one of our readers hasn’t already beaten them to the punch, that is.
The Newly Banned
Kenji already touched on this in the small print in his article, but I’m going to go further: Completely cutting words or phrases out of a publication’s vocabulary without good reason is unhelpful, and I say that as someone who has edited out phrases like “step up your game” and “the next level” possibly more than anyone else who works here. Overuse to the point of meaninglessness? That’s a pretty good reason. Being personally grossed out by the word moist (perhaps the most tired word opinion in the English-speaking world)? Get over it, people.
You’d be surprised at how hard it can be to find an appropriate (i.e., not archaic or unintelligible to the majority of readers) synonym in food writing when you need one. If I’m describing the texture of a cake that’s adequately hydrated, may I just as well call it humid or dewy or damp or dank or clammy or muggy? Is there any word for the job other than moist?
None of my colleagues have suggested, or would suggest, shunning that particular word, but our original list certainly took a lot of words off the table for no other stated reason than that they were “icky” or “ma[de] our stomachs churn.” Which is just another illustration of the point that the sound and feel of language are highly subjective.
That said, and it’s a big “that said,” the proliferation of words spilled about food these days, including full articles by formal publications online and off-, social-media posts, discussions on subreddits and similar forums, and even video captions and metadata, means that overuse is a very real problem for those of us interested in or tasked with maintaining standards for food writing. A good writer should be aware of the likely culprits, and steer clear of them as much as possible, but sometimes a reminder is warranted.
When we have decided to
ban strongly discourage a word or phrase, the most common reason is overuse. But hey, if we all mutually agree to avoid a word like nomtastic, eventually we’ll be using it a lot less, and one of these days it might feel fresh and new again. Language is unpredictable like that.
Offensive and/or Outdated Terminology
It’s not that Serious Eats embraced insulting, ignorant, or casually (or blatantly!) racist language at any point in the past. But, as I probably don’t need to tell you, what’s considered offensive changes drastically over time, even, perhaps especially, in the past seven years.
Again, this is highly subjective territory, and I encourage all SE writers and editors—really, all writers and editors, full stop—to get a second opinion from a colleague if they’re unsure about whether something they’ve written draws from outdated stereotypes or uninformed, perhaps harmful generalizations. It’s not possible to avoid offense 100% of the time, but here are a few unfortunate usages we’re going to be extra vigilant against from now on.
- Addictive, addicting, and other terms that make light of addiction. While the previous article argued that these words shouldn’t be used interchangeably (a dubious claim), we’re focusing here on the careless and common habit of comparing a tasty snack to a destructive disease. Yes, you’ll find a thousand instances of these usages on Serious Eats, but we’re doing our best to avoid them going forward. Even worse, though we’re far from the first to point it out: saying a food is “like crack.”
- Casual uses of OCD or other mental illness–related terms. It’s one thing to call Daniel’s attention to vegetable-arranging detail “obsessive”; we even have a whole series of interviews with people obsessing over food things. But “obsession” in the colloquial sense is not obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like a restaurant that combines disparate cuisines and doesn’t quite seem to know its identity is not “schizophrenic” and does not suffer from “multiple-personality disorder.”
- Ethnic as a lazy catchall for non-Western food. Referring to “ethnic food,” as if all the cuisines outside your home country can be lumped into a single category, or as if “ethnic” is a term that applies only to people who don’t look like you, is childishly reductive and frankly rude. Speaking of “Asian flavors” or “African cuisine” falls into a similar boat of generalizing about huge and diverse regions of the world; it’s not only offensive but simply incorrect.
- Kaffir lime. For a long time, this was the default term among cooks for Citrus hystrix, whose fragrant leaves, zest, and fruit are used in culinary and other applications in its native Southeast Asia. In recent years, however, some folks have rightly called attention to the fact that kaffir is used as a slur against black people in South Africa and elsewhere, the equivalent of the N-word here. Though the etymology of the word is unclear, and though you’ll still find it on packaging and signs in grocery stores, there’s simply no reason to use a pejorative when makrut lime—the name used in Thailand—will do just as well. NB: We have lots of older content on our site that still uses the term kaffir lime, and we’re aware that we have some retroactive cleaning to do.
- Waitress and other words with unnecessarily gendered endings. This isn’t strictly food-related, but waitress is a good example. While plenty of servers may not mind being called “waitresses,” the practice of adding a feminine ending to a profession is old-fashioned and unnecessary. Consider comedienne, actress, and editrix (this felt new and cute circa 2008; no longer). Why highlight gender when the role performed is what’s important?
The Really, Truly Overused Ones
- When it comes to ___. E.g., “When it comes to steak-cooking methods, butter-basting is absolutely my favorite.” “When it comes to ___” is a roundabout way of bringing something up, and it continues to be used to death. I admit it adds a certain pleasant rhythm to a sentence in limited cases, but usually there’s a more straightforward way to introduce a topic.
- In a similar vein, as far as ___ goes. E.g., “As far as sweetness goes, this cornbread is on the savory side.” Or…how about “This cornbread is more savory than sweet”? Or even just “This cornbread is on the savory side”? Does “as far as sweetness goes” add anything at all here? It’s unnecessary and overused. The same goes for in terms of ___.
- Step up your game, step up your ___ game, up your ___ game, game-changer. In marketing, advertising, and editorial copy, everything is a game, and all of us merely players, screaming in desperation for the game-speak to stop. My vendetta against “up your game,” in particular, is well known in the SE office. Personal-opinion alert: “Up your game” sounds like an insult on Welcome Back, Kotter.
- Amp up, meaning “strengthen,” “energize,” “improve”…or lots of other things, apparently, because it’s all over the place.
- Make(s) for ___. I swear that when I first started at SE, no one used phrasing like “This tart with eggplant and goat cheese makes for a great cocktail-party snack.” Then, suddenly, about a year or so ago, it was everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but (as in the above example) you can often remove “for,” and the sentence will do just fine.
- Hello, ___! As in “You can save any remaining lime juice for another purpose (hello, margaritas!).” It’s been done before, many, many times.
- The same goes for ___, anyone? As in “You can save any remaining lime juice for another purpose (margaritas, anyone?).”
- Go-to, meaning “preferred” or “preferred one.” Nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but considering all the synonyms out there—favorite, old standby, tried-and-true, reliable, dependable, the aforementioned preferred, et cetera—this term should not be as overused as it is.
- Unctuous. This was added to the old list with a note reading “use sparingly.” My official position on unctuous is neutral, and I really don’t want to get into “ugh” territory, but I have to concur that unctuous is pretty gross-sounding.
You may still see any of the above pop up from time to time, but my hope is they’ll be rare.
The next two sections don’t address every single item from Kenji’s original post, but I’ve done my best below to explain why some of the original outcasts aren’t as bad as all that (and, in the section that follows, to explain why some others actually are).
- Cook till. This is a tricksy one: It’s true that you won’t ever see the phrase cook till in one of our recipes, but that’s not because till isn’t a real word meaning “until.” That use of the word is firmly ensconced in the dictionary; in fact, as M-W points out on that same page, till was used to mean “to” or “until” at least a hundred years before the word until existed! Nowadays, until sounds by far the more buttoned-up option, while till in this sense has a folksy feel and connotation (“till the cows come home”). Because recipes are intentionally written in a rather bland and characterless style, phrases like “cook until golden” are much more standard in recipes than “cook till golden.” None of this has anything to do with putting a cash register in the oven.
- Verbing words. Verbing is, A, lots of fun and B, a time-honored tradition among the linguistically creative. Dig into the etymology of many words that we now use as both nouns and verbs without thinking twice—influence, trade, effect—and you’ll find that the noun version came first. (Though it can also work in the opposite direction.) I think some people get hung up, understandably, on the whiff of smarm in corporate-sounding examples like impacting or dialoguing; others critique verbing as lazy, or redundant. In Kenji’s example of “truffled pasta,” the problem I see is more a lack of clarity: Is the pasta infused with truffles? Served with a truffle sauce on the side, or with shaved truffles on top? In this case, the verbing attempts to supplant a more complete description of the dish, which falls short of our desire for specificity (see below).
- Taste in place of flavor. If one of us really did write “These mussels have good taste,” I’d change it to read “good flavor” (actually, I’d probably say, “Got anything more interesting to say about them?”). But I don’t recall ever seeing any Serious Eats contributor make that mistake. “Flavor” is an acceptable meaning of the word taste in casual writing, although there are more specific definitions of both words that can set them apart. There’s nothing wrong with saying “The taste is similar to Life cereal,” for instance.
- Zing, zip, and oomph. I often edit out these vague flavor-related expressions, but don’t mind their very occasional use in a story otherwise well supplied with specific imagery and explanations.
- On offer. I’m a little torn about this one. It seems that on offer, even if it was once chiefly British, is now used in the US to mean “available,” and I don’t mind the sound or look of it used as such. But if Brits use it primarily to mean “on sale,” I can see how that would be confusing. (If you’re a Brit or have insight into how Brits use this phrase, feel free to email me.)
- Spheres and orbs. Certainly orb is too flowery for frequent use, but if you want to get poetic for a minute over your arancini, who am I to stop you? I have even less of an issue with sphere, which, after all, is an exact synonym of ball. In fact, Daniel’s arancini recipe, published in 2014, instructs readers to “[p]lace a few small pieces of mozzarella in center of disk and fold rice filling around it to form a sphere with the cheese in the center.” Why not?
- Über-. This one also floats in my personal purgatory; I would probably discourage it for reasons of overuse and that annoying umlaut, but I’m waiting to hear why this prefix should be banned while super-, extra-, and ultra- roam free. While there is a bit of an excessive-celebration element to all of these, it feels cruel to prohibit something so common in speech and, therefore, in casual, bloggy writing.
- Decadent. Though we still don’t believe food should be described in the language of sin and guilt (see below), the use of decadent to mean “over-the-top rich” has become so common that its original associations with moral decay and lack of self-control seem distant. We use it sparingly.
- Luscious, toothsome, and mouthfeel. I actually like the words luscious and toothsome, although the latter sounds a bit old-timey for use online. It’s really incredible how few words there are in English for “good-tasting,” and you can use delicious only so many times. Why handcuff yourself? Mouthfeel is a well-established term with a specific meaning that’s highly relevant to our work, so, while it’s still rare on Serious Eats, I’m loath to blacklist it altogether.
The item on Kenji’s list that continues to resonate most clearly with Serious Eats today is nonspecific adjectives. Specificity should always be a primary goal of food writing, not just in recipes, where inadequate description of the correct process or desired results can mean out-and-out failure, but in all food-related content. It mitigates problems of careless generalization (as described in the bullet point on “ethnic” above) and conjures more vivid images of the foods, producers, and environments whose stories we’re trying to tell.
Specific writing is just better writing that’s more fun to read, and even though there’s still a place for phrases like “great on pasta!” or “perfect for cookouts” (and even though we do indeed use those phrases all the time), it’s a better practice to seek to describe something in clear terms of what it does: how it tastes, how it smells, how it feels.
The Still-Overused Ones
A number of the originally banned words and phrases remain on the list primarily for reasons of overuse, including:
- ___ to perfection.
- ___ of deliciousness and ___ of goodness.
- ___ the next level (or next-level ___). It’s not that chicken salad can’t have levels; it’s only that overuse can, too, and these constructions have reached…the upper echelons.
The Guilt-Ridden Ones
As in 2012, so today: Terms like sinful, guilt-free, and guilty pleasure equate food choices with morality in a dangerous way. Food should be enjoyed, not used as a tool of self-hatred, and we want to avoid facilitating the latter as much as possible. (I’m less concerned about heavenly, which in food writing is typically used to emphasize how tasty something is and not as a measure of its moral value.)
The Fairly Meaningless Ones
Farm-fresh, artisanal, and mixologist remain strongly discouraged due to lack of meaning. The first two are especially common offenders in the advertising and marketing worlds, where they’re used mainly to overcharge consumers for essentially no real value.
The Ones That Just Aren’t “Us”
The “ugh” habit is a tough one to kick, and a couple of terms do linger on the list just because no one seems to like their sound or connotation. Put more diplomatically, foodie and yummy (plus its newly blacklisted child, yummo) are not on brand for us.
If you’ve read this all the way through, you’re even more of a word nerd than I am, and you probably think we’re gravely wrong about something. Yell at us in the comments below, or, to increase your chances of a response, email us! Make a good argument for why a word or phrase should or shouldn’t be on our list, and we’ll take it into consideration. Hopefully this article proves that we’re willing to adapt our vocabulary to the times, as English itself constantly does, so there’s no reason to think our minds can’t be changed.
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