Why It’s Time to Flambé the Word ‘Foodie’

It’s no surprise ‘foodie’ has made an influential list of overused, misused, and useless words—although its biggest crime is its grating snobbery.

There's no way of knowing exactly why certain words make us shudder, but they do. Some more than others. And many of us have our own mental record of ones we'd like to see completely nixed from the English lexicon forever.

Last month, Lake Superior State University released their annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

LSSU faculty and staff started the tradition in 1976, citing words people both love and abhor, and have received ten of thousands of nominations since. In recent years it has proven to be quite the task, producing results through the university's website that range from humorous to downright enlightening.

It should come as no surprise that foodie was right there in the middle of LSSU's latest list, reeking heavily of staleness and clumsy overuse. Sure, it's just a word, and some may not understand how people can get so worked up about whether or not people use it. Or any other word for that matter.

But it's difficult to argue that foodie, today, is little more than a banal hashtag designated for social media posts with accompanying food images--here's a burger: I'm a #foodie; Cap'n Crunch is great: proud #foodie.

In the food world, there are plenty of words that have out-worn their welcome. Take guilt-free and sustainable, terms that serve as little more than buzzwords which lack the luster they once packed. Their definitions have morphed into slippery slopes that can often get confusing. In some cases it's more about misuse than anything, a cold, hard delineation from what specific words were originally meant to represent.

So where did foodie come from and how ever did it lose its way? Food journalist Paul Levy has long been credited with coining the term foodie in a 1981 Harper's Magazine article. And he's been fairly vocal about people giving him his proper due.

“I'm happy here to stake a formal claim to the word's paternity,” Levy wrote in an essay for the Guardian. Still, he mused: “I wonder what the word means today? Is it a compliment about your knowledge of food or the sensitivity of your palate? Or is it simply a value-neutral description, like civil servant, football fan or stamp-collector?”

It's a fair question, given its rise over recent years. Are foodies people who babble endlessly about locally sourced cheeses, or stiffs who vow to only eat wild mushrooms from the forests of Yosemite Park? Maybe they're the ones who need to be assured their chickens lived a happy life palling around with other chickens on no less than four acres of land? In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there's anything wrong with that.”

According to Levy, its definition was less ambiguous at the time of the word’s conception.

“It separated out those who ate their lamb overcooked and grey from those whose choice of cheese was goats; it dismissed those who did not care what they ate so long as the wine was served at the correct temperature; and it applied to shopping as well as to eating, to domestic cooks and eaters as well as to those who worked in, profited from or ate in restaurants; to foodstuffs, to brands, to reading matter; and above all, to women as well as to men.”

Despite Levy's claims of having conceived it, though, former New York magazine food critic Gael Greene was the first to use foodie in print in June of 1980. In her column, "What’s Nouvelle? La Cuisine Bourgeosie”, Greene used it to describe the dining room at Restaurant d’Olympe—“a funeral parlor of shiny black walls and red velvet —to graze cheeks with her devotees, serious foodies, and, from ten on, tout Paris, the men as flashily beautiful as their beautiful women.”

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That Greene used it so beautifully, and that the word has until now provided a certain utility is without question. When no other adjective seems to sing at us, foodie rolls off the tongue rather sweetly—it's like candy in that way: tempting.

However, that is exactly what has become the issue for so many. Jody Hall, Director of Global Sourcing at supermarket chain H-E-B, admits to not being a fan. “Hate is a strong word, but I don’t really love it either,” she said. “I think ‘foodie’ can be polarizing … it can be snobbish for some.”

Steve Szilagyi, a writer from Mason, Mi., took it further—and LSSU included his two cents on their website. “I've heard of cooks and chefs, and gourmets and gourmands, but what the heck is a 'foodie'? A person who likes food? A person who eats food? A person who knows what food is? Sounds like 'foodie' is a synonym for ‘everybody.’”

When a word so suspiciously fits every scene and scenario, and can be used to describe just about any person who ingests food, it becomes void of anything resembling meaning. Thing is, ‘foodie’ is now so deep into the world, so much a part of our language that even attempting to control it sounds as tiresome as the word itself. We can't control it, but we can call, like LSSU's list has, for its extinction. Or, in the case of ‘foodie,’ its consignment to the trash.