Fluffernutter – A peanut butter and marshmallow cream sandwich between two slices of white sandwich bread.
If you’re from the Northeast, you may be familiar with the sweet “delicacy” known as fluffernutter. While the sandwich is most popular in the New England area (it was invented in Massachusetts in the second decade of the 20th century), its influence and prevalence have spread across the country over the past century. In Los Angeles, you’ll find a fried version with bananas at three of Antonia Lofaso’s restaurants (Black Market Liquor Bar, Dama, and Scopa Italian Roots). The Little Fish pop-up at Echo Park has been known to serve a fluffernutter for dessert.
But the word fluffernutter didn’t officially enter the Merriam-Webster dictionary until October, along with 455 other new words.
New words often reflect the great stories of the year or notable changes in our culture. The word of the year 2021 is “vaccine”, preceded by “pandemic” in 2020, both testimonies of a terrible era.
Other words clearly take longer.
Like all additions to this dictionary, fluffernutter started out as a “quote”, a kind of record that includes context and source, added to a searchable database. The word was added to that database in 1961 after an editor cited the use of the word in an advertisement. Over the years, more Merriam-Webster editors have watched its use, considering the word for inclusion in future editions of the dictionary. But fluffernutter was rejected for inclusion in 1980, and again in 1983, 1993, and 2003, before finally reaching dictionary word status this year.
“This is a word that took time to get into the dictionary, but it also shows that the process is the same for every word,” Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Peter Sokolowski said during a recent call. “We always look for three basic criteria: widespread use, long-term use, and significant use. When we say long-term and widespread use, there is no specific number, but there is a kind of critical mass that needs to be built up.”
The word COVID-19 was added to the dictionary just 34 days after it was minted.
Sokolowski is part of a small team of about 25 people who work all day, every day, on the dictionary. If you get excited about a new word, there is no great announcement for your colleagues. Instead, he finds five or six or maybe even 10 examples of that word, compose a quick definition, and feed it into a large shared document to be viewed when the team is considering words for new releases.
“It’s a way of getting things started and allowing a word to grow,” said Sokolowski, clearly excited by what must be one of the most fascinating rituals in the world of reference books. “We also have to make the final decision, which is the only real executive decision: when to put it in, once it has been used by many people in many places.”
The team is built like a school faculty (and I can’t help but notice the fact that a relatively small group makes these important, albeit seemingly random at times, decisions regarding what is included in the dictionary and when) . Some members may be especially proficient in science, math, physics, linguistics, or music. At one point, there was an art historian, biographer, and geographer on staff. But there is no specific expert working on a single word category. And there is no Gordon Ramsay examining food-related terms to determine what the cut does. When considering a food word, the team can take into account quotes from restaurant menus, restaurant reviews, and online recipes.
“The honors are important to us, but we hope they don’t notice it,” Sokolowski said. “We want a diversity of educational backgrounds and all kinds of backgrounds on staff to make definitions that are for everyone.”
This year, the team believed that fluffernutter had finally reached the required critical mass. The word joined nine other food-related additions, including ghost kitchen, curbside pickup, curbside delivery, dining room, and deep fryer. As a group, these words are an obvious reflection of greater socioeconomic change, byproducts of the pandemic and the 2020 restaurant closures that left everyone ordering takeout and taking out food, yearning for dinner and Googling deep fryer recipes for months.
Surprises on the food word list? Goetta and roast sausage. A sausage roast, I hope, is self explanatory. But I had to find goetta. Are you familiar with fried patties with meat, oatmeal, onion and spices? The flat brown meat rectangle resemblances, which were introduced to the US by German immigrants in the 19th century, are popular in Cincinnati, and another example of a slow-moving trend in the dictionary world.
Even more surprising was the addition of horchata and chicharrón in 2021, two words that have apparently always been part of the southern California vernacular. As an Angelino, I find it hard to believe that horchata and chicharrón only now reached widespread, long-term, and significant use alongside fluffernutter, especially when the dictionary dates the first known use of chicharrón to 1845. But then I grew up doing frequent family trips to Olvera Street.
“Without a doubt, food terms are the most productive foreign language word borrowings in the last 20 to 25 years,” Sokolowski said. “Over 100 years ago, we had the influx of French haute cuisine like Bourguignon beef and coq au vin, but now we have terms like horchata, which you would be familiar with if you travel to Latin America or eat frequently in Mexico. Adding them makes them naturalized citizens of the English language. “
In 2019, halloumi, matcha, concasse, cidery, meadery, chana, royal icing, tallboy, and quaffer were added. Previous years, avo, coquito, dragon fruit, flight (as far as tastings are concerned), food bank, gochujang, guac, hangry, hophead, iftar, marg, mise en place, mocktail, quaffable, bush tea red, wagyu, zoodle and zuke made the cut.
(Zoodle and guacamole made the cut before the chicharrón and horchata? I blame Chipotle and social media.)
According to Merriam-Webster’s own “search popularity” on their website, goetta is in the top 27% of words, chicharron is in the top 14%, and fluffernutter is in the top 8%. Extend this linguistic popularity contest to Google and you will see that fluffernutter has 449,000 search results, goetta has 131,000 and chicharrón accumulates 45.7 million. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.
“We’re looking for the time when people respond to this as an English word, but also, if it’s something they’re not familiar with and others are, then maybe they should be,” Sokolowski said. “The perception of things as new or alien changes over time.”
I asked Sokolowski what other food words were coming soon. He pointed me to a section of the Merriam-Webster website dedicated to the words that editors are seeing. But there is one in particular that Sokolowski has his eye on.
“It came from orange, and it’s almost late,” he said.