English

Unctuous, A Humpty Dumpty Word

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A reader alerted me to a new use of the word unctuous that has escaped me until now:

When did “unctuous” start having a positive connotation? Watch any cooking show lately and it’s likely you’ll hear someone describe a dish as “unctuous,” as if that’s a good thing. Many celebrity chefs seem to now use the word to suggest a dish is rich, smooth, or maybe even creamy.”

Like the reader, my reaction to hearing the adjective unctuous applied to food is one of disbelief and gagging repugnance.

Unctuous derives from a Latin word meaning ointment. The earliest meaning of the word in English is “of the nature or quality of an unguent or ointment; oily, greasy.”

Like so many other words, unctuous is and has been used with multiple meanings. For example, applied to soil, unctuous refers to the presence of organic matter and fertility.

OED citations from 1495-1821 show the word used to describe meat that was “greasy, fat, and rich.” The OED labels this use “archaic.”

For me, the chief meaning of unctuous is “smarmy and hypocritical.” This figurative meaning developed in the 18th century from the religious use of the noun unction in reference to religious ritual.

Anointing with oil is a symbolic act indicating that a person is being prepared for something serious. For example, the Catholic sacrament Extreme Unction is equated with preparing a gravely ill person for death. Anointing is part of ceremonies associated with the crowning of a king and the ordination of a priest. The noun unction can be used literally to mean “anointing” or figuratively to mean “a spiritual influence acting upon a person or the manifestation of such a feeling in language.”

In a spiritual context, “an unctuous person” is one who displays a manner suggestive of religious earnestness. Unfortunately, not-so-religious people often see religious earnestness as hypocrisy. Also unfortunately, hypocrisy frequently takes the form of false humility or religiosity. These human realities led to the use of unctuous to describe hypocrites. Literature abounds with such characters.

Iago, Tartuffe, Uriah Heep, Mr. Brocklehurst, and Elmer Gantry are characters who talk a good game, pretending to a spiritual superiority and/or humility they do not possess in order to manipulate people. The literal meaning of unctuous only adds to the aptness of this figurative use: such characters are “oily and slippery,” like ointment.

English speakers familiar with unctuous in the sense of greasiness and hypocrisy are understandably repelled to hear the word applied positively to food.

Many food writers, however, have embraced the term. A writer at The Kitchn [sic] calls it a “favorite food word.”

The word is especially popular in headlines above pork recipes:

Braised pork belly is an unctuous treat

Unctuous Carmelized Chinese Braised Pork Belly

Aware that many English speakers object to the use of the word as if it meant succulent, food writers dismiss their critics with Humpty-Dumptian disdain:

If you’re a food writer, and you’re doing a review or article about pork belly, you have to use the word unctuous or unctuousness whether you understand what it means or not. (Food Wishes blog)

Words acquire different connotations according to the experiences of the people who use them. I’ve read that many modern speakers are grossed out by the use of the word moist to describe cake. To my generation, a moist cake is a good thing. It’s possible that food writers who find unctuous a suitable word to describe palatable pork may be repulsed by the word succulent.

The Humpty Dumpty Theory of Language:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

Note: The reader whose question prompted this post also wonders about the pronunciation of unctuous:

“Does unctuous have three syllables or only two? I always thought it had three, but many of the folks on these [cooking] shows pronounce it with only two syllables.

The preferred pronunciation is with three syllables: unk-tju-us. Merriam-Webster gives the three-syllable pronunciation first, but also acknowledges a two-syllable pronunciation: unk-tchus.

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Unctuous, A Humpty Dumpty Word
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