Unctuous, A Humpty Dumpty Word

By Maeve Maddox

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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11 Responses to “Unctuous, A Humpty Dumpty Word”

  • Brendan

    Maybe people are getting confused with “sumptuous”? Also used in relation to food.

  • Roberta B.

    @Brendan – I think you’re on to something, also: scrumptious, luscious, succulent (as mentioned above), or anything else tasty with a short “u” sound. From the last line in the article, it sounds like some of those who misuse the word are mispronouncing it, too. I guess the sound of a word can be the typical way an inappropriate word ends up being associated and used (and repeated) in place of another, more appropriate one.

  • Vickhy

    I also wonder if some word-play is starting to kick in due to the relatively recent recognition of umani as a taste, which is somewhat savoury and deep.

  • David Logan

    Maeve Maddox
    A reader alerted me to a new use of the word unctuous that has escaped me until now:
    …has escaped me…?
    sounds wrong to my ear… as the escaping was in the now Past:
    had escaped me…?

    Posted: 25 Apr 2015 10:12 PM PDT

  • thebluebird11

    I don’t have a problem with unctuous being used in a positive or appealing way; when I learned the word in high school (mid-70s) it just meant oily or greasy. It was applied to people as you mentioned (e.g. Uriah Heep) but that didn’t preclude its use in other situations with more literal connotations (e.g. as applied to pork or lamb). However, I DEFINITELY object to anyone pronouncing it with only 2 syllables. Compare the words continuous and or sinuous, and any others. There is another U in there; you can’t just ignore it!

  • Sylvia

    I agree with Brian and others — ppl are confusing “unctuous” with “sumptuous.” I certainly hope this grotesque misuse does not become accepted.

  • venqax

    “…you have to use the word unctuous or unctuousness whether you understand what it means or not.”

    That pretty much explains everything but the abomination of its origin. Those who hear a connection to sumptuous…Wait, can that be 2 syllables too? Sump-shus. Or how about syllable? Syll-bul. Does any word need more than 2 syllbles? Nahhh… Remember KISS– Keep It Short And Stupid (or something like that.)

    And why would you care how the word is pronounced if you’ve just signed on that you really don’t care what it means? Blogs from the Unliterate. Ugh.

  • Jon

    Pork Belly can be unctuous. It’s not necessarily desirable for it to be so, but a thick layer of pig fat, slow cooked to the point of melting certainly can be an oily and greasy treat.

    Is Carmelized the AmEng variant of BrEng Caramelised? Or is it a phonetic spelling by those who reduce the word down from four syllables to three?

  • Maeve

    Jon,
    “Carmelized” is an incorrect spelling in both dialects, as “caramelized” is the correct spelling in both Am and Br English. (That’s how it is spelled in the OED).

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: Agreed. It is style over substance as usual.

  • Duroncrush

    A quick search for “Unctuous discharge” brought up several references to the translated book “The Medical Works of Paulus Aegineta, the Greek Physician” I imagine the term could also be applied to the fluid expressed when squeezing a pimple. Yummy😉

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