Word: MouthfeelA term to chew over.

Word: MouthfeelA term to chew over.

Issue 52

, Starters

  • Words James Greig
  • Photo Alisa Karin

 Etymology: For such a literal word, “mouthfeel” has a surprisingly complex etymology. Many have assumed that it’s a translation, but its first recorded usage—in 1939—predates the appearance of equivalent phrases in other languages, including Mandarin’s kougan and German’s mundgefühl. According to food writer Karen Kao, there are similarities with the Japanese kuchiatari, which has been used since the 17th century, but it’s unclear whether there is a direct relationship. Perhaps the term’s simplicity—it describes how things feel in one’s mouth—means its emergence requires no explanation. 

Meaning: The definition of mouthfeel is somewhat self-explanatory, but it does have different qualities in different contexts. In wine, it can be a way of describing astringency, density and the level of tannins—two wines of a similar texture can have a radically different mouthfeel, if, for example, one has a higher acidity. In food, it is used to describe everything from the crunchiness of Doritos to the way caviar pops inside your mouth. It’s also a technical term in food production, where it is considered key to a product being “cravable” (in other words, addictive). And in recent years, its use has expanded further still, with people describing the satisfaction of uttering aloud a particular phrase—usually an alliterative, consonant-heavy or impolite one—in terms of its mouthfeel. 

Despite its increasing prevalence in food writing, “mouthfeel” has long been viewed with derision or even outright disgust.1 In 2019, one food blogger railed against its “disturbing sexual tinge,” and it is often cited as a cliché to avoid. For its detractors, there’s something too vulgar, too lascivious, too of the flesh about it. The term is also frequently dismissed as smug and pretentious, a way for people to affect erudition while waxing lyrical about gourmet burgers and hazy IPAs. To talk about mouthfeel would suggest, to some, that you have gotten ideas above your station.

This perception is partly unfair. Mouth-feel has a precise meaning for which there is no exact substitute, and if it might sound pompous in certain contexts, this is just as true for any other technical term. Its real crime is that it sounds so awkward and inelegant. For anyone who isn’t a professional sommelier, it may be worth sacrificing specificity and opting instead for “texture”—a word that, ironically, feels much more pleasing in the mouth. 


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