2015 US-to-UK Word of the Year: mac and cheese

And now...the US-to-UK Word of the Year!

Nominated by Rosemary, and supported by Simon K and my spouse, I'm sure this is going to be met with a chorus of "Bah, humbug! I've never heard that" (as was said in the nominations discussion). But these things happen. We are not each the cent{er/re} of the universe, so we don't all experience everything. This one will, however, be known to those who go to trendy foodie pubs--because what the trendy foodie pubs are into at the moment is Americana. There are two near my house that serve (AmE in this sense) barbecue, boasting their own smokehouses. Another now speciali{z/s}es in Buffalo wings (serving them, somewhat incongrously, with hush puppies, which are associated with the cuisine of the American South, not northeastern Buffalo, NY--but I'm sure that any Chinese person looking at a US or UK Chinese restaurant menu sees greater horrors than this). All the other pubs are serving pulled pork, in paninis, in burritos, in soups...  Now that I think of it, I can think of more pubs in my area that are serving American food now than those serving bangers and mash.

And as part of this trend, fancy dishes of pasta with cheese are making it onto menus. This dish has a name in the UK, and that name is macaroni cheese, but when it shows up in these new milieus, served as a side dish or with often other 'gourmet' ingredients, it is increasingly given its slangy American name. And this name is the 2015 US-to-UK Word of the Year:

mac and cheese

Or possibly mac'n'cheese or mac n'cheese, depending on the menu or recipe you're reading. (I'll just use & to stand for all these variations.) The BBC food website uses it for "glam mac and cheese"and the Daily Mail uses it in several articles. (I enjoy mentioning these two for their hypocrisy: they regularly publish items bemoaning the 'Americani{s/z}ation' of BrE.) There seem to be two London catering companies dedicated to variations on the dish. The sandwich-shop chain EAT has it, but its competitor Pret-a-Manger sticks to the traditional macaroni cheese. (Warning: the one called Macaroni Cheese Prosciutto has cauliflower in it!)

Now, it must be mentioned here that the traditional AmE for this dish is macaroni and cheese--mac & cheese is a recent-ish and informal variation. Until this recent invasion of gourmet versions, I would have only used mac & cheese to refer to the kind that comes from a box, particularly the Kraft brand: an orange staple of many American childhoods.

The and-ful AmE and and-less BrE names for the dish seem to have developed independently in the 19th century. The lack of and (or with or any other connector) in the BrE is kind of interesting. One sees it also in  cauliflower cheese, i.e. cauliflower with cheese sauce. It seems to follow the Romance-language structure of identifying the type of sauce after the main ingredient (e.g. spaghetti bolognese, a much-used term in BrE--but one that came into the language much later than macaroni cheese). This may be French influence in the kitchen, but note that it differs from similar French food descriptions, in that cheese is not an adjective. French can't have noun+noun without a preposition to link the nouns--there is no macaroni fromage, it's macaroni au fromage.

So, mac & cheese is a very current import into certain eating cultures of the UK and a good WotY on that criterion. It also arguably displaces a native BrE term, which makes it interesting in another way. It seems that the reason for its import is to make it more exciting--an import from another food culture. Much like when, for a while, we started using pashmina instead of shawl. It's a matter of exotic style.

I can imagine another objection to mac & cheese as Word of the Year. There will be someone who will complain that "it's not a word".  To them I say: it is only "not a word" on the most primitive definition of word--a written stretch of language with no spaces. The problem with that definition is that it is entirely circular: Why is it a word? Because it has no spaces. Why does it have no spaces? Because it is a word. Written language exists to make spoken language more permanent, and sometimes it reflects the linguistic facts better than others. As a linguistic unit, mac & cheese counts as a word because it has a part of speech: it is a noun. If we make it plural, we do so once at the end: I'll have three mac and cheeses. And it refers to a single (though complex) thing--which has more than just macaroni and cheese in it; so it's not just a descriptive phrase, it's the name for a particular kind of dish. But, really, if you're going to complain that this Word of the Year is "not a word", I'd like to direct your energies toward(s) Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year--which has no part of speech and can't even be pronounced.

Thus ends the SbaCL WotY activities for 2015! For the UK-to-US WotY, see my previous post.

49 comments

  1. But can you get Velveeta in the UK? Embarrassing as it may be as a cheese, it makes the BEST mac 'n' cheese, in my American opinion. Mary Lynn

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  2. No discussion of Mac & Cheese is complete without the (CanE) term Kraft Dinner.

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  3. I recall from my brief residence in the UK that Kraft sells a different boxed Mac & Cheese dish there called "Cheesy Pasta".

    I also remember that it was awful, and I couldn't understand why they used a different recipe over there, but that has nothing to do with the terminology.

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  4. Macaroni cheese seems to be a fairly universal dish - I've eaten it in Austria (Käsespätzle), and their version is delicious! I make several different versions, as does my mother. I believe the boxed kind is known as "Cheesy pasta" here. I haven't seen "Mac and cheese", but it wouldn't surprise me!

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  5. I wouldn't be surprised if it's called Kraft 'Cheesy Pasta' because the powdered stuff isn't enough to legally designate it in the UK as 'and Cheese'.

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  6. "Macaroni Cheese" reminds me of something I found funny when I used to live in the UK: the term "tuna mayonnaise" for what I (US) would call "tuna salad." Is that another example of this situation, adding the name of the sauce to the name of the main food? (To my ears "tuna mayonnaise" sounds like it should be tuna-flavored mayo...)

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  7. Good example. Yes, similar thing. The -aise indicates a French adjectival form, but the word is a noun in English. (There's 'egg mayonnaise' too, which, if you don't know that it refers to a boiled egg & mayo mixture, sounds like a pleonasm.)

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  8. Yes! I remember being puzzled by egg mayonnaise also. I encountered both mostly in sandwich-form in Pret. :)

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  9. There was also an episode of Friends where Joey starred opposite a robot in a show called Mac and Cheese. As a UK viewer I assumed it was a nicer version of the tinned macaroni cheese from my childhood.

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  10. I also noticed it with the sandwiches mentioned above. As an American living in the UK for almost 8 years, I still find myself mentally adding an 'and' in these constructions!

    I have also seen the difference (the use or lack of 'and') with the ice cream flavo(u)r 'rum raisin' (AmE) and 'rum and raisin' (BrE). This follows the opposite pattern where the AmE has no 'and' while/whilst (AmE/BrE) the BrE contains an 'and'.

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  11. Lynne

    The -aise indicates a French adjectival form, but the word is a noun in English.

    Menu English doesn't necessarily follow English syntax. Egg mayonnaise is like egg benedict the premodifier is a postmodifier. The latter has the even more Frenchlike plural eggs bendict.

    Before the sandwich-makers appropriated it, egg mayonnaise was like tuna mayonnaise: a lump or lumps of stuff (a hard boiled egg or some halves of hard boiled egg) coated in mayonnaise.

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  12. I've nothing to add to the "Mac and Cheese" debate, but paninis? Panini is already a plural (although even I'm not pedantic enough to ask for a panino).

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  13. I know I have seen 'Mac and cheese' among the ready-made 'fresh' food items in a British supermarket, but now I cannot find it.
    Waitrose sells a gluten-free Rice Mac and Cheese, but Marks and Spencer do not have anything like it. I haven't looked among the 'packet/dried' shelves.

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  14. You know we'll be in an interesting place -- linguistically and in culinary matters -- when Yanks starts referring to 'spag bog'. Now that was a puzzler in my first year or two socializing with my new office-mates in the mid-1980s.

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  15. What a great, tasty choice for WotY! I'm an American who grew up eating blinding orange Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese from a box. Disgusting, replete with tartrazine, and tasting of sand. When I moved to Brighton as a student long ago, I discovered the now-defunct Simple Supplies, a sort of predecessor to Infinity Foods, which produced a charming hand-bound recipe book that included instructions on how to make macaroni cheese from scratch. Heaven! I thought I'd never look back, until I moved to Canada. Here Kraft Dinner, or 'KD', is practically a national food, and unfortunately one of my daughter's favourites. It is still pretty tasteless stuff, but at least now available in a tartrazine-free drab beige rather than the blinding day-glo orange of my own childhood. And luckily I've hung onto the Simple Supplies pamphlet, now tattered and stained, with its delicious recipe. (The secret ingredient is marjoram.)

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  16. I remember the Friends episode with the robot, but had never heard the contraction of macaroni cheese as mac & cheese. I thought it was some kind of McDonalds cheeseburger. It was only when my daughter ordered a dish with a side helping of mac & cheese in a trendy pub that we realised what it was. Looks incredibly dull as a meal, I can't understand why it's so popular!

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  17. For this Englishwoman, "Tuna salad" or "Egg salad" sounds like a plate of lettuce, tomato and cucumber, with or without spring onions (which go well with tuna) or sweetcorn or something, with a pile of tinned tuna, or a halved hard-boiled egg on the top! Tuna mayonnaise, or egg mayonnaise, on the other hand, is just what it says, with or without chives, or parsley, or spring onions chopped into it.

    Incidentally - and I do hope I'm not straying too wildly off-topic here - an American friend of ours amused us greatly two days ago when she commented on the strangeness, to her, of a jacket potato filled with tuna, mayonnaise and sweetcorn. We said, "Yes, and?", but she didn't seem to have heard of a filled potato as a main meal....

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    1. Here in the northeast US, there was a fad in the 1990's for baked potatoes (what you call jacket potatoes) with different hot filings, like chicken or vegetables, often with a cheese or cream sauce. I would imagine that your friend was more surprised byy your filling. Tuna and corn with mayonnaise is not a combination you find here.

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  18. P.S. David, surely Eggs Benedict is plural because there are usually two of them, not just one. Also Eggs Florentine.... I tend to think of egg mayonnaise as the sandwich filling, and the halved hard-boiled eggs covered with mayonnaise as "oeufs dur mayonnaise", but that's because I began my restaurant-going career in France where these were, back then, a common starter (they are still offered in some restaurants, I notice).

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  19. Mark, I feel your pain. We had the opportunity to import the word correctly from Italian, but messed it up. In case anyone who likes to scorn language-complaints counters that English has made acceptable singular nouns from foreign plurals, I counter in turn that the "panini" case is different. Macaroni is stuff. That English noun is a mass noun. By contrast, a panino is a thing. You order a single panino or a specified number of panini.

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  20. Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year--which has no part of speech and can't even be pronounced.

    Lynne: I'm confused. Is emoji the word that has no part of speech and can't even be pronounced or is it the emoji in question, "officially called the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji"? Either way it's a noun, isn't it? And while emoji may be tricky to pronounce it is, as I understand it, pronounced ee-MOW-gee. Otherwise ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ may be unwieldy but it's certainly not unpronounceable.

    Am I missing something?

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  21. I think I may be able to answer the question why things like 'tuna mayonnaise' and 'tuna salad' aren't 'tuna and mayonnaise', or 'tuna and salad'.

    I was thinking about 'Mac and cheese' which I still haven't met, and which until this blog, I would have assumed meant some sort of bap with either a burger and cheese or just cheese in it. It occurred to me that in BrEng usage, 'tuna and mayonnaise' or 'tuna and salad' would imply two separate items next to each other on a plate. You would have a choice whether you were going to mix them up together - like 'meat and two veg'. 'Tuna mayonnaise' and 'tuna salad' are usually served with the two items mixed together - as they also are if they come inside a baked potato. So I think, if such a thing existed as a dish at all, historically 'macaroni and cheese' would have meant two separate items side by side on the plate, not one item composed of both.

    I suppose grammatically there's an argument for 'mayonnaised tuna' but I've never seen that, and it sounds ugly.

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  22. Dick: the Oxford WotY is a particular emoji, not the word 'emoji'. Why would it be a noun? I'd think it's more naturally interpreted adjectivally, if one were to put it in an English sentence, e.g. 'I'm feeling ___'. But it's not English, and so putting it into an English sentence is an unnatural thing to do. If you put it into a Chinese sentence (which you could as easily do), it would probably have to be a different part of speech, since Chinese doesn't do adjectives in the same way as English does.

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  23. I'm in Australia. I thought mac and cheese referred to a Macdonald's hamburger with cheese

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  24. Mrs Redboots

    What's surprising about the form eggs benedict isn't the fact that it's plural but the way that it's plural.

    I English syntax had more influence we'd be saying either benedict eggs or egg benedicts.

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  25. By contrast, if Annabel and I both chose this dish from the menu of a more traditional British restaurant, the order would be for

    two macaroni cheeses.

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  26. It's a fairly common form of plural, though, think of sisters-in-law and similar formations. And if we were to go to a trendy restaurant and both order "Mac and Cheese", wouldn't we ask for "Two macs and cheese, please?"

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  27. No, Annabel, that would only work for eggs in mayonnaise or with some strange preposition like eggs after Benedictt.

    As it stands, eggs benedict is like attorneys general, procurators fiscal, courts martial, which we hardly ever say, and sergeants major, which we never say.

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  28. I don't say breads and butter, so I don't imagine I'd ever say macs and cheese. What's the AmE plural i wonder? Mac and cheeses?

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  29. David, I'd say you're right -- though I've rarely heard it pluralized within the word itself, "mac and cheeses" would be the more likely configuration ("macs and cheese" somehow comes out sounding like raincoats or computers served with cheese).

    In my (CanE/AmE) experience though, it's usually treated as a non-count noun:
    "That trendy restaurant serves ten kinds of mac and cheese."
    "Would you like some mac and cheese?"
    "She made two things of mac and cheese for dinner since there was such a large group."

    And of course, as a Canadian, I'd be just as likely to swap "Kraft Dinner" into the sentence if referring to the boxed variety rather than home cooking.

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  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  31. In a British ''caff" or informal diner, one might ask for 'macaroni cheese twice, please', and a pot of tea for two.

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  32. And a stranger (linguistically strange, that is) link:

    International Noodle Restaurant, the Mac and Cheeses is a good choice

    Or perhaps it's just a typo.

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  33. In my experience, here in the UK we're more likely to shorten "macaroni" and say macca cheese rather than mac and cheese. They obviously sound pretty similar though, so I could be wrong.

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  34. If you're into mac and cheese you might enjoy this newish YouTube series called BoxMac, in which these two Massachusetts guys review various types of boxed mac and cheeses:
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmqeFKoBmT0I_glrgD5zC8NEXgTQ_-Jx_

    One of their best episodes compares the American version of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with the Canadian version, Kraft Dinner.

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  35. Shouldn't it be 'Mac and Cheeses ARE a good choice' or is the message that the cheese is a mixture of more than one sort of cheese?

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  36. David Crosbie: "What's the AmE plural i wonder? Mac and cheeses?"

    What Laura said (your later comment notwithstanding).

    To specify a number, I would need a volume/quantity noun:

    "...three bowls of mac & cheese..." "...two different recipes for mac & cheese..."

    This would also apply to other dishes like "Franks & Beans" (aka "Beans & Weenies") or "SpaghettiOs*". I would never expect to hear either "Frankses & Beans" or "Franks & and Beanses", though now that I've written them, I think they have a certain a Gollum-esque charm.

    * That orthography is apparently what the manufacturer actually uses, though it offends my sense of propriety even more than the product does. 8-)

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  37. Doug, if you google

    "mac and cheeses" (the quotation marks are obligatory)

    you'll get pages and pages of hits.

    This plural is used for versions of the dish, not (usually) servings. Many of the hits are for lists of favourite recipes.

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  38. "Mac and cheeses" refers to the way it is made differently in the USA, often with combinations of cheese, rather than our version which is basically pasta in a béchamel sauce with grated cheese on the top, varied by the addition or omission of vegetable matter, lardons, etc. My current favourite involves leeks and broccoli, but in the past I have made it with a tin of tomatoes instead of milk (I whisk my sauces rather than using a roux, it's easier), adding any or all of sweetcorn, onions and lardons, and perhaps using a breadcrumb and cheese topping.

    However, in the USA they seem to just mix pasta and grated cheese of whatever kind, perhaps with cream cheese as well, and then bake it....

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    1. Most Americans I know, myself included, make Mac and cheese by mixing the pasta with a cheese sauce (bechamel is the base) and additional items such as bacon, ham, or additional cheese varieties stirred in. Bread crumbs and cheese can be added on top of gratineed. Cream cheese is not usual but likely used by some to reduce graininess of the cheese sauce, just as some use evaporated milk Velveeta cheese in the sauce for that reason.

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  39. PS to Duffpaddy - we usually call it Mucky Cheese, or even McCheese..... but Mucky Cheese is the most usual abbreviation round here.

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  40. Mrs Redboots: I have possibly heard it used that way 20 years ago in Kraft marketing, but use of 'mac and cheeses' to refer to a single dish really strikes no familiar chords.

    Just to be clear re some previous comments: it doesn't matter much to me whether it is plurali{z/s}ed as 'macs and cheese' or 'mac and cheeses'(though it's the latter you see/hear more)--my point was just that we can tell it's a single lexical item (i.e. a 'word' but with a space in it) because the plural is only marked once. (And unsurprisingly, usually at the end.)

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  41. Mrs Redboots, if I made a dish with macaroni, vegetables and tomato sauce I would call it a pasta bake rather than macaroni cheese. Surely the latter term indicates that a cheesy sauce is the main element, even if bits of something else are added?

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  42. @ Kate Bunting - as may be, but we always called it mucky cheese! I do call my leek and broccoli version a pasta bake, but it is still basically macaroni cheese.

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  43. @ Mrs. Redboots, when I was growing up in the American Midwest, we always had two dishes of macaroni and cheese to feed our family of five -- one with the traditional macaroni elbows baked in a Velveeta and milk sauce with a crushed cracker topping and another basically the same except with tomato juice instead of milk (home canned tomato juice so it wasn't really the consistency of pasta sauce). We called both versions just "macaroni and cheese."

    My children love the boxed kind and refer to it as both "mac and cheese" and "macaroni and cheese," whether it's plain or has veggies or meat added to it. My son frequently requests "macaroni and cheese with chicken" for dinner, meaning he wants shredded chicken mixed into the dish.

    And I agree with the other AmE speakers. Regardless of what Google says, I wouldn't refer to either "mac and cheese" or "macaroni and cheese" except as a mass noun. To make it plural, it would have to have some qualifiers like "dishes of" or "boxes of." It doesn't matter if it has only one kind of cheese or four in the recipe. (But of course, even looking at an array of different types of cheese, I wouldn't normally say "cheeses" as cheese is also a mass noun for me. Same with pasta.)

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  44. People are stalking the Web! (Well, robots programmed by people.)

    I've just received a junk message purporting to be from a news site, promising

    1 eight wild Bill Gates facts

    2 the ultimate macaroni and cheese idea generator

    Presumably some robot caught me googling mac and cheeses. Was anybody else caught?

    And would any non-robot use thew wording macaroni and cheese?

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  45. "And would any non-robot use the wording macaroni and cheese?"

    Most AmE speakers?

    Kraft?

    http://www.kraftmacandcheese.com/Products?gclid=CM6To8r4wsoCFQ8uaQodHHAEzg&gclsrc=aw.ds

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  46. Doug, why the question marks?

    I've just about got used to the utterly alien mac and cheese. How am I supposed to know that there's another alien term for the dish?

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)