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Unctuous: The Word We Love to Hate

One reader alerted us to a new use of the word unctuous that we hadn’t previously been aware of. Recently, unctuous has begun to take on more of a positive connotation. If you watch cooking shows, you may have heard celebrity chefs describing dishes as unctuous when they mean rich, smooth, or creamy. But we don’t traditionally use the word unctuous to describe food.

Origin and Meaning of the Word

The word unctuous comes from a Latin word meaning “ointment.” In English, the earliest definition of the word is “of the nature or quality of an unguent or ointment” or “oily; greasy.”

Similar to many other words, unctuous has been associated with multiple meanings. When talking about soil, for instance, unctuous discusses fertility and the presence of organic matter. In the Oxford English Dictionary, citations from the years 1495 to 1821 show that unctuous was used to describe “greasy, fat, and rich” meat. However, this usage of the word is considered archaic.

For most, the main meaning of unctuous is “smarmy” or “hypocritical.” This meaning came about in the 18th century due to the noun unction being used to talk about religious rituals. 

Anointing a person with oil is a very symbolic act. It indicates that a person is being prepared for something important or serious. For instance, Extreme Unction is a Catholic sacrament that prepares a gravely ill person for death. In addition, anointing is a part of the ceremonies that are associated with a king being crowned and a priest being ordained. 

Usage in Other Contexts

When used as a noun, unction means “anointing” in a literal sense. In a figurative sense, it refers to a spiritual influence that is acting upon someone. It can also mean the manifestation of this feeling in language.

In a more spiritual context, an “unctuous person” is one who has a manner that is suggestive of religious earnestness. However, people who aren’t as religious often see religious earnestness as hypocrisy. Unfortunately, hypocrisy frequently takes the form of religiosity or false humility. Due to these human realities, the use of unctuous to describe hypocrites developed. Classic literature abounds with unctuous characters.

Elmer Gantry, Mr. Brocklehurst, Uriah Heep, Tartuffe, and Iago all pretend to possess a spiritual superiority or humility that they don’t have in a bid to manipulate others. The literal meaning of the word unctuous only enhances its figurative meaning since such characters are like ointment: oily and slippery.

Unctuous and Food Writers

Therefore, English speakers who are familiar with the word unctuous being used for hypocrisy and greasiness are understandably appalled to hear the word applied to food with a positive connotation. However, many food writers have embraced the term, some even calling it a “favorite food word.” You’ll often see unctuous as a descriptor for pork recipes.

  • Braised pork belly is an unctuous delight.
  • Unctuous Caramelized Braised Pork Belly

Food writers are often aware that many English speakers object to the word being used as if its meaning were the same as the word succulent. However, many food writers use a Humpty-Dumptian type of argument to dismiss their critics. 

The Humpty-Dumpty theory of language, found in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, is saying that a word means “just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

It’s said ironically that whenever a food writer is writing an article or review regarding pork belly, it’s necessary to use the word unctuous or unctuousness. One food writer argued that words acquire different connotations depend on the experiences of the people using them. Many modern speakers were disgusted by her use of the word moist to describe a cake, even though she saw a moist cake as being a good thing. As this particular food writer explained, those who use the word unctuous to describe pork might have an aversion to the word succulent.

Pronunciation of Unctuous

The reader whose question inspired our article today was also curious about the pronunciation of the word unctuous. They questioned whether it had two or three syllables since they’d always heard it with three, but it’s typically pronounced with two on cooking shows. 

The preferred punctuation of unctuous has three syllables: unk-tju-us. Merriam-Webster first lists the three-syllable pronunciation, but also notes the two-syllable pronunciation: unk-tchus.

Related: Here are a few other interesting words to spice up your vocabulary: copacetic and eponymous.

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By Jessica Allen

Jessica is a full-time freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish.

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