The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t touch my junk food

Q: The recent NY Times obit for Jack LaLanne says he “craved junk food” when he was a 15-year-old in the Bay Area in 1929. Did “junk food” exist in 1929? If not, what was the stuff called back then?

A: Of course junk food existed in 1929. Cracker Jack, for example, has been around since the late 19th century. But as you suspect, the phrase “junk food” is a more recent concoction.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “food that appeals to popular (esp. juvenile) taste but has little nutritional value.”

Standard American dictionaries describe it as food that’s high in calories and low in nutrition.

The earliest published reference for “junk food” in the OED is from a 1973 article in the Washington Post: “How many children are going to fill up on junk foods and be too full to eat a nutritious lunch now?”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates the phrase to the 1960s. And the word sleuth Barry Popik has tracked down a definite 1952 appearance as well as a near sighting from as early as 1948.

Writing on his Big Apple website, Popik dismisses suggestions that it was coined in the 1970s by either the food critic Gael Greene or Michael Jacobsen, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Popik cites a headline in the July 28, 1952, issue of the Lima (Ohio) News: “Candy, Cake, ‘Junk Foods’ / Cause Serious Malnutrition.”

It appeared above a reprint of an article about nutrition that was originally published in the Nov. 22, 1948, issue of the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner with this headline: “Dr. Brady’s Health Column / More Junk Than Food.”

The author of the article, William Brady, MD, comments on a complaint from Mrs. R. D. H. that her daughter “eats more junk than food.”

“What Mrs. H. calls ‘junk’ I call cheat food,” Brady writes. “That is anything made principally of (1) white flour and or (2) refined white sugar or syrup. For example, white bread, crackers, cake, candy, ice cream soda, chocolate malted, sundaes, sweetened carbonated beverages.”

So there you have it: “cheat food”!

A Google Timeline search finds dozens of newspaper citations for “cheat food” from 1916 to 2009, though most of them appeared before the term “junk food” became popular in the ’70s.

If you haven’t had your fill of “junk,” we had a blog posting last year about the use of the term for the male genitalia.

Check out our books about the English language