Food & Drink | January 18, 2020 7:21 am

Eddie Huang, David Chang Ask Dictionary to Remove “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”

When archaic food language is both inaccurate and racist

Eddie Huang is among the leading figures asking the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to change its definition of "Chinese restaurant syndrome."
Qorilla/Creative Commons

What happens when you see a term in a dictionary that manages to be both offensive and inaccurate? If you have the clout of someone like David Chang or Eddie Huang, you use your platform to raise awareness of it in the hopes of causing change. Both of them, along with television personality Jeannie Mai, have been at the forefront of trying to get the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to change or drop their definition of a particularly charged term: “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”

Grub Street reports that Hang and Mai are at the forefront of the latest push to make this change — Chang and others, including food writer Harold McGee, have also worked to try and get this definition changed in the last few years.

Chris Crowley at Grub Street writes about being unpleasantly surprised to see that “the Merriam-Webster dictionary still has a straight-up definition of Chinese restaurant syndrome, which is entangled in racist and xenophobic attitudes toward Chinese people and, thereby, food.”

What do those attitudes boil down to? It has to do with MSG and the way it is perceived by some. As Anna Maria Barry-Jester wrote in a 2016 article for FiveThirtyEight, MSG is found in plenty of foods and cuisines. She adds that people’s supposed aversion to MSG seems to be more psychological than anything else:

Subsequent research has found that the vast majority of people, even those claiming a sensitivity to MSG, don’t have any reaction when they don’t know they are eating it.

Or, as David Chang phrased it in a tweet quoted in a 2018 Quartz article, “If anyone gives you shit about MSG just give them a bag of Doritos. Works every time!” 

According to Grub Street, Merriam-Webster’s senior editor is reviewing the feedback they’ve received in recent weeks. Will the efforts of many to prompt a more accurate, less offensive vocabulary work? Perhaps this iteration of the #redefineCRS campaign on social media — sparked by the company where MSG was first developed — will be the one that catches on.

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