Obesity epidemic generates new terms

by Liz Walter

According to the World Health Organization, there are now over a billion overweight people in the world, 300 million of them obese.  As tends to happen with any issue of major importance, this trend has generated a number of  new words – including one that describes the global phenomenon itself – globesity.

As with so many areas of anxiety and embarrassment, the emphasis is very much on humour. The term muffin top, referring to a roll of fat over the waistband, gained instant popularity, probably because the image is so perfect and in a way rather gentle – we can all picture that muffin swelling over the top of its case, but the muffin is something associated with pleasure, not with disgust.  The humour and positive feel of the term serve to soften it , making us feel more able to use it freely.  The image has begun to be used for other body parts too, so that we now see, for example, an article on thigh-length boots warning against muffin leg, and a journalist on a celebrity magazine complaining that she ‘looked like a Pirelli-type tower with an alarming amount of breast muffin spilling over the top’.

Not all the new words dealing with obesity are as pleasant as those incorporating the muffin. On the subject of breasts, men’s unwanted ones are a particular feature of obesity.  Public figures from Simon Cowell to Tony Blair have endured photographs of their man-boobs or moobs splashed around the world’s media, and some men have resorted to moob jobs to get rid of their hated he-vage (the male version of ‘cleavage’ – the area between a woman’s breasts).  While women may be happier to see an increase in breast size, they will certainly not want the back boobs which appear when excess flesh is squeezed over tight bra straps.  Nor does anyone welcome chubrub, the rubbing of skin between overweight thighs, or excess flesh on the upper arms, known as bingo wings. These somewhat distasteful terms have been particularly popular in media outlets that seem to delight in embarrassing celebrities and politicians.

Not surprisingly, experts trying to deal with the health implications of this trend have come up with some more technical-sounding terms.  Anything that promotes weight gain is obesogenic, and recent research has been looking at the possibility of infectobesity – the idea that some people’s excess weight is caused by infection rather than diet.

Of course, many people make great efforts to try to shed their excess pounds.  Some methods appear fairly harmless, for example calorie offsetting, a practice that involves using special armbands that calculate the amount of energy used so that the user can balance this against their calorie intake.  Others, such as bet dieting, where a person places a bet on their desired weight loss as a financial support to their own willpower are more eccentric.  Still others are downright dangerous, such as the hair-raising diabulimia, the reported practice of diabetics missing insulin injections in the belief that this may help them to lose weight.

However, being fat is not regarded by everyone as undesirable. For some, generous curves are definitely fattractive, and the idea that anyone can be TFFF (too fat for fashion) has been decisively rejected by retailers responding to our increasing size. Already, today’s fatshionistas can have their pick of stylish clothing, and it will be interesting to see if more positive terms come into the language in future, be it through the efforts of fat activists or through advertising departments with their eyes on a profitable market.


Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Walter. Published by permission by Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Obesity epidemic generates new terms

  1. Jessie

    Hi Liz,just want to know that words in blod are key words of this article.Could you post the meaning of them or should we discover it through online dictionary?Thank you.

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Jessie

      Yes, the bold words are keywords. The idea is that the meaning should be understood from their context blog, and I hope this is the case! So, for example, it says in the blog that ‘muffin top’ refers to a roll of fat over the waistband, and that excess fat on the upper arms is known as ‘bingo wings’. Some of these words will make their way into dictionaries in time, while others will prove to be ephemeral – these blogs are just a fun way of talking about words that are being used right now.

      Best wishes Liz

  2. Giuseppe Celia

    I’m an English teacher in Milan. Congratulations for your Cambridge Dictionary website. Its absolutely useful and quite interesting!
    Thank you so much.

  3. gingerberry

    It’s just good to know some short form, you know? abs/obvs, I am sure I won’t know their real meaning if I didn’t read this. English are so much fun nowadays!

  4. Mary

    I love all the attention ‘weight consciousness’ is getting! whereas some of the new terms are fun to use & learn about (ie. moob;-)) I hope this will not lead to a state of complacency, especially for the ‘fatelebs’ (fat celebs!)

  5. Patrick

    Should it not be “..to try and shed…” or is this just an other example of outdated English, an echo from 30 years ago when I was studying English at a Dutch teacher training college?


  6. Patrick

    And, Liz “…worked for many years…”. This used to be a clear case of present perfect tense, although I must admit that I could not get the whole sentence on my screen to see if she is indeed still employed “on” (by?) Cambridge University Pre..
    Ah well, who am I to blow against the wind..


    1. Liz Walter

      Dear Patrick: I think ‘try to’ is accepted usage for both UK and US English (Americans, I believe, don’t like ‘try and’). You may be relieved to know that I no longer work for CUP, and am therefore not transgressing any tense rules that I know of! Best wishes, Liz

  7. Jinky

    I just laughed the whole time I read this blog. Well, I didn’t know these keywords before.

    I don’t know if the intention of this blog is to make readers laugh, but I’m totally entertained.

    I really like “moobs” and “he-vage.” I’ve been telling “back boobs” since I met a friend who’s gifted with it.

  8. Ann Kennedy Smith

    Good blog! But don’t forget ‘cankles’ (as Sam, 17, has pointed out) = fatty tissue round the ankle which looks unattractive: ‘If I didn’t have cankles, I might be able to wear those Prada loafers with my capri pants’

    1. Liz Walter

      Good one, Sam! You’ll be pleased to know that we have captured ‘cankles’ in our new words collection, but you’re right it would have sat well in this blog!

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