Largely thanks to the internet, trendy phrases catchphrases are capable of spreading like wildfire like never before, sprouting memes and influencing how people talk about everything from politics to food. One particularly obnoxious phrase will be familiar to anyone who regularly browses food photos on Instagram or reads Yelp reviews: “Om nom nom,” or simply “nom,” is used to express the enjoyment of eating and can be used as a verb, a noun, a standalone comment, or, of course, a hashtag.
Here’s a look at the origins of “nom,” the meteoric rise of its status to colloquial speech, and its various permutations.
Where did the phrase come from?
Appropriately enough, the phrase was first coined by the most ravenous of all the Muppets, Cookie Monster. Best known for his insatiable appetite for chocolate chip cookies (and more recently, in an effort to satisfy healthy eating advocates, fruits and vegetables), Cookie Monster has a catchphrase that goes along with his snacking: “om nom nom.”
Cookie Monster was first introduced in 1966, but his signature phrase caught on in the late 2000s, commandeered by internet humorists to represent a shared love of eating.
What does it mean, really?
Classified as “an onomatopoeic adjective,” nom is taken from the larger phrase “om nom nom,” based on Cookie Monster’s happy eating sounds. It was first defined on Urban Dictionary in 2004. It can be ascribed to something a person wants to eat (“Wanna go get some noms?”), a specific food item, the process of eating (“That jerk nommed all my pizza”), or, more typically, the sound of eating itself. As with Cookie Monster’s wanton disregard for etiquette, “nom nom” can also symbolize sloppy or ravenous eating.
How did it spread?
Though the definition appeared online in 2004, the phrase was seemingly first appropriated for a cat meme on the website ICanHasCheezburger in 2007. The image showed a cat and a birthday cake with the text “nom nom nom.”
After that, the phrase quickly spread across the internet, appearing in blog posts, on Tumblr, and, of course, in YouTube videos of cute animals eating. From there it unfortunately migrated IRL, and Cookie Monster even weighed in on the origin and meaning of the phrase in 2009:
Since then, iterations of “om nom nom” — including “nom nom,” “noms,” “nomz,” and just plain “nom” — have graced memes, hashtags, and blogs all over the internet (which increasingly plays a role in the proliferation of invented words and phrases).
A Georgia Tech study conducted between 2009 and 2011 analyzed the flow of word innovation on Twitter, identifying how words can get adopted in different cities as a result of cross-exposure on social media. The study examined the speed at which words like “bruh” pass from city to city, as such things often catch on in everyday language. This rapid spread of words and phrases, helped along by social media outlets, continues to bring the world masterpieces like “rickroll.”
“Language itself changes slowly but the internet has speeded up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly,” linguistics expert David Crystal told the BBC in 2010. Words born from the internet — or popularized by it, as is the case with nom — can become so incorporated into colloquial speech that they can even be officially recognized as part of the living language.
Is it in the dictionary?
Much to the chagrin of many English majors, “nom” does in fact appear in Oxford’s living English dictionary. It was added in 2011.
Where does the world stand with “om nom nom” today?
The phrase is still going strong, at one point spawning a restaurant in California called Om Nom Nom! Cafe, which has since closed. Cookie Monster also still uses the phrase, and it was incorporated into an internet campaign for a movie called The Cookie Thief, which premiered on PBS in 2015.
“‘Nom’ is a great example of iconic language: It sounds somewhat like what it means, and those are particularly easy to play around with and be creative with,” Kate Davidson, an assistant professor of linguistics at Harvard University, told Eater. “The fact that it has so quickly gained a grammatical status as a verb ‘to nom’ shows how beautifully flexible English is borrowing new words from all kinds of sources. Finally, I imagine its longevity will depend on how heavily associated it becomes with this particular cultural moment. Just like ‘groovy’ reminds you of the 60s, ‘nom’ could remind us of the 2010s someday, or it could simply become a new word like ‘blog’.”
A survey of several food bloggers indicated a strong aversion to the word. Some reported finding the word childish or infantile, while others said they sometimes used it as a joke or in a hashtag on social media (see below), but rarely in a formal context.
“I've never used the word ‘nom’ in a sentence (until now), but definitely saw it in hashtags, social media handles, and blog names starting a few years ago,” said Joshua Lurie, a freelance food writer based in Los Angeles.
“It's the infantilization of the fascination with food in an onomatopoeia,” according to Esther Tseng of e*starLA, who said she never uses the word or phrase in speech or writing, but will occasionally use it as a hashtag. “But usage of it in any bigger capacity is lazy, and just another way to say ‘delicious’ in baby talk. As a writer, I want to get down to the specifics of HOW it's delicious. As a conversationalist, I avoid it like the plague because it would mark me as a millennial (and who wants to admit they're a millennial, including millennials?). Also, why would I want make ‘delicious’ harmless, or cute? Are we scared of delicious things, and why? It's not cute — it's just lazy and overall entirely annoying.”
One place you will not find the phrase “nom” or any of its many variations is this very website, as it is expressly banned.