Pop Culture dictionary

wet market

[ wet mahr-kit ]

What is a wet market?

A wet market is a market that sells perishable foods such as meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. Wet markets can be found around the world, but are especially common in China and Southeast Asia.

A market, of course, is an open place or closed building where goods and products are sold. The wet in wet market refers to the melting ice used to preserve fresh meats or the water used to clean their foods or hose down a store. (Wet markets may also include a “dry” section, where various spices, grains, beans, and dried food items are sold.)

Wet market is a catch-all term for a store (or areas of stalls in a store) that sells foods that spoil or go bad. Wet markets, both the term and actual places, gained attention in 2020 after it was reported by Chinese health officials that the COVID-19 virus may have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China.

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Where does wet market come from?

While actual wet markets existed well before the name for them, the term wet market was first used by the Singapore government in the 1970s to differentiate these particular markets from the new, indoor supermarkets that were gaining in popularity. The spread of wet markets in Singapore resulted in part from an increase in street hawkers and vendors after development of public housing projects in the 1950s.

Wet markets continued to be popular throughout much of Southeast Asia over the following decades, but the term was unfamiliar to many people outside this region until 2020, when the source of the COVID-19 virus was possibly linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China, where the disease was first documented.

Wet market vs. farmers’ market

It is important to remember that wet market is a general, broad-sweeping term for any market that sells food that can spoil, rot, or expire. Wet market can be easily confused with similar terms for specific markets, such as a farmers’ market (a market where farmers sell their goods) or a wildlife market (a market that sells the meat of wild, rather than domesticated, animals).

That means that, depending on what they specifically sell, farmers’ markets, wildlife markets, fish markets, meat markets, and so on can all be considered wet markets. A wet market may sell all or none of these products; the underlying ideas is that wet markets sell fresh foods. To outsiders, wildlife markets are the most notorious wet markets because they sometimes sell live animals and exotic animal meats, such as from bat and pangolin, for food or traditional medicine—and because they spread zoonotic diseases, which are communicable from animals to humans.

While the phrase wet market is commonly used in places where actual wet markets have been popular for decades, the term has, perhaps unfairly, gained some bad press over the years due to diseases such as SARS and bird flu that have been traced back to establishments that sold exotic animals or wild animal meat, and that technically fall under the umbrella of wet markets. Wet market again gained negative attention during the 2019-2020 COVID-19 virus outbreak when news outlets used wet market in headlines about the potential origin of the outbreak. Some coverage even used the phrase interchangeably with wildlife market in stories about the possible source of the virus.

So, while wildlife markets are indeed a type of wet market, so too are fish markets, fruit markets, and vegetable markets that many people all around the world shop at every day—and that don’t sell potentially risky goods.

Examples of wet market

From wet market to web market: Stalls launch online presence to sell their produce
@STcom, December 2018
Although most wet markets don’t sell live wild animals, the terms “wet market” and “wildlife market” are often conflated, according to Aron White, a China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based nonprofit.
Dina Fine Maron, National Geographic, April 2020

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Who uses wet market?

Wet market is normally only used by people who are actually familiar with them, but its usage increases when it is used in headlines or new stories that introduce the phrase to people who have never heard of the actual markets.

Interest in the term wet market notably surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people in the West condemned them or conflated them with wildlife markets.

What are some other words related to wet market?

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Note

This is not meant to be a formal definition of wet market like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of wet market that will help our users expand their word mastery.