How Words For Tastes Became Words For Traits

Tastes and traits

Doughy, dryicy, raw, meaty, and hearty. What do they have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all tastes perceptible to the human palate. However, we know you’re smart enough to recognize that all of the above words can be used to describe human traits as well.

Got a friend a little large around the waist? Well, he might be doughy. Is mom’s dinner table repartee full of bon mots? Well, her demeanor might be described as dry. Can grandpa’s gregarious laugh fill the whole room with warmth? We might say his personality is hearty. OK, you get the point. In many instances, tastes have become traits. How did it happen?

Really, it depends on the word … so let’s explore some of our full-bodied favorites. And remember, the list is a little nutty.

WATCH: Hot dogs, Coleslaw, And Other Debates About Food


It’s time for a night out. You head over to the local comedy club. There’s a two-drink minimum, but hey, that’s OK because the comedian headlining this evening is supposed to be hilarious. The comedian comes on, and the first thing out of his mouth is a string of expletives that makes your spouse’s toes curl. Man, that guy is salty.

Sure, salty is a taste, but it’s also a trait used to describe somebody, their language specifically, as racy and coarse. The term’s origin as a trait came to us in the 1900s as a way to describe sailors coming home from sea (a particularly coarse and vulgar-speaking breed if ever there was one).

And, salty has continued to grow in use to describe just about anyone who’s a little rough around the edges. As for your night out, however, let’s look at the positive. At least you got two drinks out of the deal.


Do you know someone who thinks the world owes them something? Do they get angry when they find life isn’t fair? Those types are real drags. They’re no fun and they’re difficult to be around. Frankly, we also find people like that to be a little bit bitter.

As a taste, bitter is defined to mean “something acrid or harsh.” As a trait, on the other hand, bitter has come to describe a person who shows unrelenting hostility or resentmentBitter‘s origin is from Old English and first describes the taste. But, the word bitterness (or biternys in the Old English) first appeared in the figurative sense to describe a feeling rather than the taste.

The reason for the staying power of these terms is simple: bitter (and bitterness) is a trait (and taste) that many have been avoiding for centuries.


The Olive Garden. Is it bad? No. Is it particularly good? No, free breadsticks not withstanding. The salad has been out all day. The place is filled with seniors clamoring for early-bird dinners and screaming children running amok. And, the pasta and sauce tastes pretty mild. In short, the meal, like the restaurant’s ambiance, is blandBland comes to us from the Latin word blandus, meaning “soothing or pleasant.” However, while that sounds nice, bland has also come to describe personality traits such as dull or lacking in appeal, pretty much the same as that Olive Garden pasta. Bland people tend to lack special interests, so if you want to ensure your name isn’t associated with the word bland, pick up a hobby, and start generating some individuality in your traits.


We like our soup lukewarm. We only go to see PG-13 movies. Our favorite ride at the county fair is the Ferris wheel. Our taste in music is oldies, and we drive a midsize Hyundai. In other words, we’re vanillaVanilla is a term of Spanish origin, obviously a taste reference to the delicious little beans that flavor all of our favorite cookies, ice creams, and cakes. However, around the 1970s, the term evolved into a reference meaning whiteness. Since then, it has also come to be synonymous with personality traits such as generic, boring, and dull.

It’s not all bad though. If somebody refers to you as vanilla, a fine retort would be that the flavor was, and is, the original and best taste.


We’re sure you’ve noticed a trend. Until now, all of our tastes turned traits have been pejorative in nature, and we wouldn’t blame you for asking “hey, what gives? There have to be tasty traits for terms of endearment, too?”

Well, like sugar, spice, and everything nice, the fact that you brought it up was very sweetSweet is one of the five basic tastes, (the others being salty, sour, bitter, and umami). However, the term sweet as a personality trait derives from Old English, first used in the 1300s to mean “someone who is beloved.” Since then, it has come into use (even more) to describe a particular person’s personality as caring, loving, generous, and sincere. What a sweetheart!


If sweet is a term you savor, then you’ll salivate over our article on whether sweet and yeet are synonyms. Ya yeet!


Ah, Portland. The City of Roses. The jewel of the Pacific Northwest. It’s famous for many things. It’s got a catchy slogan, “Keep Portland Weird.” It’s serene. Nature is everywhere. There’s burlap, so much burlap. It’s bike friendly. Farm-to-table restaurants abound. Teva sandals are considered high fashion. And, we’ve heard, but can’t verify, it’s the Hacky Sack capital of the United States. In other words, the people there are a bit crunchy.

Yes, crunchy. You may know it as the texture of a food, particularly granola. But, the term became a personality trait in the 1980s as a way to describe particularly health-oriented and environmentally friendly individuals. Crunchy people are known to congregate in artisanal coffeehouses and around drum circles in the park. Crunchy people also prefer proselytizing to people they believe to be less socially conscious than themselves. Does that sound like someone you know? If it does, they probably live in Portland.


Waiting in line is a terrible feeling. You’re standing at the local Starbucks. The line is out the door, and if you crane your neck, you can almost see the register. What could possibly make the situation worse? A meteor crashing into the parking lot? An unexpected swarm of killer bees? Sure, those would be bad, but the one that probably irritates us most is the person behind us complaining loud enough to hear. Stop being so sour.

Like sweet, sour is one of the five basic tastes. And also like sweet, it has come to be associated with personality as well. The term (sur) is thought to be French, though it was loaned to them from the Germanic tongue. Its trait originated in the early 1200s and was defined as “one having a peevish or disagreeable disposition.”


Paintings of dogs playing poker. Bad puns. Vienna sausages at a black-tie gala. Mid-life crisis at Porsche. What do these have in common? Well, they’re all done in poor taste, and they’re all cheesy.

Sure, we all know cheesy as an adjective to describe our nachos. However, as a personality trait, the term has come to describe people who are cheap, who are trashy, or who possess irredeemably poor taste. The term derives from Middle English, but it was first reported as slang around the late 1800s.

Somehow, we suspect you were thinking there was one thing missing from our cheese-tastic examples in the paragraph above: cheesy jokes in a slideshow. (But we would never resort to cheesy jokes to make point, right …?)


Of course, cheesiness can mean so much more than just a lame personality. For true cheeseheads, we have quite the list of words from the cheese world for you.


You see her. She lights up the room. She might be wearing a red dress. Or, she might just be in jeans and a T-shirt. It doesn’t really matter. The room is under her spell. The spotlight is on her, and she knows it. There’s a bit of danger in her eyes, something slightly devious. She’s charming. Boy, is she charming. Everything she has comes with zest, a little vigor. She laughs. It fills the room. This woman is spicy.

As a personality trait, spicy was first recorded in the 1800s, and in slang, it has come to be understood as many things: sassy, attractive, sarcastic, or racy for example. The term is versatile. It can be used as both a pejorative or a compliment, so make sure you are aware of who is calling you spicy if the situation arises.


Fishy, obviously, is when something tastes like fish. Fishy can also describe an individual “of questionable character.”

The term fishy comes from the Old English word fisc (“fish”), and its slang use dates back to the 1840s. Fishy can be synonymous with lying and simply speaking nonsense. And, in our humble opinion, the best way to deal with somebody who is acting fishy is to cast out your line and catch them in the shady act.


We’re optimistic that you’ll be relishing this lesson in lexical tastebud history for some time. If we weren’t, would that make us … pessimistic? Find out if optimistic and pessimistic are antonyms.

Click to read more
Word of the Day

Can you guess the definition?

nepo baby

[ nep-oh bey-bee ]

Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day
nepo baby

[ nep-oh bey-bee ]

Redefine your inbox with!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.