Lexiculture: cafeteria

Deanna English

Wayne State University

Cite as: English, Deanna. 2016. Cafeteria. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 4. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cafeteria.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Imagine you are planning a first date with the person you are interested in and are given three dining options to choose from: a restaurant, an old fashioned home-cooked dinner, or, a cafeteria. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet that a date to the cafeteria would be your absolute last resort. Not because a cafeteria is an inadequate place to eat, but because of the negative connotations associated with the word. The first association that comes to mind when I hear cafeteria is high school. I think of the 35-40 minutes of “free-time” in-between classes signifying that the school day is almost over, but more importantly, I also think of waiting in excessively long lines for subpar food. In relation to this, the word cafeteria has been reduced to becoming a term that is continuously swept under the rug. Usually found in educational systems, hospitals, major corporations, and even prisons, these institutions sometimes replace cafeteria with other phrases such as dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, or even food court; all words that are similar in meaning, but seem to sound “better” than simply calling the area a cafeteria. So my question is why? Why does this word, cafeteria, not only have a negative connotation, but also an unpleasant stereotype that goes along with it?

History and Etymology

The term cafeteria is an Americanized version of the Spanish word cafetería, meaning coffee-house or coffee store. First appearing in the Spanish language during the latter 1800’s, cafetería was a combination of the word café, meaning “coffee,” and the ending –tería, which translates as “a place where something is done”[1]. In this context the word, at that time, was known as a gathering place for patrons to sit and discuss business or personal matters over a beverage, such as coffee. However in 1923, the ending -tería took a shift in meaning and came to be understood as “help-yourself,” changing the overall meaning of the word to be known as it is today — a “self-service restaurant.” The actual context in which the U.S. adopted the word from Spanish in 1900 is unknown and has yet to be fully researched. However, in the Journal American Speech, Phillips Barry gives a brief overview of his notes on the history and derivation of cafeteria.

In summary, he discusses how the word has had a long history; beginning with the Greek word καφενείο, or “coffee-house,” it migrated into Turkish, near East, and Arabic contexts between the 1600-1800’s, before eventually reaching Spanish context in the mid to late 1800’s, and then finally being adopted by American English in 1900. Discussing the term’s uses and transformation over time, he adds that, unlike how the word is used today, the phrase “coffee shop” or “coffee house” referred to a “poor man’s club,” where coffee was actually used as a “stimulating drug.” This use of the word was seen as early as the 1600’s in Turkey, and eventually used in this same context in Mexico. Moving forward, Barry discusses the history surrounding the Spanish word cafetería. Dating back to 1862, the word appears in Cuban-Spanish as, cafetería la tienda en que se vende café per menor: “the shop where coffee is sold at retail.” Since the word was not picked up or used by Americans until the early 1900’s, there is no evidence to show its use outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico during the mid-1800’s, however, Barry explains the formulation of the Spanish term cafetería as “an analogy of the cuban-spanish bisuteria, or jewelry store, which, coincidentally, was a loan word from the French word bijouterie. With an intricate and complicated history, Barry closes his piece with the notion that the “story” behind cafeteria and its association with self-service is not complete, leaving anticipation for further research to be done in the future[2].

Even though the context in which cafeteria was adopted by American English is not known, we can still hypothesize until more work is done to find out. If we look at Spanish and American foreign relations during this time period of the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s, there are a few key events during which Americans may have discovered cafetería. For example, following the Mexican-American war in the 1860’s, the U.S. organized filibusters to go on armed expeditions to Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, in attempt to acquire territorial gains. Also, in the latter 1890’s, the Spanish-American war broke out as a result of American intervention on Cuba’s War of independence. With the signing of The Treaty of Paris in 1898, America was granted infinite control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands, and temporary control of Cuba from Spain[3]. With so much interaction between American English and Spanish speaking people in such a short time period, it is likely that cafeteria was borrowed and Americanized from cafetería in one of these contexts. However this is only an assumption and, similar to Barry’s point, there is not enough research to prove so. This leads to my own personal research of cafeteria and, more specifically, how the word has shaped this idea of self-service, and how the negative connotation became associated with it. But before we begin, we must ask the question: what exactly is so bad about a self-service restaurant? Looking at this concept neutrally, it is an efficient and productive method to serving food for large quantities of people, and should be praised, not bashed. I mean, we all like to eat, and we need food to survive. So why are cafeterias acquiring such a terrible representation?


Taking a closer look at how media and the entertainment industry has transformed the way food, in itself, has been viewed over the last several decades, it can be easy to spot where cafeterias have been hindered with this terrible rep. From popular children’s television shows and movies like Hey Arnold[4] and Mean Girls[5] to documentaries such as Cafeteria Man, and Lunch Hour, the entertainment industry highlights how kids are being served daily doses of mystery meat and nutrition-less garbage in cafeteria settings.







For example, the documentary Lunch Hour highlights how Americas National School Lunch Program essentially privatized the cafeteria system by establishing “factory farms,” a conventionalized system which makes it possible for schools across the nation to serve and feed roughly 17 million school children on as little as 90 cents per meal. By serving meals high in sugar, fats, dairy, and a side of “mystery meat,” this documentary shares how the worlds future generations are succumbed to eating lunch time meals that fail to administer any nutritional value. But these examples are just a taste of how our media culture visualizes, depicts, and showcases cafeterias. To show this negative image from the music industry’s standpoint, even “Weird Al” Yankovic expresses his opinion on the cafeteria in his two-version song “School Cafeteria.” In both versions he writes:

You know a school cafeteria believes in mass production

They buy those lousy soy beans by the keg

I don’t like to complain, but in a school cafeteria

You can get a taco and get bubonic plague

Based off of these few examples alone, the meals being served in cafeterias nationwide are definitely not going unnoticed; and just about everyone seems to have a negative comment about them. In fact, in addition to the documentaries that have profited off of bashing cafeterias and the TV shows or songs that add to the negative image, the news media further terrorizes the word cafeteria in its entirety.

Connecticut School Agrees to Changes After Students Boycott Cafeteria Food, Texas A&M Galveston Students Take Cafeteria Lunch Complaints to Social Media, Your lunchbox may be as unhealthy as the cafeteria[6] A quick search of cafeteria in the ‘News’ section of Google will bring up pages and pages of articles and news stories similar to these ones. The best part? These articles just mentioned were not written five years ago, a year ago, or even a month ago. Rather, they were published within the past 24 hours of the time of my search. In my opinion, the media’s insistence on consistently targeting the cafeteria and highlighting its not-so-great qualities seems useless after a certain point[7]. Not to mention that, as this problem of poor quality cafeteria food has seemingly been going on for decades, you would think that a better solution would have been addressed, or the media would eventually find something else to discuss.


What is interesting about the shows, documentaries, and news articles previously mentioned, however, is that they all seem to centralize their attention on one aspect of what the cafeteria’s central purpose is: food. Meaning, what all of these different sources have in common is that they all seem to solely bash cafeteria food; more specifically, its variety and quality. By drawing back to the initial Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, a cafeteria is supposed to represent a self-service restaurant; it does not promise a selection of the finest and most-nutritious meals, but rather a way for the customer to pick and choose as they please in an efficient and satisfying manner. The underlying issue here is that the cafeteria as a whole is not giving itself a bad representation, instead, it’s the individual parts that make up the whole; such as the food, employees, etc. However, before we move on, since we have looked at what the media and popular culture think of the word, let’s quickly look at what the average American thinks.

To add to this negative stigma surrounding the word, a quick hop over to Urban Dictionary will give further insight into what America really think about cafeteria. The site defines the word in this manner:


Judging that since this entry is from 2006[8], it can most likely be implied that the negatively viewed articles I highlighted about cafeterias that have been written during 2014 would be very similar to what was written about cafeterias almost a decade ago; and a quick search in Google will show that it is exactly the case. As the top result is an article from the NY Times entitled A Cafeteria Food Fight Over Health[9], it does not take much to show how little things have changed over the past decade in a media sense. Back to what modern Americans think of cafeteria, it is interesting to see how the term is automatically associated with schools or universities. Rarely is the word being represented negatively while it is in connection with a hospital or company — two other institutions who are not strangers to implementing a cafeteria style eating plan for its patrons. For example, referring back to the ‘News’ section of Google, searching the phrase “hospital cafeteria” will showcase articles such as, Right place, right time: Thompson staff members save life in cafeteria (Henriette Post, Nov 10, 2014) and, Fairview Hospitals Rolling Out New, Healthier Food Menu (CBS Local, Nov 3, 2014). Whether it is because hospitals and companies need to maintain a positive reputation, or the fact that it is easier to point a finger at what could be behind child obesity, the reasoning behind the distinctively different representations of hospital and company cafeterias versus school cafeterias in our society remains to be unknown. Drawing on all examples mentioned, it is clear that the food being served in school cafeterias seems to be the contender to the negative representation of cafeteria. However, even in this context, the use of the term cafeteria, as I have come to find out, does not always have to be associated with food.

Alternative Contextual Uses

Referring back to the cafeteria entry on Urban Dictionary, on the bottom right-hand side of the page, a list of suggested words and phrases based off of my search of “cafeteria” were shown — which definitely caught my attention. Ranging from “cafeteria lady,” “cafeteria nazi,” and “cafeteria syndrome,” these entries targeted stereotypical aspects of the school cafeteria such as the female cafeteria “lunch ladies,” and the “craziness” experienced when you frequent the cafeteria too much. Let’s not forget about my personal favorite, “cafeterrhea,” which was defined as: “Diarrhea induced by eating food from a cafeteria, particularly school or work cafeterias.” Similar to the prior examples by the media, these entries on Urban Dictionary aggregate the same sense of negative stigma towards cafeteria by either targeting its food or employees[10].


However, if you take a closer look, the meanings of some “cafeteria” related entries such as “cafeteria religion,” “cafeteria speed date,” and “cafeterian” are distinctly different from the ones just mentioned. Meaning, instead of defining the cafeteria as being a one-way ticket to encountering mean female workers, disgusting food, and a trip to the toilet, rather, these phrases center around the behavioral aspect of picking and choosing, or refer to the act of “self-selection.” For example, take the phrase “Cafeteria Religion” which is defined as, “Selecting parts from a religion instead of accepting it as a whole with all its doctrines and customs”. We could even take this a step further and look at “cafeteria Catholicism;” which is, “[a] derogatory term referring to religious individuals who follow the Catholic faith and pick and choose which doctrines of the Church they wish to follow and which ones they don’t.” Are these uses of the word cafeteria referring to a “self-service restaurant?” Certainly not, but this new use of the term cafeteria as an adjective instead of a noun is definitely worth looking at. After conducting a little more research, I found that there are several other ‘cafeteria concepts’ that apply the notion of self-service to things other than the food industry: the cafeteria principle, cafeteria agile, and cafeteria insurance plans are just to name a few. What these concepts have in common is their dependence on selection, efficiency, and variety; words that correspond coincidentally with the original definition of the word cafeteria.

Taking the first example, the cafeteria principle, I can explain how the use of “self-service” or “selection” comes into play. Coined by the American linguist J.L. Dillard[11], the term cafeteria principle refers to the concept of language mixing, which is the creation of a new language by “selecting” certain features from various other languages. This term can also be applied to the word creole or the term creole language, as both are similar in meaning. As we can see in this context, cafeteria is being utilized for its meaning of selection. And, in keeping with the negative connotation of the word cafeteria, the cafeteria principle, or creole languages, are generally seen as “degenerate” and mainly associated with people of the lower class. In a different context, the cafeteria principle can also be used in a business setting. For example, “cafeteria insurance policy” refers to a type of plan where customers can select certain benefits and policies that best fit their needs. Going off of this idea on how cafeteria is being used in different contexts, we can also talk about how the word cafeteria, in itself, has inspired the creation of other words. Take the word pizzeria for example. Borrowed from Italy, the term pizzeria refers to a pizza restaurant where customers can “self-select” what they want. As the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, a pizzeria is a combination of the word pizza and ending in –eria, “as in cafeteria.” Another example of a word that shares a –eria ending is groceteria. Commonly known as a grocery store or grocery, the word was first used in the mid-15th century, hundreds of years prior to the first appearance of cafeteria. The OED explains how “self-service groceries were a novelty in 1913 when a Montana, U.S., firm copyrighted the word groceteria (with the ending from cafeteria used in an un-etymological sense) to name them […] the term existed through the 1920s.” However, the usage of the word cafeteria can be defined as more than the Oxford English Dictionary’s single definition as a “self-service restaurant,” but rather, it can also be defined as a concept or modifier that stresses the sense of “self-service” or “selection” in other contexts outside of just food.


Dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, automat, smorgasbord, canteen; whatever you want to call it, you are probably referring to the cafeteria. For a word that has been utilized in American English for a little over a century, it has a historical background, connotation, and underlying meaning that is more significant and complicated than I had originally anticipated. As I began my research looking at how cafeteria is negatively represented by our culture, I found numerous examples that fit the criteria I was searching for, however, I never truly found a distinct answer as to my question of why. There are numerous possibilities, such as the outcomes that stem from regularly eating food that is coherently “bad” for you, or even the fact that school cafeteria food has, in a sense, become an industry in itself; but these still remain to be hypotheses or assumptions, with a lot more research to be done by people who are far more experienced on comparing media and food culture than I am. Despite this, I did manage to find some relevant and useful information pertaining to how cafeteria is used in other contexts, an idea that I had never thought of or considered before. Showing the versatility of the word and how its use of the meaning “self-service” can be applied to linguistics and business in the sense that an entire language or dialect can be formed by selecting certain words from other languages, or a business can create a “cafeteria policy” to adhere to the wide “selection” of different needs and desires of its customers, I began to understand how cafeteria is more than just a noun, but an adjective as well; creating a cafeteria of knowledge about the word, cafeteria.


A Bibliophile. “Cafeteria.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 14 July 2006. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cafeteria>

Barry, Phillips. “Cafeteria.” American Speech 3.1 (1927): 35-37. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/451402?seq=3>

Brason, Justine. “Annoying Things Your Hear From Cafeteria Catholics.” The Catholic Warrior. N.p., 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://catholicworrier.blogspot.com/2014/02/10-annoying-things-your-hear-from.html>.

Harper, Douglas. “Cafeteria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.     <http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=cafeteria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Grocery.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=grocery&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Pizzeria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pizzeria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Mel. “Cafeteria Catholicism.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 30 Nov. 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.          <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeteria%20Catholicism>

Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014

Tobias, Michael C. “School Lunch Movie Says Unhealthy Cafeteria Fare Is Everyone’s      Problem.” Forbes. N.p., 26 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/dadehayes/2014/03/12/school-lunch-movie-says-unhealthy-cafeteria-fare-is-everyones-problem/

Unknown. “Cafeteria.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria>

Unknown. “Cafeteria Plan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria_plan>

Unknown. “Creole Language.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_language#Social_and_political_status>

Unknown. “Milestones: 1830-1860.” U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. Bureau of   Public Affairs, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/territorial-expansion>

Yankovic, Weird Al. “”School Cafeteria – Version 1″ Lyrics.” AZ Lyrics. MusixMatch, n.d. Web.   11 Nov. 2014. < http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/weirdalyankovic/schoolcafeteriaversion1.html>

0ps. “Cafeterrhea.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeterrhea>.


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Data in reference to Cafeteria by Phillips Barry

[3] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian

[4] Image: lunch lady from Hey Arnold

[5] Image: Quotation and still from Mean Girls

[6] All news headlines from Google; within 24 hours of November 11, 2014

[7] Image: Screenshot of popular Google searches of phrase, “why is cafeteria”…

[8] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[9] Google News, 2006

[10] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[11] Wikipedia – Creole language



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