In November 1974, a Sesame Street News Flash segment found reporter Kermit the Frog interviewing Little Miss Muffet. To Kermit's puzzlement, she did not sit on a tuffet ("What's a tuffet?" she asked), but instead took to her waterbed. She refused to eat curds and whey. "Have you ever tasted curds and whey?" she demanded. "They're yucky!" What did she eat instead? Kermit asked. "Crunchy granola!" As the bit progressed, Miss Muffet proved to be more exasperated than scared when the spider came along ("Is that spider gonna show up again? What a drag!"), and the segment ended with her convincing him to leave her alone and frighten Kermit away instead.

When I watched that episode as a child, a waterbed was nothing unusual to me: It was the kind of bed my parents had. Kermit's somewhat exaggerated pronunciation of Miss as Miz was just some pronunciation quirk as far as I was concerned. I did wonder why Ms. Muffet called her cereal "crunchy granola" instead of just "granola," which is what we called it in my home. We didn't call our spaghetti "stringy spaghetti," either. Was there some other kind of granola than the crunchy kind? Now I know that all of those components of the sketch aimed to identify Ms. Muffet as a free-thinking, anti-establishment type, not to mention proudly feminist.

Ever since hippies embraced it in the '60s, granola has always had countercultural connotations. In the years since it took the country by storm, the words crunchy and granola, together and even individually, have come to act as shorthand adjectives to describe people with a streak of cultural rebellion, from vegetarians and war protesters in the '70s to hybrid electric car drivers and vaccine-rejecting parents in the 2000s.

The word granola was coined three times (or coined once and revived twice) before it finally took. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1886 it was "a proprietary name for a breakfast cereal devised by W. K. Kellogg, consisting of wheat, oats, and cornmeal baked and ground into granules." The OED's final citation for Granola with this meaning is from 1928. In 1924, though, a Chicago packing company was using the word to refer not to cereal, but to their brand of vegetable oil. They got busted for it, too, but not for infringement on Kellogg's territory: The Federal Trade Commission ruled that the company was marketing its Granola oil in a manner designed to deceive consumers of its competitor, Mazola.

Finally, sometime in the mid-'60s, granola returned, as hippies made batches of what is currently recognized as granola by hand at home, in an effort to avoid overly processed food and the culture that produced it. According to articles in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine from 1972, granola was popularized by a Nashville baker named Layton Gentry, whose recipe called for oats, wheat germ, sea salt, sesame seeds, soy oil, brown sugar, and sometimes coconut. In 1964 or 1965, Gentry sold his recipe to a manufacturer for $3,000, but two years later, he bought the rights back, moved out west, and sold them again to a company in California. By 1970, Gentry later told the New York Times, granola had exploded in popularity.

Except for a mysterious early mention of "granola fruit pudding" in an October 1963 New York Times article, 1970 is the year that the word starts appearing in the newspapers I've been able to check. In these examples, there is confusion as to whether granola is a common noun or a proper noun, but either way, the reporters usually give an explanatory definition for the word. For example, an LA Times story in May says, "Breakfast is tea and honey with nonfat yogurt with a granola oat cereal from a health food store." A short story printed in the Washington Post the following month says of its protagonist, "For breakfast for three months, Shirley must eat Granola, the world's best-tasting cereal." In other attestations, the term is Crunchy Granola, treated as a proper noun. An August LA Times article about John DeLorean mentions his eating "'Crunchy Granola,' a grain cereal," and an October New York Times article (the OED's first citation for crunchy granola) says, "They took great interest in our low-budget dinners of brown rice, vegetables and the health cereal called Crunchy Granola." In his New York Times quotation, Gentry shed some light on the naming confusion. In his words:

I don't have any control over the use of the name. I used to call my product Crunchy Granola, but people started using it so I went to Original Crunchy Granola, and then others started using that name. Now I call mine Layton Gentry's Original Crunchy Granola, because I figure no one else can do that.

In the years following 1970, crunchy granola seems to gain an edge over granola, and granola's countercultural associations strengthen. Ads in the LA Times for health food stores advertise "crunchy granola." Crunchy granola appears three times in a firsthand account of the May Day protests of 1971 called "Here we are, we've been detained, not a one of us has been arraigned." The author of the piece, calling herself simply Mariette, describes community members throwing food and supplies, including "crunchy granola," into a camp where protesters were being detained, and scornfully contrasts it to the bologna sandwiches on "poisonous plastic white bread" provided by the police. Later that year, crunchy granola features prominently in singer Neil Diamond's "Crunchy Granola Suite." In 1972, granola was enough of a phenomenon to merit coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and New York Times articles mentioned earlier. According to Wikipedia, that year also saw the introduction of the first national brand of granola, followed by two more between then and the time of Kermit the Frog's interview with Ms. Muffet.

Meanwhile, the process of turning crunchy granola into an adjective (or at least an attributive noun) had begun. A December 1971 music review in the LA Times refers to the "crunchy Granola and jelly voice" of folk singer and Woodstock performer Richie Havens. Though crunchy Granola here is definitely an attributive noun, it's not entirely clear whether this was a reference just to the acoustic qualities of Havens's voice or also to his outside-the-mainstream sensibility, or maybe both. Clearer examples begin to appear in the early 1980s, such as this attestation from the Toronto Globe and Mail in June, 1980:

Vancouver master-carver Georganna Malloff will sprinkle a gigantic B.C. cedar log with salt water, in a rite that might best be understood as the Crunchy Granola version of cracking a champagne bottle over the hull.

The OED's first citation for this usage of crunchy granola comes from Margaret Atwood, in a 1984 essay in the New York Times on the gap between British and American culture, in which she mentions the American hippies' "crunchy-granola, back-to-nature healthiness".

Granola all by itself is used in a similar way, starting as far back as 1975, according to the OED, which provides this example: "The Granola view of man won't be complete until these, possibly tainted, ingredients are purified of their unnaturalness." And from 1980: "Republicans describe Jerry Brown of California as the granola governor, appealing to flakes and nuts." More than a decade later, another OED citation shows granola not as another attributive noun, but an unmistakable adjective: It comes after the noun it describes, and is modified by an adverb phrase: "World Beat, a term so unspeakably granola that we'll speak of it no more."

Alongside the adjectival (crunchy) granola, granola-derived nouns also start to appear. The OED has granola head from 1990. Granola cruncher appears in Mountain Time, a 1984 history of Yellowstone Park ("We're expecting it to be wild enough for the most confirmed 'granola- cruncher' to get ten miles from the nearest human being"), as well as in David Foster Wallace's 1997 novel Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where they are described as having "the prototypical sandals, unrefined fibers, daffy arcana, emotional incontinence, flamboyantly long hair, extreme liberality on social issues, financial support from parents they revile, bare feet, obscure import religions, indifferent hygiene, a gooey and somewhat canned vocabulary, the whole predictable peace-and-love post-Hippie diction ….". Granola by itself also sometimes turns up as a noun referring not to a food but a person. In her book College Slang 101, published in 1989, Connie Eble defines both granola and crunchy granola as "A person committed to the values of the '60s," and the Corpus of Historical American English has an attestation from 2006, in which granola is listed a high-school archetype, alongside jock, stoner, punk, and brainiac.

But the strangest turn in crunchy granola's development as an adjective is its clipped form crunchy. My pet hypothesis is that phrases like earthy, crunchy-granola types, which begin to appear in the late '80s, got reanalyzed as earthy-crunchy granola-types to produce the compound adjective earthy-crunchy, which appeared around the same time. (Connie Eble lists it as a synonym for granola.) It then got shortened to simply crunchy. The chronology is plausible: The OED's earliest citation for this meaning of crunchy is from 1992, in a Boston Globe article that describes an image as "just baby-boom crunchy enough to be environmentally in without alienating the heartland with tree-hugging extremism."

Whatever the origin, you can now find crunchy referring to people, practices, and places to live. In fact, crunchy has greater adjective functionality than crunchy granola. It's awkward to derive forms like crunchy-granola-er (though it's been done at least once), but it's easy to go from crunchy to crunchiness, crunchiest, and of course, crunchier than thou.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Sunday October 14th 2012, 1:12 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Great writing! A bunch of information presented here were unknown to many of us.Thanks for telling behind the scene stories related to a simple brand name. Recent reference of "big bird" in a presidential debate along with this "Crunchy granola"-brand name narrative touched the soft corner of our feelings. These are our well known Sesame Street characters and in fact we all love them. Thanks for the full history.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.