“Dank” is the new umami

Please don’t let this story become a dank meme.
Please don’t let this story become a dank meme.
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie
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Welp. Harissa. Glamping. Embiggen. Merriam-Webster just added 850 new words and definitions to their archives, including an updated listing for “unicorn” that explains the noun not just as a mythical beast, but also as a start-up company valued at $1 billion or more. On our short-list for a similar update next year? Dank.

The protean adjective (or adverb if you want to slink dankly along) is now used for so much more than to merely describe things that are “unpleasantly moist.” In modern usage, dank can be used to pinpoint particular qualities in marijuana, beer, and internet humor, or as a general term of praise. If that sounds confusing, it can be. Here’s our dank usage guide.

Dank basements (AKA the original dank)

“Vegetables tended to go bad quickly in the dank cellar.” This is the example sentence Merriam-Webster provides alongside a brief definition for dank, as something, “unpleasantly moist or wet.” Dankly, as we’ve noted, is the adverbial form, dankness if you need a noun. It has a slightly fusty, Victorian feel, a moody gloom about it fit to describe a drippy basement, rain-slicked alleyway or fetid haunt of any kind. It’s also perfectly acceptable to use it in a more modern context as well, say applied to your gym bag.

Correct usage: The dankness of the shirt I wore to spin class this morning is truly gross.

It’s like a Dickens novel—all orphans and dank, Victorian prisons.

Incorrect usage: They trudged across the hot, dank desert.

Dank weed

Weed is dank’s breakout moment from stolid adjective to countercultural buzzword—and a wholesale flip from an indication of mild unpleasantness to utmost excellence. A dank basement is not a good thing; dank bud is highly desirable. And so far as marijuana is concerned, dank is a real workhorse of a word. It can be used descriptively, as a way to characterize pot’s uniquely green and skunky aroma, or as a nod of approval—dank weed is quality stuff. Powered by the linguistic creativity that has spawned roughly a bajillion names for marijuana (and ways to covertly and overtly tout its qualities) dank can even become a noun in this context—it’s possible to arrive at a friend’s home carrying a quantity of “the dank.”

Also worth noting, people are consuming marijuana and hemp in previously unimaginable new ways, including all manner of edibles, from pot potato chips to CBD-infused honey. In this context dank is also descriptive of a particular flavor, much like with beer—which we’ll get to in a minute. Gerardo Gonzalez, a chef who was describing a CBD tincture told Grub Street that “it tastes ‘dank,’ which is, quite possibly, the new umami.”

It makes an immense amount of intuitive linguistic sense to describe heavy, sticky marijuana flowers as being dank, as the dopers at Kindland point out. It’s at once a word that conjures a sort of ear-to-nose synesthesia, while simultaneously functioning as a portmanteau of “skunk” and “damp.” It just works.

Correct usage: Have you seen the stuff Skeeter is growing in his backyard now that it’s legal? It’s pretty sticky and dank for outdoor weed.

Incorrect usage (unless imbued with sarcasm): I found a bag of shake in my parents’ junk drawer—it must be at least five years old, that shit is dank.

Dank beer

Now that pot is legal in several states and we have a whole budtender culture on the rise in which you can specify the strain you’d like to smoke or the kind of high you’d like to experience, dank is perhaps an overly broad term. Pretty much all good weed, you might say, is going to be accurately described as dank. When it comes to craft beer, however, dank is a much more particular quality.

Though Heineken should definitely be described as skunky, no craft beer fan would call Heineken dank. Very hoppy, cloudy IPAs are dank, which seems to be both a reference to their generally high alcohol content and their funky, green resinous flavors. This style has become known as a New England IPA, though it is produced all over the country, and there appears to be a cottage industry in finding ways to incorporate “dank” when naming such a beer. Five minutes on the internet and you can create a shopping list for the following beers: Dirty Dank JuiceDank IPA, Mr. Wiggles Double Dank IPARedankulousDankosaurus IPA, and Highway to the Dankerzone. Sure, you can deem any beer you love as dank, meaning high quality, but when you taste a dank IPA, you know it.

Correct usage: New England IPAs are generally bitter, hazy and dank with tons of hoppy citrus.

Incorrect usage: I’m pretty sure the dank notes in my Budweiser are reflective of its high rice content.

General dankness

In certain circles (read: young bros), calling something “dank” is just the newest way to say it’s cool. This is a subtle shift from calling high quality weed dank—you’re not differentiating a good product from a bad here, you’re just saying that something rules. If this doesn’t roll off the tongue naturally, best to just let this one pass you by. In a profile of Jonah Reider “the dorm-room chef” he reportedly texts a buddy to let him know that the bone marrow they had been discussing turned out to be, “so dank.” Enough said?

Correct usage: If you need an example you should not attempt to use dank in this manner.

Incorrect usage: Any, if not in Reider’s demographic.

Dank memes

Ok, strap in. If dank as an adjective to describe a specific beer flavor or a general property of marijuana is pretty straightforward and easily grasped, then dank memes are quite the opposite. The simplest way to explain them is as internet in-jokes that do one or both of two things: 1. get so played out and tired that they become hilarious all over again, or; 2. are just so weird and nonsensical that they are hilarious.

Think of general usage dank here, basically as a synonym for “cool,” but delivered with an ironic eyeroll. As in, “Cool pants, Mom. Dank memes, Dad.” Don’t forget though, there is value in the very lameness of these, memes; that’s what makes them delightful. Dank memes are sort of like the ironic t-shirts of internet culture. But not nearly so benign. The concept surely began as chat-room slang somewhere, likely 4chan, but it seems to have gained traction on Reddit.

Dank memes are playing with the very shifting quality of the word “dank”. Is that thing your aunt posted on Facebook featuring a Minion complaining about work in some way a dank meme? Yes, probably. Are there also a lot of horrifyingly dark and racist Minions memes that were self-consciously created to be a dank meme? Yes, for certain. By calling something a dank meme are you making fun of someone who would describe something awesome as being dank? Yes, probably. Are you also making fun of someone who would genuinely enjoy said meme? Yes, probably, as well. Does this naming convention engage with the fact that dank went from being something unpleasant to the highest of praise, suggesting that all aesthetic judgments are not just subjective, but strongly influenced by social groups and forces, as well? Yes, probably—if not definitively.

Correct usage: I’m not even going to wade in here because truly, a dank meme is in the eye of the beholder.