The New York Times article (March 4) introduces top 10 ramen destinations in New York under the title, “Ramen’s Big Splash.” I was amazed to find that ramen acquired so much popularity among New Yorkers, in retrospect that I was unable to find a single ramen shop in Manhattan in mid-70s when I visited New York for the first time . After returning home, I recommended the owner of one of the largest Chinese restaurant chains in Tokyo to open rahmen shop in Manhattan. He scowled, and declared that there’s no way of ramen shop’s becoming a good business in U.S.

Idle talk aside, I was drawn to the word, “off-label” in the following sentence of the article:

“Another off-label use for ramen has been gathering strength in Japan and is a good bet to take off in New York: mazemen. Ramen without the slurp, mazemen has no broth, getting its flavor elsewhere. At Ivan Ramen, this can be from a mash of eggplant and chiles or, in my favorite example of the genre, caramelized garlic pulp.”


I understand “off-label” here implies “non-standard.” But as far as I’ve checked major online English dictionaries, definition of “off-label” is highly medicinal specific, and pretty serious.

For example;

CED: used to describe a medical drug that is used for a different purpose than the one it was originally intended for: Off-label uses may include giving a drug for a disease other than the disease it is approved for, or for treating a child when the product is approved to treat adults.

OED: relating to the prescription of a drug for a condition other than that for which it has been officially approved:

Merriam Webster English Dictionary: of, relating to, or being a drug used to treat a condition for which it has not been officially approved:

Wikipedia: Off-label use is the use of pharmaceutical drugs for an unapproved indication or in an unapproved age group, unapproved dosage, or unapproved form of administration. - - It does carry health risks and differences in legal liability.

Can the word “off-label” be used more broadly on anything such as foods, electric appliances and smart phones as used in the above article other than medical reference, just as a figurative expression?

  • 2
    You're quite right. In general, "off-label" is a highly-specific term, as you have defined. The writer is taking liberties - quite possibly without even realising it (he's just a fluffy food critic who probably doesn't take dictionaries to bed with him every night). But the usage is figuratively "acceptable" - I don't know Japanese, but I wouldn't mind betting English is in general more accommodating of figurative usages. I would be very careful of assuming the cited usage is "credible enough to copy". Better to just see it as a "one-off" that might be repeated (but so far, not much). Mar 5, 2014 at 3:39
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    Yeah, I think this figurative usage missed the mark. I don't see it catching on. Mar 5, 2014 at 9:03
  • Bradd, @FumbleFingers: I don't think it is figurative to use 'off-label' for things other than medicine because literally, there is no restriction of a label to be for medicine. It is more figurative to consider it just for medicine. Certainly the majority of uses of 'off-label' is for medicine, so it is a noticeable use when not for medicine. I just don't think the latter is figurative. Also, I would think the term very acceptable to use in non-medical contexts.
    – Mitch
    Mar 5, 2014 at 13:34
  • @Mitch: I suppose it depends on your definition of "figurative" (and indeed your definition of "definition"). I've encountered the highly-specific dictionary-endorsed sense cited by Yoichi countless times, but I don't ever recall coming across the "non-standard" usage cited here before. Do you? Or are you just saying that because the term is unfamiliar to you anyway, so any usage would seem reasonable? Mar 5, 2014 at 14:06
  • @FumbleFingers: I consider 'figurative' to be anything other than 'literal'. A literal meaning of 'off-label' mentions nothing about medicine. As I said, the great majority of usage of the term is related to medicine, so the most common usage is non-literal.
    – Mitch
    Mar 5, 2014 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


I agree that this use of off-label in the example you provided is not only incorrect but downright stupid. To have an off-label use, first there has to be a labeled use. Once there's a label, however, there's an "off-label" use, which I maintain is a completely legitimate use of the word. Please feel free to use it; everyone will know what you mean, and that's the point of communication.

Drug labeling has a very long and colorful history, beginning with concerns about food safety in the 1800s. Eventually, labeling was required for worthless or dangerous 'medications' (then sold without prescription) when various remedies killed people in sufficient numbers.

Contrary to common perception, off-label prescribing (called extra-label in veterinary medicine) is not serious, regulated, or at all uncommon (what is illegal is off-label marketing). It's actually necessitated by the FDA's stringent labeling requirements; most pharmaceutical companies don't want to spend the money on testing necessary to get drugs "labeled" (FDA-approved) for "off-label" users (usually children, pregnant women and other special groups). Once they have approval in a large market (healthy adults), they are content to let doctors go off label. So it's ofttimes the only option available.

Back to the term. Any use of devices outside of their label recommendations is off label. The predominant use of the word with medications and medical devices makes a google search for non-medical examples impossible (at least with my limited google-fu).

It's out there, though, and has been. Letting kids play with plastic bags as toys is an off-label use. Sniffing airplane glue is an off label use. Using dry-vacs for wet vacuuming is an off label use.

It is common enough to at least have an entry in the Urban Dictionary, and one of its examples have been joked about in medicine (using the term off label) since before there was an Urban Dictionary (usually because of unintentional loss of items).

The UD definition: When you use an object for something other than its true purpose.

  • "Stupid" appears a bit strong when you could take a meaning along the lines of "not what the originators intended" or even "not according to the recipe on the label".
    – Chris H
    Mar 5, 2014 at 11:46
  • @ChrisH - or not, especially when "using a word completely inappropriately to appear more hip than one actually is". Mar 5, 2014 at 11:53
  • Under that interpretation I agree entirely! But I know nothing about the NYT's food writers' impressions of their own hipness so made a different assumption.
    – Chris H
    Mar 5, 2014 at 11:57
  • It's a metaphorical usage being used to attempt humor. Nothing to see here, move along.
    – David M
    Mar 5, 2014 at 12:43
  • I don't understand your first sentence. It seems inconsistent with the rest. Your first sentence seems to imply that it is wrong to use 'off-label' for anything other than medical uses. Are you really saying that the use of medicines other than their labeled purpose is wrong or are you saying the term 'off-label' is wrong for describing the (admittedly questionable) practice?
    – Mitch
    Mar 5, 2014 at 13:30

Off-label use of Pesticides can be problematic. In the US, pesticides must be labeled: "It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling."

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