What does "junk-food-scoffing masses" mean? And what does "scoffing masses" mean here?

Europe is now the biggest market for organic food in the world, expanding by 25 percent a year over the past 10 years. So what is the attraction of organic food for some people? The really important thing is that organic sounds more ‘natural’. Eating organic is a way of defining oneself as natural, good, caring, different from the junk-food-scoffing masses. As one journalist puts it: It feels closer to the source, the beginning, the start of things.'

Organic food: why?
Reading Practice IELTS

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    The phrase would probably be clearer if it were written as "junk-food-scoffing masses" – BallpointBen Aug 15 at 13:48
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    There's this thing called "auto-correct". It is much maligned. – Lawrence Aug 15 at 14:45
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    The grammar error is entirely forgivable, you are not a native speaker. But failing to provide the context and, more importantly, the source just shows disregard to those who post answers. You're just lucky that American speakers found the answers interesting because they didn't know that "to scoff food" (BrEng) means to swallow food quickly and in large amounts. – Mari-Lou A Aug 15 at 16:25
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    Original source/page: image.slidesharecdn.com/completeielts55-65-180303120053/95/… taken from "Complete IELTS Bands 5-6.5" (link) – Mari-Lou A Aug 15 at 16:35
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    @jamesqf I've never heard that word used in that sense in America – Azor Ahai Aug 15 at 20:30
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The phrase means "the large numbers of people who scoff junk food". In this case to scoff means to eat greedily or quickly.

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    This meaning of "scoff" is marked "informal" in my dictionary. I guess it is more common in UK than US English. – GEdgar Aug 15 at 13:14
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    That sense is certainly in common usage in the UK. If I wanted to convey the meaning of 'mocking' I'd use 'scoff at' [object]. – Charl E Aug 15 at 13:36
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    Without context it could also be describing healthy people. Someone who scoffs at junk food has a different meaning entirely. You cannot know for sure which meaning was intended in the given phrase. US English speaker here. – MoondogsMaDawg Aug 15 at 14:38
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    Scarf has the same meaning and is more common in the US, I believe. – Connor Harris Aug 15 at 15:03
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    I think Connor is correct. I also think that if I heard "scoffing down", I'd assume I'd misheard "scarfing down", and have understood it anyway -- I understood the original sentence immediately, despite the 'wrong' word being used. – Nic Hartley Aug 15 at 16:19

"scoffing" is not a modifier to "masses", rather it belongs to the "junk food" part of the sentence.

"Junk food scoffing", here, scoffing means to eat rapidly (the type where you swallow it without barely chewing).

Rewriting the sentence, "the group of people who greedily eat junk food"

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    It would be better written hyphenated - as "the junk-food-scoffing masses". – WS2 Aug 15 at 8:46
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    I don't think this is right. The masses are scoffing. What are they scoffing? Junk food. If anything, junk food is a modifier to scoffing, not the other way around. – mattdm Aug 15 at 13:51

As an addendum to the other answers (which are all correct in terms of the precise meaning of the phrase requested), it is worthy of note that the use of "masses" to describe groups of people is often derogatory, and the use of the term "junk food" as opposed to, say "snack food", further emphasizes that this phrase is intended to be derogatory. Precisely what is being talked about derogatorily depends on the context, which is not provided (I wish it were), but anyway the point is that this phrasing is derogatory.

I'm English, and this phrase would need no explanation here, is at would be readily taken as a derogatory reference to the uncultured (typically lower class) masses of people who scoff (eat) junk food.

  • +1 The statement also implies that eating organic makes the person better... 'good, caring', where as people who eat junk food are not. – Christopher Aug 15 at 18:00
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    You crazy Brits and your misuse of the English language... as any good American knows, it's scarf not scoff. :) – RonJohn Aug 15 at 22:06
  • It doesn't really have anything to do with thinking organic is better as such. It really is just about criticising the sort of people who eat a lot of junk food, or any of those other things lower class people would stereotypically do, watching trashy tv etc. It's slating them for being uncultured morons who know no better, nor desire anything better. As for "scarf", according to the Oxford English dictionary, that appears to be a purely American thing, that appeared in the 1960s. In an American accent, the difference is possibly less noticeable than it would be in an English accent. – Richard Longley Aug 16 at 10:49

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/scoff

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scoff

According to the first few entries on both of the sources above, "scoff" means expression of scorn, derision, contempt, and similar meaning words.

As a native English speaker from the US, this is my first and only thought of what this word means. I'd never heard of it meaning "to eat quickly" until this question's answers brought it up.

To my understanding, "junk-food-scoffing masses" would mean that there are many people who dislike junk food, probably along with anyone who eats a large portion of it.

Edit: Now that we have context, this answer is less meaningful. Please don't down vote, because this was written before the OP edited their question.

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    It's usually said that junk food is for the unwashed masses, or similar, so "scoff" as "eating rapidly", makes the most sense... – Malandy Aug 15 at 14:25
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    @Malandy, I don't' see how "unwashed masses" is equivalent to "eating rapidly". Eating rapidly might mean a lack of manners, but there are plenty of so-called socially acceptable people that eat without manners. Also, the first part of your comment goes to supporting my answer, where "unwashed masses" are scorned, so food for unwashed masses would also be scorned by association. Simply using the phrase "unwashed masses" shows contempt for this group(?) of people, further supporting my answer. – computercarguy Aug 15 at 15:06
  • Although rare, I've heard (USA) the term "scarf" used instead of the (UK) "scoff" used in this sense. – GalacticCowboy Aug 15 at 15:34
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    Yes, I'm presuming the speaker finds junk food to be the food of the (great) unwashed, and now that we have context, it's intended to be derisive of the masses, who are gorging themselves on junk food, unlike the speaker, who is the "better". ... ... The masses are eating junk food, not "not eating junk food". – Malandy Aug 15 at 17:16
  • @AndyT, the difference is which side of the debate you are on. Are you in contempt of people who eat junk food or are you one who is doing the eating? Of course, there are people who will dislike themselves for eating junk food, but that might be a different problem. – computercarguy Aug 16 at 13:21

"Scoffing" is really not the right word here. The original was probably a typo or misunderstanding for "scarfing". To scarf is to eat rapidly. To scoff is to express disbelief or derision.

So, the junk-food-scarfing masses would be those masses who rapidly eat junk food.

  • I thought so too when I first saw this usage of "scoff". But my dictionary has this verb scoff (to eat greedily or quickly), marked "informal". – GEdgar Aug 15 at 13:15
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    The eating meaning of "scarf" is marked "North American" in my dictionary. I guess "scoff" would be used in the UK even today. – GEdgar Aug 15 at 13:25
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    @GEdgar just for confirmation, I'm British and this sense of "scoff" is indeed in reasonably common use in the UK (and this sense of "scarf", in my experience, is not). – Chris H Aug 15 at 13:30
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    I think this answer deserves a less negative score, for mentioning "scarf". – CCTO Aug 15 at 19:20
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    @computercarguy A quick glance at the OED shows that the word scoff, in the sense of eating, can be found in Herman Melville's White-Jacket, published in 1850, so must have been in use in the US Navy at the time. The first use of scarf to refer to eating is found in 1960. Though I'm sure some people can attest to it's use in conversation a little earlier than that, I can hardly believe that it was in use 110 years before that, enough to give rise to the word "scoff" by mishearing in 1850, without leaving any written trace. – Robert Furber Aug 16 at 9:35

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