In September, Domino's Pizza — the second-largest pizza chain in the United States, with annual revenue approaching $1.5 billion — introduced "Artisan Pizzas" to its 5,000 stores nationwide. Are you picturing skilled workers up to their elbows in whole-grain flour and locally sourced tomatoes, lovingly patting each pie into a charmingly irregular shape? Well, forget about it. "We're Not Artisans," reads the coy banner on the Domino's home page. "But This Might Just Convince You We Are." The text on the Artisan Pizza box dispels any lingering misconceptions: "We don't wear black berets, cook with wood-fired ovens, or apprentice with the masters in Italy."

So if no one at Domino is an artisan, what is Artisan Pizza? For that matter, what does "artisan" signify in Artisan Style tortillas (recently introduced by Mission), Tostitos Artisan Recipes chips (from snack giant Frito-Lay), Clarks Artisan (mass-produced shoes for women), Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches (from Starbucks), and Campbell's Artisan (a line of soup stocks for large institutional kitchens)? How to make sense of "artisan fast food," which is what Panera Bread, with 1,500 bakery-caf├ęs in North America, calls its niche?

Not by consulting a dictionary. In branding, "artisan" has become less a descriptor than an honorific. It's shorthand for something desirable and time-honored, and it's defined largely by its context. The artisan cheese at your local farmers' market may in fact have been made by artisans. At Domino's Pizza, "artisan" is the verbal-branding equivalent of a parsley garnish: attractive but not nutritionally significant. The same can be said — according to the research organization Datamonitor — for many of the 800 or so food products introduced in the last five years that use "artisan" in their names.

History, of course, tells a different story. "Artisan," a noun meaning "a skilled manual laborer" or "a craftsperson," especially "one using traditional or non-mechanized methods," came into English in the mid-1500s from Italian artigiano, which in turn came from a Latin word meaning "skilled in the arts." Not until the mid-1800s did "artisan" start appearing as a modifier, and then only to describe people or their attributes ("artisan class," "artisan status").

But about 30 years ago "artisan" and a related word, "artisanal" (accent on the second syllable), began attaching themselves to food. It was the dawn of a new era in food awareness (some would call it food fetishism) that continues to this day. A 1983 article about French bread in the New York Times referred to "earthy, artisanal, sourdough baguette, made according to old-fashioned rules and standards" that "takes seven hours to prepare." "Artisanal cheese" popped up in 1989, and "artisan bread, baked with fresh ingredients and no preservatives" appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a 1996 article. That "fresh, no preservatives" concept was unusual enough that it needed to be spelled out for readers.

Today, however, you can buy artisan hamburgers, vodka, chocolate, wine, tape measures, and dog treats. Needless to say, not all of these products are "made according to old-fashioned rules and standards" from "fresh ingredients and no preservatives." "The word 'artisan' has been so co-opted by industry and marketing that it no longer really means artisan," Peter Reinhart, a baker and the author of a book about pizza, American Pie, told the Los Angeles Times recently. CUESA, the San Francisco-based Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, warns that "artisanal" has no legal definition: "like 'gourmet' and 'natural' it can be, and is, used liberally."

Indeed, in many quarters "artisan" has eclipsed "gourmet" and "natural." Barry Popik, a dictionary consultant who tracks the origins of food terms on his Big Apple blog, noted in 2009 that "there is ... a general feeling in the culinary industry that the term gourmet is outdated." It was being replaced by "foodie," which Popik said was "modern" and "less pretentious." But "foodie" won't fly as a brand modifier: "artisan" strikes contemporary ears with the right balance between "art" and "workmanlike," along with hints of "admirable," "traditional," and "expensive but worth it." (Something similar occurred with "heirloom" over the last half-century or so; it's now a modifier for "seeds" or "apples" as well as a noun meaning "Aunt Evelyn's pearl necklace." And the trend continues with the words "curate" and "curator," which once applied only to people who worked in fine-arts institutions: nowadays you can find "well-curated" groceries, grooming products, and news articles. For more on the rise of "curate" and "curator," read Ben Yagoda's recent article on the Chronicle's Lingua Franca.)

So far has "artisan" drifted from its original meaning of "skilled worker" that it's possible to see an unironic usage like this one in a recent letter to the New York Times Sunday Magazine: "Perhaps if we were still eating breads made from artisanal grains and limiting our ingestion of gluten from other sources, gluten sensitivities would not be so rampant." Are "artisanal grains" handcrafted in a cottage workshop? Of course not. "Artisanal" here is just casting a benevolent glow over the concept, suggesting that "artisan-style" products might be created from those revered raw materials.

The power of suggestion is also the key ingredient in Domino's Artisan Pizzas. While they may not involve the labor of artisans, they kinda-sorta look as though they could. The new pizzas are irregularly rectangular rather than perfectly round, and they're topped with slightly fancier ingredients than standard Domino's pizza: spinach, roasted vegetables, "Tuscan salami." And each box is signed by the employee responsible for the contents. Call it artisanship or artifice, it's been a crafty move on Domino's part: the company's sales, profits, and stock price all rose in the third quarter, and the CEO recently said he's "certainly optimistic" about the outlook for Artisan Pizzas.