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The Biscuit Schism

Dear Language Nerd,

I know what a British biscuit is, but I gather that the American version is different. Are they a kind of scone? And why the change in meaning across the pond?

Victoria

***

Dear Victoria,

Most of the differences between British and American vocabulary amount to mild amusements. “Tee hee, you go to the ‘chemist’ while we visit the ‘drug store’!” “Oh, you say ‘toilet’ and we say ‘loo,’ ha ha ha!”

But biscuits are not funny.

Biscuits are serious.

Normally peaceable and calm people come to blows over biscuits. And much as I generally manage to remain laconic even about language issues that greatly upset people, I too have strong emotions tied to biscuits. In the Deep South, we have a very particular and well-loved biscuit tradition, and if you come around my hometown calling them “a kind of scone” you will find yourself in serious trouble, or maybe in a kitchen getting a pan of proper biscuits made for you, depending on who you talk to.

First, let’s situate the British and American ideas of biscuits along The Great Carbohydrate Continuum, to get some perspective.

greatsnackfoodcontiuum

The chips/crisps/fries distinctions are for another day.

The word “biscuit” comes from “bis” (the Latin prefix meaning “two” that’s most famously on the front of “bicycle”), and “cuit,” earlier “coctus,” meaning “cook.” So twice-cooked bread, not too complicated. It was the word for the precursors of both meanings of “biscuit,” and many other breads besides (biscotti, anyone?). A thousand years ago, most breads were pretty darn similar, being basically flour and water with whatever you had around thrown in for variety.

As more ingredients became commonly available, most importantly the widespread arrival of sugar from the Middle East, breadstuffs became more differentiated. Cake, in particular, got going, and in the 1600s the Dutch started referred to little cakes as “koekjes,” meaning, uh, “little cake.” This caught on Stateside, or I guess at that time Vaguely-aligned-colonies-side, where the Dutch made up a good portion of the population.

The Brits mostly called their cookies by particular names, like “snickerdoodle,” so “biscuit” stuck around as a handy general term, and stayed even after “cookie” made some inroads. Its use for other kinds of bread faded away. Over here, since “cookie” was becoming the general term, the opposite happened — the use of “biscuit” in the “cookie” sense faded and its other, breadier uses remained.

Only one more step to go: a change in the wheat. The wheat in northern climes, like New England and, well, Old England, was proteiny and hard from long cold winters. The South’s nice warm winter weather allowed for the growth of a softer, bleached wheat, which meant Southern cooks could make a huge variety of fluffier, tastier baked goods.* And though red velvet cake also holds a special place in my heart, the greatest of these may well be the Deep South biscuit, in all its majesty.

Worth noting: Scotland is still with us, using “biscuit” to refer to soft savory breads. STAY STRONG, SCOTLAND.

Yours,

The Language Nerd

*They were influenced by the scone, but the flour makes a difference, and scones are sweeter and less fluffy. Plus, scones are still a bit of a snack food, while Southern biscuits are definitely a food-food.

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References today are this cool food timeline site, the Wiki on biscuits, etymonline, and the many British people I have annoyed by getting them to explain their uses of snack food terms in detail. Thanks y’all!

Plus, is anything more hilarious and adorable than brilliant chef Alton Brown cooking biscuits while his grandma tells him he’s doing everything wrong? I think not.

P.S. Turns out an extremely important anniversary has come up, one that’s on everyone’s lips! That’s right – it’s the one-year anniversary of the League of Nerds!

Oh, and also the 50th anniversary of some British TV show that apparently people like? That’s cool, too.

HAPPY 50TH DOCTOR WHO, THOU THRILLER OF NERDS EVERYWHERE

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6 Comments

  1. November 27, 2013    

    An American biscuit is kind of like a scone, there’s not an exact equivalent in Britain, at least from what I saw when I lived there. An American biscuit, generally speaking, is fluffier and moister than a scone, although there are a great many variations; for instance, you can buy a kind of premade, refrigerated biscuit dough that cooks up in really thin layers, thicker than phyllo layers but the general idea. My mom’s biscuits are very fluffy, but with a crispy outside, and have a bit of a soda taste to them.

    As to why the words diverged, it’s complicated, but Wikipedia explains it well in this article, under “Etymology”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscuit

  2. November 27, 2013    

    (oops, I didn’t read your whole post, sorry)

    • November 27, 2013    

      Man, we are not gonna get into those layered refrigerator-dough abominations, they are naaaaas-tay and besmirch the hallowed name of biscuit.

      • November 28, 2013    

        Or, as I like to call them, a Poor Bachelor’s Friend. :-D

  3. December 16, 2013    

    Well, I live in Australia, where it’s all called a “bickie” (sometimes “biscuit”) – what you Americans would call a “cookie” or a “cracker”. We don’t use the word “cracker” at all, but you hear more and more “cookies” these days. Some things are always “cookies”, like “choc-chip cookies” and “cornflake cookies” and “peanut-butter cookies”. Others are always “biscuits”. I chuckled the other day to see a packet from “The Cookie Factory” brand, with a label that said that, and underneath read “ANZAC Biscuits”. While some biscuits/cookies can be called either depending on your age and mood at the time, I doubt ANZAC bickies will *ever* make the shift.

    Although, here, you can also buy something labelled “English Breakfast Muffin”, which is *a lot* like an American “biscuit” (to my understanding, anyway, Americans would probably disagree. Actually, when I was in Canada, they had “breakfast muffins” at the hotel there, too, which were the same as American “biscuits”.

    • December 16, 2013    

      Hmm, maybe the Continuum needs another flag, hey what?

      We have English muffins here too, savory and crunchy compared to our usual cake-like muffins (I think the Brits call ours “American muffins.”) Not too similar to a biscuit though, unless yours are different from ours. I guess we’d better send a Southerner up north to inspect those breakfast muffins! Here’s hoping the biscuity goodness is spreading.

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