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?
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.
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.
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