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From jumbles to gingersnaps: the origins of cookie names

It may be difficult to do so whilst piling them into one’s maw, but did you ever think about how Christmas cookies came to possess such deliciously eclectic names?

Jumbles. Thumbprints. Snickerdoodles. Gingersnaps. Rugelach. Sand tarts. Macaroons. Kiffles. And these are only a few of the hundreds of types treasured in American households during the holiday season!

Every family we know has their own collection, baked at home and placed lovingly on plates and in tins, a smorgasbord of heritages, roots, and traditions passed down through time with each sweet, chewy, crumbly bite. But it is their silly, often nonsensical names that best showcase each cookie’s strange history.

So, in the holiday spirit of giving (knowledge, in the form of some neat trivia for the Christmas dinner table) and eating (no explanation needed), let’s take a look at some cookies favored in American kitchens at Christmastime—and learn why they have such wacky names.

Gingersnaps and Gingerbread Men

Those spicy, crispy cookies with curiously fissured tops do contain a little powdered ginger (though mostly they’re saturated with copious amounts of molasses—a word originating from the Portuguese melaços or Spanish melazos, and ultimately from Latin mel, meaning honey. So that makes sense. But the ‘snap’ in gingersnap is a little weirder. Do gingersnaps snap? Well, yes, when you break them in half! They have a little more flour and bake a little longer than soft cookies, lending them their snap-ability. Or perhaps they are so named for the snappy flavor the ginger imparts.

‘Snap’ may also come from the German schnappen, ‘to nab or grab quickly’—which Americans certainly do when confronted with a plate of these suckers—though it’s probably more likely that ‘snap’  is being used in the old sense of ‘a morsel or bite’.

When it comes down to it, though, gingersnaps are really a variation on gingerbread. Though the word ‘gingerbread’ first referred simply to chunks of preserved ginger, later (by the 15th century) it came to refer to a kind of spicy cake flavored with ginger and honey or molasses. So why gingerbread men? Why do Americans so enjoy molding their molasses-flavored dough into possibly humanoid figures with vague radial symmetry, beady eyes, and buttons. . . ?! Apparently we have Queen Elizabeth I to thank, who may have gifted important visitors with gingerbread impressions of themselves.

Which were then gilded.

With gold leaf.

(Hence the otherwise very odd phrase ‘to take the gilt off the gingerbread’: to deprive something of its attractive qualities.)

(Coconut) Macaroons

Americans, eternal lovers of coconut, eat their special brand of macaroon at any time of year—but with their light, snowy insides and festive star-shaped tops, these vanilla-or-almond-scented cookies are a crucial Christmas component in many American homes.

But why on earth do we call them macaroons?

Well, if the word ‘macaroons’ vaguely reminds you of the word ‘macaroni’—another American staple, but a connection which seems to make no sense at all—don’t worry. You’re actually on the right track!

Are you ready?

The word ‘macaroon’ comes from the French macaron, which comes from the Italian maccheroni. This Italian word may come from the Byzantine Greek μακαρία meaning barley-broth which itself is derived from μακάριος, ‘blessed’ (possibly because the barley-broth was served as a funeral meal).

Returning to maccheroni, first evidence of this paste-based Italian dish (probably made with barley as the Greek suggests) in English indicates that it was prepared not as tube-shaped pasta, but rather, as dumplings! However, whereas maccheroni ended up becoming a tube-shaped pasta usually spelled macaroni, macaroons retained their dumpling-like shape.

Jumbles

This one is tricky. First of all, there are (to this editor’s estimation) approximately one billion different kinds of jumbles. Second of all, its etymology is rather difficult to trace.

Jumbles are not new to Americans, though the name itself has undergone some change; indeed, there are recipes for ‘tumbles’ in the first American cookbook American Cookery (1796), and a recipe for ‘jumbals’ can be found in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1824). Further adding to the obfuscation, jumbles have also been spelled jumballs and jumbells and all manner of variations in between.

Some believe that jumbles possess their strange name because they are a ‘jumble’—a confused medley—of all kinds of ingredients. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Traditionally, jumbles are ring-shaped cookies comprised of quite simple, straightforward ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, a little baking powder, and a little flavoring like lemon or nuts. Nowadays, though, their ingredients have become more, well, jumbled. I recently discovered a recipe for Christmas Jumbles, complete with four kinds of nuts, dates, candied cherries, cinnamon, and pineapple.

Ultimately, the dominant theory as to the origins of the name ‘jumble’ is that it probably stems from the word ‘gimbal’ or ‘gimmal’, which was a special kind of ring constructed of two separate rings worn together, particularly in the 16th century as a wedding ring. In fact, ‘gimmal’ likely comes from the Old French gemel, from Latin gemellus, diminutive of geminus (think the astrological sign Gemini!), meaning twin, like the twin rings symbolically joined as one in matrimony. This theory would explain why jumbles are traditionally ring-shaped. . . and, of course, why we love those who give them to us.

Snickerdoodles

Any guesses?

The Oxford English Dictionary says “origin uncertain”, and suggests that this weird name is possibly a combination of snicker (a smothered laugh) and doodle (a silly or foolish fellow, or a doodle-bug, or an aimless scrawl).

Regardless: snickerdoodles’ uncertain origins don’t make them any less…cinnamon-sugary…warm and chewy…soft with a touch of vanilla-y…

To the kitchen!!

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