translation Next post: Of Cabbages and Kings: five ways to talk about translation

Russian Previous Post: ‘You speak Russian?!’


The winner bakes it all: the language of the Great British Bake Off

In 2010, when I started watching a BBC2 programme about baking sponge cakes, I assumed it would be one of the many things which marked me out as a social pariah, along with talking to cats and preferring books to people. Yet this evening the fourth series of the Great British Bake Off is coming to an end, and the finale is confidently expected to top eight million viewers. Everywhere I go, people are discussing Mel & Sue’s blazers, Mary Berry’s love of lemons, and Paul Hollywood’s steely blue eyes. But what of the language of GBBO?

Let’s turn our attention to the goodies which contestants have produced over the years, and examine their linguistic heritage. Here are some of the more intriguing names to have graced the judging table over the past four years…

Cat got your tongue?

So, the langues de chat. Any French buffs among you will already have noticed that this translates as ‘cat’s tongue’, and anybody watching the Great British Bake Off last year will have already seen the glorious sight of Mary Berry illustrating the concept of the biscuit by sticking out her tongue. The biscuit only vaguely resembles a cat’s tongue, perhaps mercifully, but it is so-called because of its shape and thinness; a long, thin piece of chocolate can also be given the name. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) currently dates the earliest use of the term in an English work to 1897 – appropriately enough, given that Mary Berry is the Queen of Baking, to a book entitled The Private Life of the Queen.

A right royal pudding

Speaking of Queens, there are a few of those among the world of cakes and puddings. One technical challenge the bakers attempted was referred to as the ‘queen of puddings’; ‘a pudding typically made with breadcrumbs, milk, eggs, butter, and sugar, and topped with jam and meringue’, to quote the OED entry. And very delicious it looked too. But this is a case where several different variations of a title can refer to the same pud. The term queen of puddings is currently dated to 1903, but is preceded by queen pudding (1839) and queen’s pudding (1852), although the latter can also refer to a steamed suet pudding.

This generic queen isn’t the only sovereignty to have a dessert named after her, though. A lining of cake, biscuits, or breadcrumbs filled with fruit or custard is known as a charlotte and, while the origins of that name are disputed, the charlotte russe is believed to have been named by the French chef Marie-Antoine Carême in celebration of George IV’s child Princess Charlotte and Czar Alexander I (russe being the French for ‘Russian’). On the Great British Bake Off they made a version called charlotte royale, where the lining consists of Swiss roll, but the royal connection is clearly maintained. More famously, the Victoria sandwich (currently dated to 1861) or Victoria sponge (1934) was so-called to honour Queen Victoria. The tradition of puddings being named after women even encompasses the first woman – Eve’s pudding (made from Victoria sponge and cooked apple) is named after the Biblical Eve and her notorious predilection for apples.

A profiterole in his own land

Of all the delicious-looking products on the Great British Bake Off over the years, the one which has most appealed to me, is the croquembouche. I even tried making one myself, but the less said about that the better. Quite a few of the French names for baked goods are self-explanatory when translated: once you know that îles flottantes translates as ‘floating islands’, then the image of meringues floating in crème anglaise makes more sense. Similarly, although a bit more of a stretch, millefeuille, meaning ‘a thousand leaves’, is a recognizable  description of the many-layered puff pastry confection which is produced. (Incidentally, puff pastry – a term currently dated to 1788, and to 1598 as puff paste – does, as you might have guessed, derive from the lightness of the pastry being compared to a puff of wind.)

Croquembouche is a little trickier – simply knowing that it means ‘(that) crunches in the mouth’ won’t conjure up a complete recipe for the amateur baker. First found in French in 1845 (as croquenbouche) and in an English text in 1874 (according to current findings), this impressive dessert is a pyramid of small items of patisserie, usually profiteroles. It’s not the only sweet treat to describe its texture in the title – think of Mary Berry’s favourite, the brandy snap. And while we’re mentioning the profiterole, you might have been in for a nasty surprise had you requested one of a chef in the eighteenth-century or earlier – instead of choux pastry filled with whipped cream, you’d have been given ‘a type of savoury cake or dumpling, perhaps baked in ashes.’ Not quite so appetizing with chocolate sauce.

A cake of one syllabub

And finally, just because I relish its linguistic fluidity and the loveliness of the word, the syllabub. The origin of the word describing this dish made from milk or cream is unclear, although its current spelling is believed to have been influenced by the similar-sounding word syllable. Before this, it had gloried in spellings as diverse as solybubbe (in its earliest known use, from around 1537), sulli-bib, sullybub, selybube, sillyebubbe, and cillibub, all of which predate the standardization of spelling. Even better, syllabub also took on a figurative meaning in the early eighteenth-century: ‘something unsubstantial and frothy; esp. floridly vapid discourse or writing’.

Which is as appropriate a place to stop as any. In my feverish excitement about the Great British Bake Off final (I’m cheering on Frances, by the way) I’m hoping to learn some new words and names as well as feast my eyes upon mountains of cake, cream, and chocolate – and more than that, I hope that this article hasn’t been a syllabub, in any sense of the word.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.