How has the Great British Bake Off changed the English language?
The Great British Bake Off has sadly come to an end, but perhaps the series will live on in our words. We’ve been delving into our New Monitor Corpus—a giant word bank which we use to track changes in a word’s frequency from month to month—and we’ve investigated some of this year’s Bake Off vocabulary, as well as some perennial favourites, to see whether the series has created some new Star Words this year as well as Star Bakers.
The influence of Bake Off
September has seen some words enter the language of the nation for the first time, in a way that can only be attributed to the influence of the Bake Off. The cunning judges have been causing consternation by setting technical challenges that the bakers had never heard of before, never mind attempted baking. It is no surprise they’ve never heard of them when across two corpora—one of nearly 2.5 billion words, and one of nearly 7 billion—no one had so far mentioned Dessert Week’s windtorte, Pastry Week’s flaoune, or Patisserie Week’s mokatine until they appeared on this year’s Bake Off. Flaoune is still unseen across our two corpora (perhaps because no one has any idea how to spell it), but windtorte and mokatine certainly got people talking, and we found our first evidence of their use in August and September this year. One other technical challenge, Victorian Week’s tennis cake, has been present in low numbers in the corpus for a while, but saw a small lift in frequency in September, demonstrating the new-found relevancy of the cake.
Though flaoune has not yet entered the nation’s vocabulary, both other challenges from that week have seen a rise in frequency: the more familiar terms frangipane and vol-au-vent both rose beautifully in September this year, so people are clearly embracing the challenges of Pastry Week. Unsurprisingly for everyone’s puff pastry party delight, as well as seeing a rise in September 2015 after being set as a showstopper challenge, vol-au-vent has historically seen peaks in December, showing exactly what we like to eat at our Christmas parties.
Those watching Pastry Week will doubtless remember that frangipane (the almond flavour creamy filling also beloved of Christmas feasts) was pronounced in a number of different ways. In the pronunciation we give on OxfordDictionaries.com, the last syllable rhymes with rain (a familiar sound in British summertime). Frangipane came into English from French, and was named after the Marquis Muzio Frangipani; frangipani describes a shrub or tree which is believed to have once been used as a flavouring for the almond cream. This may offer an explanation for those on the show who pronounced frangipane with a -i sound on the end. The -g- in frangipane is soft, and is closer to how the j- in jar is pronounced rather than the g- in goat, for example.
Vol-au-vent is not the only showstopper to have seen a rise during this year’s Bake Off (though it’s perhaps one that you’d like to see a good rise from in the oven). August 2015 also saw a steep climb in uses of cassata—a Neapolitan ice cream containing candied fruit and nuts—which may be down to Sandy’s final showstopper, the three-tiered cassata, whiskey and orange, and apple pie cheesecake. Though people seem to have developed a taste for the word cassata, Sandy’s cheesecake was a towering disappointment, slammed by the judges for being ‘raw’ and ‘runny’, leading to her exit from the show.
The word showstopper itself, though frequent in general use, sees a peak each year around the time of the Bake Off, as people marvel over the amazing creations (and equally magnificent failures) that the contestants create each week. The Bake Off is perfectly timed to take place at the end of the year, as dark nights force us indoors to banish the winter blues with warming bakes—either on the screen or in our own kitchens—and the rise in baking terms in this period every year could be equally inspired by our kitchen hibernations and excited preparations for Christmas as it is reflective of our love of the Bake Off. Royal Icing—that key adornment of every Christmas Cake—sees a distinct leap in use every December.
Unsurprisingly, considering the show’s title, the language influence of the Great British Bake Off is mainly seen in Great Britain. The examples of mokatine and windtorte in the corpora are exclusively British in use, where dialect information is available. The same is also true of tennis cake. Strengthening the link between showstopper and the Bake Off, we can see that it is significantly more common in British English, as is every baker’s nightmare: the dreaded soggy bottom.
The upsurge in use of soggy bottom leading up to autumn each year is very unlikely to be mere coincidence, as the phrase has come to be indelibly associated with the show and its playful fondness for innuendo. As early as July, we start to see an increase in use, as the nation begins to theorize on whether the disaster and humiliation of a soggy bottomed tart will befall any of the intrepid bakers on the upcoming series. Despite the show’s increasing popularity stateside, the US doesn’t seem to have embraced the soggy bottom in the same way the Brits have—with the phrase’s use around six times as common in the UK. As well as an annual trend, there is a year on year increase in use, illustrating that soggy bottom has got a firm foothold in the language and may be here to stay.
The y axis demonstrates that average usage for a word is 1, meaning that a word that reaches 6 is being monitored at 6 times the average frequency of usage at that time.