What does ‘bun’ mean to you?
A recent poll on OxfordDictionaries.com showed that 37% of our users would call a bread roll a bun, which makes it second only to roll as the most common way to say this. This is not, to me, what a bun would be, and so naively—with no concept of the can of worms I was opening—I asked a couple of colleagues what sort of food they think a bun is.
Bread or cake?
To one of my colleagues (a person who grew up in the North of England, as I did), a bun is a fairy cake, which was the answer I was hoping for. To my other colleague (from Canada) this was completely unheard of: a bun is only ever a bread roll, as our poll results support. Two American colleagues overheard the discussion and weighed in that a bun is definitely bread. As I was asking, I found that fairy cake was clearly inadequate to describe what I was picturing, because fairy cake itself is regional. I asked vaguely if you would eat it from a paper case, before relenting to using the word cupcake, which still has an American sound to my ears despite the evidence of over 2,000 hits in the New Monitor Corpus for British English speakers suggesting otherwise. I could also test my theory by checking people’s reaction to chocolate bun, which is a concept that is fine for a sponge cake, but quite a bit more experimental for a bread roll. One Scottish colleague was disgusted at the very idea.
Over the course of the day, I asked different co-workers for their views, making up a mental map of where the dividing lines fell. In broad sweeps, I found that those from the South of England, those from Scotland, and those from North America said that a bun was bread (or simply and emphatically ‘not cake’). Many would allow that it could be sweet (as in a hot cross bun, or Chelsea bun) but these are made with dough, so they are in essence a sweet bread and not a cake. Most of those from the North of England fell into the cake side of things, though there was some variation in the answers I got from Yorkshire folk. My rather small sample size of one from Ireland agreed with the North of England that a bun is a cake. This was backed up by evidence from the Oxford English Corpus, where over a third of uses of bun had them being explicitly included with cakes or desserts for Irish speakers.
Not as simple as it appears
I found a lot of hesitation in answering, “If I offered you a bun, what would you be eating?”. People had to think for a moment; it was not like scone as in gone or scone as in cone, where everyone has picked their side of the fence long ago. There were a lot of qualifications. “If you say cinnamon bun, then it’s sweet like a cake”, or “A hamburger bun is bread, but I’d have to say hamburger, not just bun”. When the other option was revealed, I found that some became more attached to their answer: “It might not be bread exactly, but it would never be a fairy cake!” or “I’d never put currants in it!”. It is possible that this reluctance was because I was largely asking fellow lexicographers, who know by now that any question about a word’s meaning is not as simple as it appears.
As with all debates concerning regional varieties, passions flared, and so we turned to the dictionaries at our disposal to settle the matter. OxfordDictionaries.com has three different senses: one which uses the word cake; one which uses the word bread; and one which uses both words. A tie, then. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has a lengthy definition which covers the spectrum of uses, and notes that in the earlier examples that have been found (dating all the way back to the 14th century) we can’t be sure which was meant by the authors. We were all of us right, then, and so none can be declared the ultimate winner. No one could even say, “Ah, but mine came first!”, which is a spurious victory at any rate, no matter how satisfying.
The advantage of numbers
Having North America weighing in on the side of bread certainly gives that team the advantage of numbers. I wonder if this is why a search for pictures online showed me bread roll after bread roll, or if it is just that those who agree with me that a bun is a small cake are not taking photos to prove it. It is clear to me that my meaning of bun is very much a minority view, and I suspect that I know how opening this question to you, dear reader, will go, and that it won’t be in my favour. My curiosity gets the better of me, though, so I am asking regardless. If I hear just a few more voices crying “Cake!” I will feel vindicated.
Let us know how you voted and where you’re from in the comment section!