Puddings and Desserts, an Essay- Yes Really.

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September is here, and for many of you that means the cold weather is fast approaching. Here in London though it’s like 32 degrees so it’s ironic that I should write that! Somehow though as autumn arrives, and winter soon follows, warm desserts start popping up everywhere. I don’t know if it’s just me, but somehow the cold weather makes me want to eat and eat… and eat.

As this is supposed to be an educational blog though (I really stress supposed, I’m still trying to justify that writing about mountain-themed ice-cream is teaching you something), I don’t think it would be really right to be publishing an article about the allure of desserts and puddings..

So I’ve added a twist! Yes you can have fun while writing essays- this article’s going to be about the relationships between the compounded elements in British and American pudding and dessert compounds.

The title sounds long winded and complicated, but I had to justify writing about desserts to my linguistics professor in some way. It was actually great fun to write, although reading about all these different types of sweets made it really hard to resist cleaning out every bakery in the area.

Strange titles aside, what I’m writing about in simple English concerns the different names of well-known (or not!) British and American desserts; think doughnut, flapjacks.. As they’re compounds (i.e words, but my professor absolutely hated that term!) I’m going to discuss the relationship between them- how are they connected? And are there patterns between the different ways compounds are constructed?


Out of the many books I read (and reread and reread..) about compounds, it was Fabb’s definition that was really savaged by other linguists. Fabb (2001) described compounds as “a word which consists of two or more words”– the word (I’ve done it now too!) that my professor really discouraged us from using- that’s right, word. Indeed Kunter (2011), in a critique of Fabb’s (2001) definition, writes, “he does not make clear which structures he considers to qualify as a word [and] his definition is not very helpful [in] distinguish[ing] compounds from phrases”. Rather, avoiding the often ambiguous term word to define compounds, Haspelmath and Sims’s (2010) more broad definition of a compound as “a complex lexeme that is made up of more than one lexeme stem” might be seen to be more reasonable.

Throughout this article I’ll be referring to a corpus I’d collected of the different American and British dessert compounds. Many of these I knew already, a couple surprised me when I read them cited in different books (we’re talking things like dirt cake and lardy cake). The list is included below:

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The first issue I’ll be discussing in this article is whether or not the meaning of the compound will drastically change if the lexemes in the unit are separated. For instance, will Hummingbird Cake mostly retain its original semantics if the lexeme Hummingbird is removed? To a greater extent, yes, because as the name suggests, it is a cake.

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On the other hand, a Boston Cream Pie is not a pie, but in fact a cake, so all the units- Boston, Cream and Pie, must be retained for it to be recognised for what it is. Further still are the puddings and desserts in which the individual lexemes have unrelated meanings to the compound. For example, the lexemes Eton and Mess have very separate meanings on their own. Eton is a town in Berkshire, Southern England, whilst a mess is something untidy or “a situation that is full of problems” (Cambridge University Press. 2008. p. 595).

However, whilst the history of the Eton Mess may be connected to its compound name- the dessert originated at Eton College, and, as Clay (2010) writes, the mess in Eton Mess perhaps originates “from [its] untidy appearance or … from the earlier meaning of mess as a dish of food, which in turn became the name for a military dining room.” On the other hand, the term Eton Mess gives little suggestion to what the dish actually is- a mixture of strawberries, cream and meringue.

What this means in plain English is that in compounds like Eton Mess, the different units (i.e what you would normally label ‘words’- but beware of this!) don’t have a strong relationship- Eton has a seperate meaning to Mess. It is only when you use them together in one compound that the meaning can be understood- you can’t say ‘Eton’ or ‘Mess’ and immidiately expect people to understand you are talking about the dessert! 🙂

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Other examples from the list (shown above) include Watergate Salad, which is not a salad but a dessert (!), and Doughnut, Snickerdoodles, Ladies’ Kisses, Spotted Dick and Rocky Road, among others. In these cases, only a knowledge of the origins of these desserts and puddings may give some indication as to the relations between the compound units.

In some cases, however, even the connection of more than one lexeme stem may not be enough for the compound to be recognised as, in this case, a dessert or pudding. A key example of this instance would be the compound Rocky Road. Used in the sentence “I am eating Rocky Road”, the compound is a dessert. However, in the sentence “This is a rocky road”, the meaning becomes very different- in fact- the lexemes are separated and the two units are treated individually.

Riemer (2010) writes about how “Noun compounding…shows many different types of meaning relation between the compounded elements: a tree house is a type of house in a tree, but a lighthouse is a type of ‘house’ which contains a light… A computer problem is a problem with a computer, and a zebra crossing is a crossing that is striped like a zebra”.

Whilst some of the dessert and pudding compounds satisfy this observation, others do not.

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Take a Chocolate Bar, for example. I don’t really need to tell you that it’s chocolate shaped like a rectangular slab (a bar); the same goes for Pancake, which is, to a greater extent, cake mix fried in a pan.

A Cupcake is a cake baked in a ‘cup’ shaped mould, and Frozen Yogurt is exactly what its name suggests- yogurt that is frozen.

On the other hand, the relationships between the lexeme units in other dessert and pudding compounds seems to challenge the assertion of Howard and Amvela (2007) that “in noun compounds consisting of the structure ‘noun + noun’, we may postulate the existence of relational words (e.g. prepositions) in the structure, as follows: ash-tray = tray for ashes; armchair = chair with arms…”. Baked Alaska is a dessert made of ice cream, (browned) meringue and cake- not the state put in the oven. Similarly, a Doughnut is not dough shaped like a nut, and Snickerdoodles do not contain Snickers, nor do they look much like doodles.

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While this is true, even in the names of puddings and desserts which appear first to be misleading, there is some connection between the compound and the origin of the dessert/pudding. For example, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (2016), the term Marshmallow originated from the “Old English mersc-mealwe ‘kind of mallow plant (Althea officinalis) which grows near salt marshes;’ from marsh + mallow. The confection (so called from 1877) originally was made from paste from the roots of this plant”, thus, although the relation between the compounded elements perhaps at first appears to be non-existent, it could be argued that this is a misconception.

Also, as there has been a change in the English language (over many years), and a change in food habits and preparation, the relation between the compound units, and the reason for their combination, has sometimes been lost. For example, whilst the first records of the cheesecake show that it was heated- hence cheesecake, in the modern age the fact that cheesecake can now still be considered cheesecake whether or not it is baked or heated may make the lexeme cake in cheesecake seem irrelevant, even if at the time it was created it was very much an important identifying feature.

When I constructed my list of some of the British and American puddings and desserts, I was really interested in the order of the units in the compound- was there a pattern? Having studied my list, I hypothesised that if both of the compound units were nouns, one would be used an adjective. For example, the unit Ice in Ice Lolly could be seen as differentiating (through its state) this dessert from the hard sweet Lolly. In a similar way, Tapicoa is used to describe the characteristic of the pudding Tapioca Pudding.

Other compounds which met my hypothesis included Strawberry Delight, Hummingbird Cake, Hot-Fudge Sundae, Neapolitan Slices and Pound Cake.

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Choux pastry picture by Andrew Samanor ©

On the other hand, it is difficult to test this hypothesis because the origins of several dessert and pudding names is unclear, a key example of this being Snickerdoodles. This type of compound is described by Gómez (2009) as belonging to the “exocentric”, category of compounds. These compounds, which include the Spotted Dick pudding and Devil’s Food Cake are based on some sort of metaphoric meaning” unlike, for example, Hummingbird Cake, which, being a type of cake, has a ‘head’ that it can be reduced to. 

This essay is already too long for a blog post, and I can just hear Hamlet exclaiming “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard”. I think then, that it would probably be right for me to conclude here, also because the relatively small sample of British and American desserts and puddings makes the ability to accurately identify patterns between different groups of dessert and pudding compounds quite limited.

Nonetheless, what I’ve tried to explain in this article is how linguists have tried to classify noun compounds based on certain characteristics that these compounds share with one another. Whether such ‘metaphorically based’ compounds are created for the purposes of transmitting complex messages in shorter phrases, to convey experiences and images with greater richness, or that they have a contextual importance, the regular use of many of these American and British pudding and dessert terms shows just how important the study of the relationships within the constituent parts of these compounds in the English language is in this present day. 

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