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The Scoop: How Frozen Desserts Got Their Names

Long before the advent of air conditioning, ice cream, sherbet, and their frozen cousins provided edible relief for summer heat — if you were rich enough to afford them. Today, these icy treats are democratic and diverse, and their names, both generic and trademarked, tell rich stories about language and history. Here are some of the tastiest.

Ice cream: The earliest references in English are to "iced cream" or "cream ice"; the OED has a 1672 citation for "one plate of ice cream," but it may have been an anomaly (or a misspelling), because ice cream doesn't appear again until 1744, in a letter written by a guest of the governor of Maryland: "Among the rarities ... was some fine ice cream, which, with the strawberries and milk, eat most deliciously." As with many other innovations, frozen sweet cream may have been brought from China to Europe by Marco Polo; Italian chefs were making gelati — literally "ices," although they incorporated creams — by the 16th century, and one of those chefs probably introduced his recipes to the French court. Philadelphia, the original capital of the U.S., claims to be the "ice cream capital": President George Washington often served ice cream at official dinners. "Philadelphia ice cream" is made without eggs, in contrast with French-style ice cream.

Sherbet, sorbet, sorbetto: The terms — English, French, and Italian, respectively — share an etymology but aren't synonymous. All three derive from Turkish and Persian words that come from Arabic shariba, "to drink." (That Arabic word is also the origin of English "syrup" and "shrub," a fruit-based beverage.) Sorbets and sorbettos are made with fruit, sugar, and water; sherbets contain those three ingredients but may also include milk, egg white, or gelatin. To further confuse matters, in the U.K. a sherbet is a cold, effervescent beverage; in the U.S. it's a frozen dessert. And if you've ever been corrected for pronouncing it sherbert instead of sherbet, don't fret: that misspelling has been common since at least the mid-19th century. Over the years, "sherbet" has also appeared as zerbet, cerbet, sarbet, sharbut, and at least nine other variations.

Shave(d) ice, snowballs, snow cones, Italian ice: Finely shaved ice or snow flavored with fruit juice or sweet syrup is one of the oldest frozen confections on record: it's said that the Roman emperor Nero, in the first century CE, ordered his servants to prepare it. The modern version comes in several varieties: shaved ice (called shave ice in Hawaii) is doused with syrup, while Italian ice blends in the flavoring as the ice is made.


Hawaiian shave ice in traditional rainbow colors. Via Shave Ice Machines.

Snowballs, which were invented in Baltimore and later became associated with New Orleans, also use shaved ice. Snow cones, introduced in 1919 at the Texas State Fair, use crushed ice — Dallas resident Samuel Bert received a patent for his ice-crushing machine in 1920 — and are traditionally served in wax cones.

Sundae: Why does a scoop or two of ice cream topped with syrup, nuts, and whipped cream (or more) have this oddly spelled name? Its origin is "uncertain," and "probably related to Sunday," according to most dictionaries. H.L. Mencken, in The American Language: Supplement 1 (1945), attempted to dig deeper. He discovered that the word first appeared on May 21, 1904, in the New York Post, which spelled it "sundi"; it's also been spelled "sondhi" and "sunday." As Mencken tells the story, the dish was relatively expensive to make, so George Giffy, the proprietor of an ice-cream parlor in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, offered it to his customers only one day a week.

"One day, a week-day, a little girl came in and asked for a dish of it," Mencken writes. "'I serve it only on Sundays,' said Giffy. 'Why, then,' she replied, 'this must be Sunday, for it's the kind of ice-cream I want.' Giffy gave it to her and simultaneously was seized with the inspiration to call the new concoction a Sunday. How the spelling came to be changed to sundae deponent saith not." (Mencken also reports another origin story: that the sundae was named for "William A. (Billy) Sunday, the baseball evangelist," by his students at Northwestern University.) Mencken adds: "It is rather astonishing that the -ae ending has produced so little progeny. The only child of the sundae that I have ever encountered is the mondae, a mixture of sundae and soda-water, offered for sale in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1937."

Popsicle: The Popsicle website claims this frozen treat was invented by accident in 1905 by 11-year-old Frank Epperson when he left a mixture of powdered soda, water, and a stirring stick on his porch overnight. (The site doesn't specify where this took place; Epperson's 1983 obituary said San Francisco, but temperatures there never dropped below freezing in 1905. Epperson in fact grew up across the bay, in Oakland, and that's where he was living when he patented his "frozen confectionery" in 1923.) Epperson originally dubbed his creation the Epsicle, a blend of Epperson and icicle, but eventually renamed it Popsicle, allegedly because his children called it "Pop's 'icle." That too seems a stretch: as an early ad makes clear, the pop more likely came from "lollypop" (or lollipop), a word that first appeared in English in the late 18th century. In England, ice pops are called ice lollies.


Via Collectors Weekly, "The Cold Hard Truth About Popsicles."

Today the Popsicle trademark and brand are owned by Ice Cream USA, a division of Unilever, which also owns "the sicle family of trademarks," including Creamsicle, Fudgsicle, and Yosicle.

Eskimo Pie: According to company lore, Douglas Ressenden of Onawa, Iowa — eight years old in 1919 — had only enough money for one treat and couldn't decide between a chocolate bar and an ice cream sandwich. Christian Kent Nelson, a Danish immigrant who taught school and owned a candy store in Onawa, got the notion to combine the two; he began selling his chocolate-clad ice cream on a wooden stick as the "I-Scream Bar." Nelson filed for a patent in 1921 and soon thereafter secured a manufacturing agreement with Russell Stover, the Denver-based chocolate company, to mass-produce the bars, which Mrs. Stover renamed "Eskimo Pie." The company is now owned by Dreyer's, a subsidiary of Nestlé. According to a Wikipedia entry, "Eskimo" is a generic term in French, Russian, and Ukrainian for any chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick.

Good Humor: The original Good Humor Ice Cream Sucker was conceived in 1920 by a Youngstown, Ohio, candy maker named Harry Burt, who chose the "Good Humor" name because he subscribed to the ancient belief that a person's "humor," or temperament, could be influenced by food.  The Good Humor Bar, as it was later renamed, consisted of chocolate-coated ice cream on a stick; its similarity to Eskimo Pie was close enough for the original patent application to be denied.


"Good Humors" [sic] truck, New York, c. 1938. Via Smithsonian Institution.

Harry Burt's true innovation was in marketing: From the start, Good Humor products were sold from trucks equipped with bells that announced their arrival in a neighborhood. The fleet was sold in 1976 to allow the company to focus on grocery-store sales.

Häagen-Dazs: The pioneer of modern "super-premium" ice cream brands was launched in 1960 by Reuben Mattus, a Polish immigrant who, as a child in the Bronx, had sold his family's homemade ice cream from a horse-drawn wagon. Häagen-Dazs had a high butterfat content and was sold in pint-size containers, as opposed to the half-gallon bricks sold in supermarkets. And it had an odd yet catchy name. Cookbook author Joan Nathan interviewed Mattus before his death in 1994, and she recounted their conversation in a 2012 article for Tablet magazine:

How did a Polish immigrant come up with a name like Häagen-Dazs? He was inspired by Jewish history: "The only country which saved the Jews during World War II was Denmark, so I put together a totally fictitious Danish name and had it registered," Mattus told me. "Häagen-Dazs doesn't mean anything. [But] it would attract attention, especially with the umlaut."

Not only is it a nonsensical name, there are no umlauts in Danish. No matter: "Häagen-Dazs" was "designed to attract the eye, to be seen rather than said," writes Margaret Visser in Much Depends on Dinner, her 1985 history of everyday foods. "In any case, Mattus said, 'the type of people we were looking for, if they mispronounced it, they'd think they were right and any other way was wrong.'" It's a rare example of a difficult, meaningless name succeeding despite the odds.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 14th, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Marshall S. (Fairview, OR)
Very enjoyable article. Down to earth as compared to many of the esoteric exhibitions of vocabulary pride that show up here.
Tuesday July 15th, 2:42 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Ice cream" seems to have devolved from "iced cream" in the same way that "ice tea," "old fashion," and "grill cheese" have done in some dialects.
Tuesday July 15th, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
Thanks, very cool.
Wednesday July 16th, 10:23 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>very cool

Haha, I see what you did there. :-)

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