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The Sweets of Easter

Easter, which this year falls on April 20, is an important religious holiday for millions of Christians. It's also a major candy holiday, now second only to Halloween in the United States. But there's more to Easter candy than sugar and food dye: there's also some fascinating linguistic and brand history.

Let's start with the word candy itself. It entered English in the late 1200s, from the Old French çucre candi ("candied sugar"), which in turn came from Arabic qandi, which probably came from Sanskrit khanda ("a piece of sugar"). (Sugar traveled a parallel etymological route, originating in Sanskrit sharkara, which originally meant "grit" or "gravel.")

It took a while — centuries, in fact — for candy to be associated with Easter. (The original Easter treat was the hot cross bun, a sweet pastry carried over from pagan times, when the cross may have represented the four quarters of the moon.) And candy still isn't closely associated with Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday that occurs near Easter. (This year, it started at sundown April 14.) The only result I found in a search for "traditional Passover candy" was ingberlach — sometimes spelled and pronounced imberlach, thanks to a phonetic process called assimilation — a sort of nut brittle made with crumbled matzo and chunks of fresh ginger. Ingber, or imber, is the Yiddish word for ginger; the word is related to Middle High German ingeber and Old French gingebre.

The egg, a pagan symbol of fertility and rebirth, also found its way into Easter celebrations. In the early 1800s chocolate eggs appeared in Germany and France — and eventually the rest of Europe and the Americas. Cadbury, the English confectionery founded in 1824, produced its first chocolate Easter eggs in 1875; they were filled with sugar-coated chocolate drops called dragées, a word that originally referred to sugar-coated medicine pills. The word's origin is obscure; it may come from a French word meaning "to dredge."

Chocolate Easter bunnies — like the Easter Bunny story itself — also originated in Germany. (The rabbit is another pagan fertility symbol appropriated by Christianity.) They became popular in 19th-century America but were made of solid chocolate until the 1930s, when hollow molds were perfected. One of the first branded hollow bunnies — inspired, as the legend has it, by a dog toy — was Baby Binks, created in 1948 by the R.M. Palmer Company in Reading, Pennsylvania.


Baby Binks image via Candy Warehouse.

Palmer still produces Baby Binks along with a range of other named bunnies, including Daddy Binks, Eggbert, Texter, and the foot-tall Grandbunny Heffelflopper. The source of the "Binks" name remains, at least officially, a mystery.

Jelly beans, made from pectin coated with sugar, have long been popular at Easter because of their egg-like shape. But they remained a generic treat until 1976, when a Southern California candy distributor named David Klein developed a miniature jelly bean in "gourmet" flavors like cream soda and watermelon and sold them from a single ice cream parlor. He called his invention Jelly Belly — a name he said was inspired by the blues musician Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter). Jelly Belly got a boost when Ronald Reagan publicly declared his fondness for the candy, but by the time of Reagan's presidential inauguration in 1981, according to a Los Angeles Times story, Klein had inadvertently signed away his rights to the brand. Today the Jelly Belly Company in Northern California — which changed its name in 2001 from the Herman Goelitz Candy Company — has sales of almost $200 million a year.


Mr. Jelly Belly, the Jelly Belly mascot.

The most popular American Easter confection by far is Peeps, the brand name of a line of pastel-tinted marshmallow products invented by the Rodda Candy Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The original product was a tiny yellow chick; "Peeps" is imitative of newly hatched poultry. In 1953, Rodda was bought by another candy company that found a way to mechanize the marshmallow-forming process, reducing the time required to make a single Peeps from 27 hours to six minutes.

In one of those stranger-than-fiction coincidences, the name of the acquiring company was (and still is) Just Born. Even stranger, "Just Born" had nothing to do with birth or hatching: it was named for founder Sam Born, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1910. "Just Born" was his way of saying the candies were made fresh every day.

And speaking of just-born coincidences: the Peeps factory is in Bethlehem ... Pennsylvania.

Marshmallow has Old English roots: it originally was the name of a certain marsh-growing plant entirely absent from Peeps candies, which are made from corn syrup, sugar, gelatin, and food dye. So thoroughly does Peeps dominate the marshmallow-candy market — more than 700 million Peeps will be sold this Easter — that the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for marshmallow is directly followed by the entry for peep.

Peeps aren't only for eating. There are contests around the country for Peepza (Peeps on a pizza) and Peepsonality (Pinterest boards with Peeps-inspired recipes, crafts, or art; Just Born owns the Peepsonality trademark). In 2010 an inventive cook created a recipe for Peepshi (sushi-styled Peeps). There are also competitions for Peeps dioramas. I even found a Passover-themed Peeps exhibit: the ten plagues from the Book of Exodus rendered in Peeps bunnies. (For display only: Because of their corn syrup content, Peeps are not kosher for Passover consumption.)


"Peeps Mourn Their Peeps: Twinkie, Rest in Peeps,"
the winner of the Washington Post's 2013 Peeps diorama contest.

Just Born manufactures another familiar candy with a storied history: the tiny chocolate grains known, at least in New England, as jimmies. (Elsewhere they're called sprinkles.) The origin of the name is disputed and murky: the Just Born website spells it with a capital J and says the candies "were named after the employee who made them." But there's a long-circulating rumor that "jimmies" is a racist slur, possibly deriving from Jim Crow, the shorthand term for legalized persecution of African-Americans. Jan Freeman, the former language columnist for the Boston Globe, researched the various "jimmies" theories for a 2011 column and concluded that "nothing in the record suggests that jimmies was ever racially tinged." In a 2010 On Language column for the New York Times, Ben Zimmer surmised that jimmies "originated as a diminutive of jim-jams, a term for 'little doodads' that goes back to the 16th century."

Speaking of reduplicative terms like jim-jams, at least two other confections you may find in your Easter basket follow the same naming formula. Tic Tac mints, introduced in 1969 by the Italian confectionery Ferrero, were originally called "Refreshing Mints" and renamed Tic Tac in 1970, a reference — according to the corporate website — "to the distinctive clicking sound that the pack makes as it's opened and closed." Kit Kat (originally spelled Kit Cat), a scored chocolate-covered wafer biscuit, was introduced in Britain in the 1920s and has been distributed in the U.S. since the 1970s. The name has a long history: the original Kit Kat was a mutton pie served in London's Kit-Cat Club in the 18th century. The Kit Kat candy slogan — "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" — was created in 1958 and is still in use. In 2013 Google announced an unusual licensing agreement with the Hershey Company, Kit Kat's U.S. distributor, to name its Android 4.4 release KitKat.

Both Tic Tac and Kit Kat represent a specific type of reduplication called ablaut (regular vowel variation), used for terms that suggest "a toing and froing motion," according to Gary Martin of the U.K. reference site The Phrase Finder. Zig-zag, ding-dong, and mish-mash are other examples. "Almost all of these use the vowel 'i' in the first part of the reduplication and either 'a' or 'o' in the second part," writes Martin. "Why? I don't know."

Here's another mystery, one that's particularly apt for Easter: No one is certain how the confection called divinity (or divinity fudge) got its name. Made from hot sugar syrup mixed with whipped egg whites, and sometimes incorporating walnuts or pecans, this fluffy candy is a distinctly American treat. The name may refer to "its white, cloudlike appearance," writes Anita Chu in Field Guide to Candy (2009); the Dictionary of American English says it's "prob[ably] with ref[erence] to its 'divine' flavor." What is known is that divinity-making surged when commercial corn syrup became available in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Karo brand corn syrup, introduced in 1902, "included recipes for divinity in recipe pamphlets attached to its bottles," writes Chu. You can still find a divinity recipe on the Karo website.


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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:

Friday April 18th, 3:49 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Quite interesting, thanks.

As for the reduplication based on ablaut variation 'i'/'a' ('o'), so common in all kinds of languages, there is an easy explanation, I think... The sound /I/ constitutes the closest vowel, the /a/ (/o/) the most open vowel. Those are the most primitive sounds, I would say, and the most 'contrastful' (or 'because they are the most 'contrastful' ').

As a matter of fact those are the only sounds donkeys can ever produce, whereas babies start by learning those first (at least in Germanic languages, or so I think) but gradually learn to produce the vowels in-between...
Friday April 18th, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I have a friend whose sole observance of Easter each year is to stock up on Cadbury's caramel eggs. More on recurring reduplication patterns here: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/ll/fiddle-faddle-the-delight-of-reduplication/. Great article, as usual!

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