Ad and marketing creatives

Crisp, Crispy, Krispy, Krispies

If you're a fan of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I have some bad news for you: The English language is notoriously anti-minimalist. English loves multiples (just look at any thesaurus, including the Visual Thesaurus), happily tolerates redundancy, and hangs onto old words while continuously adding new ones. I could dig up many examples, but today I want to talk about just one pair, crisp and crispy, both of which have coexisted in English for more than 600 years, and both of which mean essentially the same thing. Except when they don't.

We may use crisp to describe cold, fresh weather; a starched cotton shirt; a witty line of dialogue; or a dry white wine. We can also use crisp to describe food – bacon, fried chicken, chocolate chip cookies – but we're equally or more likely to choose crispy in culinary contexts. We even turn crispy into brand names: Krispy Kreme, Rice Krispies, Crispy Critters. There are exceptions, though: Foods with a high moisture content generally don't make the crispy cut. Apples and certain types of pears may be crisp; they're rarely crispy.

Post Crispy Critters (1963-1989). The brand name was adopted as U.S. military slang for a burnt corpse.

It wasn't always that way. In fact, crisp and crispy originally meant something else entirely.

Both words entered English from the Latin adjective crispus, which means "curled," "wrinkled," or "having curly hair." That's what crisp and crispy meant, too. The OED traces crisp back to the Venerable Bede, who wrote around 900 C.E. about "crispe loccas fægre" (beautiful curly locks).  Crispy, or cryspy, appeared in the Middle English period, around 1398. It was used in exactly the same way as crisp: to describe curly hair or, metaphorically, some other curling thing, like an ocean wave.

It took more than 100 years for crisp and crispy to acquire the sense of "brittle," and it wasn't until the early 1800s that crisp – but not crispy – could mean "neat" or "brisk." The French word crêpe has the same Latin root; the "pancake with curled-up edges" sense entered English around 1797, and crepe paper (which has a wrinkled texture) arrived in 1895. Another crispus derivation is the personal name Crispin (or Crispian), which may originally have meant "a man with curly hair." Shakespeare buffs will recall the stirring speech in Henry V given by the king "upon Saint Crispin's day."

Why did Middle English speakers suddenly feel an urge to embellish crisp with an extra syllable while keeping the original meaning? For the same reason that people in 2017 add a jocular -ish to the ends of some words: It was a fad.

A little grammatical background may be helpful here. English creates many adjectives by adding the -y suffix to nouns: dreamy, sleepy, hilly, rainy, thirsty, greedy, and so on. It's much more uncommon to form a new adjective by adding -y to an existing adjective, as with crisp-y from crisp. But for about 200 years beginning in the early 15th century that sort of thing was all the rage. The vogue may have been related to the advent of the printing press: The OED speculates that the new -y adjectives were created "with the design of giving them a more adjectival appearance." In addition to crispy, English acquired bleaky, thicky, stouty, vasty, and hugy, among many other coinages. Most eventually disappeared, but crispy and a few other adj.+y constructions – lanky, hardy, slippery, and color words like silvery and yellowy – survive to this day. (Yes, slipper was an adjective.)
Cocoa Krispies, a brand extension of Rice Krispies, was introduced in 1958 by Kellogg's.
Covelli "Coco" Crisp, an American baseball player, got his nickname from his siblings, who thought he looked like a character on the Cocoa Krispies box.
Crisp and crispy continued their closely parallel lives, with crisp becoming more associated with cold weather, stiff vegetation, and a sharp manner; and crispy increasingly attaching itself to food, in particular to food that had been crisped – rendered crisp, rather than inherently crisp. One of the earliest commercial examples is Rice Krispies, which was created by Post and first sold in 1928; the name capitalized on the crispy food trend as well as the commercial-words-beginning-with-K trend. (For more on the latter, see my 2011 column on strangely spelled food names.) Beginning around 1913, potato crisps – which had been called potato chips in the U.S. since the 1870s – were sold in the U.K. (I wrote about crisps vs. chips in this 2012 column.) In the U.S., a crisp is more likely to be a baked dessert with fruit and a crunchy topping; across the Atlantic, that dessert is called a crumble.
OED's earliest citation for "crispy noodles" is from 1940.

If you think you're seeing more crispy these days, you're not wrong. Crisp is still much more prevalent, but, as this Google Ngram shows, usage of crispy in books has been gradually rising since the early 1980s.

Chalk it up, at least in part, to Martha Stewart. The American doyenne of food and entertaining published her first (ghostwritten) book, Entertaining, in 1982. It contained 11 recipes with crispy in their instructions. (She even had crispy apple.) Today, if you search for "crispy" and "Martha Stewart," you'll get dozens of hits, from Crispy Tacos Picadillo and Crispy Apricot Pork Chops to to Crispy Chocolate-Marshmallow Treats.

The Simply Crispy café in Belfast (UK) served only sandwiches filled with 35 kinds of crisps (potato chips).

Curiously, one of the most popular crispy brands isn't very crispy at all. Founded in North Carolina in 1937, Krispy Kreme built its reputation on soft, squishy doughnuts with just a hint of crispness in their sugar glaze. The company began expanding outside the Southeast in the 1990s, and now operates in 21 countries.

Crispy has also entered the lexicon of slang. It has several meanings, including "high" or "drunk" (synonyms: "toasted," "fried") and "the best." Thanks to "RuPaul's Drag Race,"; a reality TV show now in its ninth season, we know yet another meaning of crispy: "That fresh, 'just got spritzed with a can of hair spray' look." Which brings us back, conveniently, to where we started more than a millennium ago: with crispy hair.

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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 February 13th 2017, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
A good read as always, Nancy. Seeing the old cereal boxes brought the advertising jingles back to mind: "The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals."
Monday February 13th 2017, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
Marvelous survey of the "crispy" scene, and great examples. The "high moisture content" distinction is very interesting, too.

When I wrote about "crispy," some years back, it was in response to the peevers who disliked "crispy" (including Safire). The criticism paralleled the word's new popularity (and would surely track with your Ngram), as part of the public's annoyance with all the new foodie-isms of the era. Naturally "crispy" was taken for one of these innovations, and scorned accordingly.
Monday February 13th 2017, 1:42 PM
Comment by: Lisa S.
I'm using Visual Thesaurus while rewriting my novel. Your article was the perfect break: crisp and delightful: ;-) -J.R. Schumaker
Tuesday February 14th 2017, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
It's a revolution. Nice article.
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Superb article, Nancy! I think another reason for the popularity of 'crispy' in brand names is the fact that the addition of the 'y' syllable makes the word a trochee. Names like Crispy Critters, Cocoa Krispies, and Simply Crispy are all double trochees, and the ear is sensitive to and pleased by these rhythms, as it is by alliteration and assonance, which these names also exploit. "Crisped" with two syllables is common is older English poetry, perhaps for the same reason, as in "His crisped locks all clustered with his blood" (Surrey), where it is broken in the middle for iambs.
Sunday February 19th 2017, 3:07 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Thanks, Nancy, lots of good historical trivia here.
Speaking of Shakespeare, "vasty" makes me think of of Hotspur vs Owen Glendower.
"I can call spirits from the vasty deep."
"But do they come when you do call for them?"
This is an example of what Phil H notes, -y in prosody as an extra syllable to fill out the line.
It also makes Glendower sound forsoothly and pompous.

No one tell Donald Trump about hugy, please.

and Orin, thanks for reminding me of my favorite cereal slogan of all time!

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