Pudding, dessert, and spotted dick


Dinner with friends produced the not unexpected discussion over what to choose for dessert. But focus on the food gave way to focus on the words. Was it dessert or pudding? Did pudding go out of favour because it was yet another word for a penis (a meaning provided by Prof Google)? Was that how we arrived at spotted dick?

I volunteered to sort it all out and report back.

Pudding is a word in English that dates back to the 1200s. The origin is not certain. It could have been one of the Anglo-French words which dominated English at that point, deriving from the French boudin sausage.  Or it could have been a word developed from a Germanic root producing a cluster of words with the basic idea of ‘a swelling’.

Its first meaning was ‘sausage’ but it extended in meaning to cover the stuffing inside the sausage, and from there to mean 'entrails', these being commonly used as the skin of the sausage. The ‘sausage’ meaning led us to the penis and the phrase pull the pudding which still survives in British English it seems. By the 1500s the British were using pudding to refer to the particular sweet food made from flour, suet, semolina, etc., mixed with various items, in particular dried fruits, and boiled or steamed or baked, usually in a bag or pudding cloth. I think the phrases have a pudding in the oven and be in the pudding club meaning ‘to be pregnant’ are fairly dated now.

Dessert on the other hand is a much more recent borrowing from French, deriving from the French word desservir to clear the table. Once the meal was finished, the table was cleared and fruits and sweetmeats were put out. This adoption of the French practice occurred in the early 1600s in Britain.  It was the Americans who, in the early 1800s, extended the idea of dessert to include pies, puddings, and any kind of sweet food served after the main meal. They were followed by the British by the end of that century.

Referring to dessert as sweets is non-U in British English. It is a Britishism that makes its appearance in the early 1800s, Initially referring to any sweet food, but then becoming a synonym for pudding.

I think in Australian English dessert is the more formal term and sweets the more domestic term, a distinction which is a legacy of our British history. We don’t use pudding as a synonym for these, at least not these days, although it did have some currency in the past. 

That leaves us with spotted dick. We naturally leaped to the rudest explanation, but a spotted dick is a kind of pudding, a ball of suet with dried fruit in it.  There is no explanation as to why it is called dick, except the humorous habit of the British in applying names like Dick, and Meg or Tom or Billy or Mary, to a range of foods, plants, birds, etc. The fruit, of course, gives it the spots. Dick is a playful variant of Ric, shortened form of the French Ricard from the Latin Ricardus. Ah those whimsical British!

foodSue ButlerComment