Sound and vision blog

25 August 2016

The Great British Bread-Cake Debate

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

As a Castleford fan and dialectologist I was doubly excited this week to see a tweet by Mike McMeeken prompted a heated debate among his fellow Cas players and fans about the 'correct' word for a bread roll. As with many professional team sports these days the mixture of languages, dialects and accents must prompt similar discussions on a regular basis. The issue here revolves around bread-cake - regularly elicited in dialect surveys in West Yorkshire - and the more mainstream bread roll - as advocated by Basingstoke-born, Mike McMeeken, and Aussie, Luke Dorn. The third variant suggested - barm - also crops up in dialect surveys in the north of England, especially in Lancashire in the form barm cake.

It's perhaps not surprising that Luke Dorn objects to the word cake in reference to bread as we tend to use cake nowadays to refer to 'sweet baked goods' in contrast to bread for a 'savoury baked item'. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that bread (recorded from c.950) was historically a generic term for any baked item, while cake (first recorded in 1230) and loaf (recorded from c.950) originally referred to the shape of 'bread' - with cake usually being smaller and loaf larger.  Crucially cake only acquired the sense of sweet ingredients relatively recently. The Survey of English Dialects (SED), conducted by the University of Leeds in the 1950s, elicited numerous examples of this earlier sense of loaf meaning 'large bread' and cake meaning 'small bread' - e.g. spice loaf was (possibly still is) widely used in the north for what we know call 'Christmas cake', while conversely haver-bread and riddle-bread commonly referred to 'oat-cake'. This suggests the continued use in Castleford of bread-cake reflects a useful historic distinction and also explains why teacake often causes confusion as in some parts of the country (and in most supermarkets) it now refers to a sweet bread with e.g. currants, but in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north it's a savoury bake. Other terms like barm cake (North West) and lardy cake (South West) also become clearer and simply refer to 'small bread' baked with barm or lard. The SED established a north-south divide in the use of barm (north) and yeast (south) to refer to the same vital ingredient used in baking bread. Lardy cakes are still popular in the South West and West Country and the English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) confirms lardy cake was known in Oxfordshire and Berkshire in the 19th century.

We can observe a present-day parallel in this gradual change of meaning of the word cake with other contemporary baking terms: in the UK muffin (first recorded by OED in 1703) has traditionally been used to refer to a small flat bread usually served toasted with butter and/or jam, but in the USA it has for some time referred to what we in the UK more commonly call a cup-cake. Ask someone in the UK now to describe a muffin and it can reveal a great deal about their age and/or geographic location. A similar test could be applied to biscuit (OED definition: 'kind of crisp dry bread more or less hard, prepared generally in thin flat cakes' first recorded in 1330), which now competes in the UK, particularly among younger speakers, with cookie (OED definition: 'in U.S. usually a small flat sweet cake [a biscuit in U.K.], but locally a name for small cakes of various form with or without sweetening' first recorded in 1754).

The British Library has some wonderful examples of dialect speakers describing traditional ways of baking bread, including Miss Dibnah, recorded in 1955 in Welwick in the East Riding and recent surveys confirm several regional variants for 'small bread', many of which are captured in the Library's dialect recordings including:

batch in Coventry

C1442 uncatalogued [Coventry] BATCH

cob in the East Midlands

C1442X2810 [Midlands] COB

rowie (i.e. Scots diminutive for 'roll') in Aberdeen

C1442X448 [Aberdeen] ROWIE

stotty in the North East

C1442X83 [Teesside] STOTTY

and my own personal favourite, also not known much beyond Castleford: scuffler - a triangular bread-cake that even merits its own twitter hashtag and is discussed by a family from Castleford:

C1190X19X01 [Castleford] SCUFFLER

Congratulations to Mike McMeeken, Ben Crooks, Luke Dorn et al for their perfect timing - surely it's no coincidence this debate erupted just in time for the return of The Great British Bake Off?