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A happy French biscuit made by a happy British biscuit company
A happy French biscuit made by a happy British biscuit company
A happy French biscuit made by a happy British biscuit company

When considering the differing terminology for common things between Britain and the U.S., it’s often a case of finding out who called their thing the thing they call it first, and declaring them the winner.

So, just to remove the element of suspense, when it comes to biscuits, the Brits win. That’s all you need to know; everything else is thrilling superfluity. Like this:

The word biscuit derives from the Latin bis, meaning twice, and coctus, meaning cooked. The term came into use in 14th century England to describe a confection that is baked and then dried out, to produce a hard, flat item that goes soft over time and delicious when dipped in a cup of tea.

This was a very practical form of food for a seafaring nation, and a ship’s biscuit, or hard tack, was baked up to four times to ensure it did not spoil on long journeys. Sailors would dip theirs in brine to soften it up and break the biscuits up on their forearms. To this day, the symbol for biscuit in the sign language Makaton is a hand cupping an elbow.

However, there was also a Dutch word from the early 1700s that was used to describe a similar sort of item: koekje, meaning “little cake.” Koekjes often have a raising agent in them to create a cake-like texture, but by and large they’re biscuity enough to be interchangeable with biscuits, although a little softer, and of course the term has survived into modern English as cookie.

Then there were other European languages that used the term to refer to a sponge cake: like the Spanish bizcocho or the German biskuitmasse. The Italian biscotti, however, are twice-baked confections, as anyone with teeth can confirm.

This only became a problem when Dutch and English settlers in the U.S. started to bicker over what to call their food. The War of Independence pushed popular taste away from the British versions of words, and so the twice-cooked item we all know and love became a cookie or a cracker, leaving the way clear for biscuit to be taken up in America as a word for a small scone-like soft bread, served either as a side dish or with gravy (which is another term the British have a different meaning for). It is not baked twice.

A curious anomaly in this strict division of terminology is that Nabisco, the best known American manufacturer of cookies and crackers, takes its name from a contraction of National Biscuit Company. In their case, they mean biscuit in its original sense.

There is good news for patriotic word lovers with a sweet tooth, however. While the British biscuit is definitely the correct term in both original use and correctness of meaning, they’ve entirely wandered off the point with a similarly sugary confection: the flapjack.

Flapjacks (Pic: BBC Food)
Flapjacks (Pic: BBC Food)

In British cuisine, a flapjack is granola. It’s a slab of oats held together with golden syrup. However, this was not what the name was originally coined for. In the 1600s, a flapjack was an unleavened pancake, starch batter cooked on a griddle, which is the current American use of the word. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Brits began using the term to refer to those oaty bricks, and it quickly became such a popular dish that all previous uses of flapjack were swiftly abandoned, despite it having been used to describe a pancake as far back as Shakespeare’s time.

Let’s call this one a draw, shall we?

See more: 
WATCH: Why Do the British Have Separate Hot and Cold Taps?
Why Do the Brits Call the U.K. ‘Blighty’?
Why Brits Spell Words Like ‘Realize’ With an ‘S’
The Brit List: Ten Extremely Misunderstood British Foods

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By Fraser McAlpine