Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain?

Almost anyone who knows and loves the English language will agree that it’s mildly insane. Some of us admit that reluctantly and the rest of us think it’s what gives the language its eccentric charm. I’m in the second category, so I’m taking us all to play in a spot where linguistic oddity meets food. 

How far wrong can we possibly go?

Very, but let’s do it anyway. The question of the week is, What are the British talking about when they talk about pudding?

 

Irrelevant photo: a begonia flower

Definitions

As far as I’ve been able to tell after sixteen years of haphazard research, pudding means four very different things in Britain.

  1. Something sweet at the end of a meal. 
  2. Something made with a batter.
  3. Something either sweet or savory (savory being the opposite of sweet) that’s been tied into a cloth and steamed or boiled.
  4. A “sausage-like mass of seasoned mince meat, oatmeal, etc., stuffed into a prepared skin or bag and boiled.” (That’s from the Collins Dictionary.) 

If that last category doesn’t send you running to Lord Google for recipes, I sympathize. It doesn’t sound like my idea of what to cook on a slow Sunday afternoon either, although I’m sure someone will tell me that a mass of seasoned minced et cetera can be delicious, and I’m sure they’ll be right, at least if they’re serving it to meat eaters. I, however, live on raw carrots and the stems of organic herbs, so it’s not for me. Even if I ate meat, though, the word mass is what did me in. Any food writers out there? Put mass on your list of unattractive words.

And speaking of unattractive words…

 

The unfortunate origins of the word pudding

How did two ordinary syllables come to mean so many different things? Etymology Online takes us back to the year 1300, when pudding meant a sausage made of meat, blood, and all sorts of fun things, stuffed into the intestines of a pig, sheep, or other unfortunate, and then boiled. 

That explains meaning number 4, the boiled mass. 

The word may have come from a Germanic word meaning “to swell,” which means it’s related to words for all kinds of unpleasant swellings. But cheer up, it may come have a whole ‘nother source: a vulgar Latin word by way of an Old French word meaning sausage and having to do with animal intestines.

In the sixteenth century, in fact, if you talked about puddings, plural, you were talking about someone’s intestines, so we’ve got a pretty strong set of sausage-y connections here. But in that same century, pudding was slang for vagina. And–not to be outdone–for penis. 

I wouldn’t suggest holding out for any sort of logic there. Slang isn’t answerable to careful reasoning.

And now, let’s drop that thread before we give up on the topic altogether.

 

Moving right along

How did the word  transition from a sausage to a dessert? Well, in Tudor times it wasn’t unusual to sweeten a sausage, and to add dried fruit, and a sweet sausage-y thing is surely a step in the direction of what we know as a dessert. 

Also in the sixteenth century, a pudding became something involving flour, milk, eggs, and maybe some dried fruit. It could still be either sweet or savory. That points us to meaning number 1–dessert. The connection to those sausage-y things is that you could take those floury, milky, eggy things and boil them in pudding bags, because if you’re not going to stuff them into an intestine, you have to hold them together some other way. So that takes care of meaning 3, something tied in a bag and acquainted with hot water. 

 

Yeah, but what about meaning 1?

According to GreatBritishMag, calling something sweet at the end of the meal a pudding has to do with the British class system. 

Everything in Britain has to do with the class system. 

Traditionally, it says, puddings were rustic things eaten by the lower classes–things like rice pudding and (fasten your seat belt) spotted dick.

Yes, spotted dick. It’s a dessert–or a pudding, if you like–and no, you won’t get a funny look or a medical referral if you say you have or want some. 

While the rustic lower classes were eating spotted dick and wondering if anyone would get the joke, the upper classes were eating not pudding but dessert–chocolate mousse, sweet souffles, and that sort of fancified stuff. 

(Truth in blogging paragraph: Dick doesn’t seem to have become slang for penis until the late nineteenth century. EtymologyOnline says, “It has long been a synonym for ‘fellow,’ ” and dates that back as far as the sixteenth century.) 

Forget that, though. Somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure when or how, the word pudding not only jumped classes but appropriated the entire category of sweets-after-a-meal, and ended up being one of the few British words that doesn’t mark a person’s class. (Others in the category are and, of, or, but, and a scant few thousand others.)

Or so say one or two sources. Arguing against them, Country Living magazine lists pudding as upper class and dessert, afters, and sweet (as in (I think), “Should we have a sweet?”) as non-upper class, where they join declasse words such as couch and settee (instead of sofa), pjs (instead of pajamas), and movie (instead of film). Oh, the horror. How could one hold one’s head up–?

Who’s right? I haven’t a clue.

 

So what gets called a pudding?

Just about anything.

Okay, it does have to be edible–no chairs; no bike racks–and (I think) either solid or semi-solid. And it has to have more than one ingredient. I’m sure there are other limits, but hey, I’m a transplant. I’m doing the best I can here, but you wouldn’t want to trust me out of your sight. 

Now that I think about it, you might want to consult somebody sensible about this, and I invite comments on this from both the sensible and the senseless. 

But with that warning out of the way, foods that have pudding in their names include:

Yorkshire pudding. This is a breadlike thing generally served with meat, gravy, and all the sidekick foods. It used to be served before the meal to fill people up so they’d eat less meat. And it’s baked–it used to be cooked under the meat so it soaked up the drippings–not boiled. It lives in the flour-and-other-stuff room of the pudding house.

Christmas pudding. This is a fruitcake, and it’s steamed or boiled. [You’ll find an explanation of why is isn’t a fruitcake in the comments.] It can sleep in the flour-and-stuff room or the cooked-in-a-bag room, depending on the mood it’s in.

Black pudding. This is a blood sausage and it lives in the sausage room.

White pudding. Another sausage, but bloodless. It lives right near the black pudding.

Rice pudding. This has rice, milk, sugar, and whatever bits of flavoring you like to toss in. I learned to make it on the stove (that’s the hob in British), but most recipes I’ve seen in Britain toss it in the oven. Or, okay, slide in in carefully. It lives in the milk-and-bread room, even if it does substitute rice for flour. A starch is a starch.

Toad-in-the-hole. This involves sausages and a milk, egg, and flour batter, so it wanders from room to room at night, dragging its sleeping bag behind it.

Summer pudding. This is made of bread, fruit, sugar, and nothing else. It’s spectacular, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a pass to any of the rooms. It sleeps in the hall, mumbling that it was made in a pudding bowl so why’s everyone so mean?

I could go on but we wouldn’t be much wiser. I’ll stop. 

So what do the British call that stuff Americans call pudding?

Nothing. You won’t find it in Britain, so they haven’t given it a name. I’ve seen sites claiming that the British call it custard, but custard’s a whole ‘nother beast.

 

The Black Pudding Throwing Contest

It wouldn’t be right to leave the topic without mentioning the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, held in (you can’t make this stuff up) Ramsbottom in September. Legend has it that the contest dates back to the War of the Roses, when the houses of Lancaster and York ran out of ammunition and started throwing food at each other. 

Legend has it that a lot of legends were made up in the pub, but never mind. The tradition was revived–or started–in 1839 and then re-revived in the 1980s.

The idea is to throw black puddings at a stack of Yorkshire puddings and see how many you can knock down. 

My thanks to The Year without Wimbledon for making sure I didn’t miss this. The information’s spent a long time sitting on my list of topics I never get to. I’m happy to see it fight its way out.

75 thoughts on “Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain?

  1. What about suet pudding? Suet is the hard fat from around the kidney. It is used when making
    steak and kidney pudding.
    The best black pudding is made from defibrinated pig blood, small cubes of fat and meal, cooked in a deep tray. This is much better than the sausage version.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I did read a bit about what suet is (and suet pudding) but got vegetarianly squeamish and decided to skip over it. And I had no idea that there was more than one type of black pudding. Even my meat-eating partner gets a little squeamish at the thought of black pudding–not the taste, since she’s avoided it–so I’ve had no incentive to learn about it. Thanks, as always, for filling in a few blanks.

      Liked by 1 person

        • My cooking and baking haven’t become British enough for me to chase down a vegetarian version. I’ve never used suet–or really understood what I’d need it for or how it would be different from some other form of fat. I have picked up a few British recipes–I made a ginger cake yesterday, and I can make a passable scone–but I’ve stuck to things that are close to what I came in with an understanding of.

          On the other hand, if you happen to want a brownie recipe, I’m not a bad place to start.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve never made brownies, but I’m quite good at biscuits.

            You use suet to make suet pudding, which can have various fillings. I hated them as a child, so have never bothered to make them as an adult. It was the fillings I didn’t like, though, so I probably ought to give it a go.

            You also use it in dumplings, although I think you can use other fats instead. It’s also an ingredient in mincemeat and Christmas pudding.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. My background is working class and I grew up using pudding or afters. I have now added dessert, but sweet always sounds affected.

    It never occurred to me that Americans mean something else when they say pudding, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American say the word. I’m intrigued.

    By the way, Christmas pudding is not fruitcake. I boiled my homemade one for hours last year. It would be horrid if you just put it in the oven and baked it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Apologies. I was borrowing that definition of Christmas pudding (if I remember correctly) from another American living in Britain, who may well have been translating it so an American could make sense of it. In that context, it makes sense–or at least a kind of sense.

      American pudding is made with milk and thickened with (I think) cornstarch. I’ve never made it from scratch, but any American supermarket will devote endless shelf space to instant pudding mixes–chocolate, butterscotch, tapioca, etc. As a kid, I loved the stuff, and I suspect I still would, although I haven’t had any in years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The ingredients are similar, but you couldn’t taste one and think it was the other.

        I think the dessert that I know as Angel Delight must be based on the American pudding. I think it’s still around, but I haven’t had any in years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve never tried Angel Delight. It sounds too much like angel cake, a very light and completely tasteless (except, of course, for the sugar) American cake.

          At least I hope it’s limited to the US. We really shouldn’t inflict it on the rest of the world.

          I went back and added a reference to your initial comment in the text. I do appreciate it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Not sure I’d call Yorkshire Pudding bread-like (unless something went wrong in the cooking process), being a child of a Yorkshire cook. It is just a batter really, my Mum would pour some into a bun roasting tin so they come up in little rounds with a dent in the middle which you’d have with Sunday Lunch and put a bit of gravy into the middle. Then you’d have them (without gravy) after the meal with treacle over them for dessert. Toad-In-The Hole is just an extension of this, same batter but poured into a tray with sausages set in it. Perhaps it’s more bread like down south where they’ve no idea how to do proper Yorkshire puds, which should be crispy on the outside with a softish centre, southern people tend to like them soggy. Yuck.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s amazing how many things I can misunderstand, and how I’m still silly enough to go out on a limb and pretend to understand stuff the next week. Having said that, though, I’d think I’d still call them breadlike, since they fill the same space in a meal and they’re made with flour. In the same way, I’d call baking powder biscuits breadlike (they’re an American thing, from the South and from soul food), although the consistency’s very different–they’re lighter and made with baking powder–but they still fill that same starchy, floury spot in a meal. And like a Yorkshire pudding can be eaten with gravy, or jam or honey or molasses or anything sweet. Or what we’d call jelly and you’d still call jam.

      Or butter.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Endless fun. When they’re at home, they’re just called biscuits. Over here, I call them baking powder biscuits to distinguish them from what you call biscuits. It’s not exactly not their name, but most people wouldn’t bother to call them that. They are scone-ish, but not as sweet.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Somewhat like scones, but leave out the eggs too, and increase the fat content. In America I mostly see these served with butter as part of a meal. Or for breakfast, often as part of “biscuits and gravy” where the gravy is a milk-based gravy with bits of breakfast sausage in it. They are also a staple for our fast-food restaurants, who serve breakfast sandwiches made with them.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I’ve seen scone recipes involving eggs, but–well, I don’t make them that way. I have no idea which is the more common way of making them, but having attached myself to the eggless version I’m convinced they’re better that way.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Looking at Yorkshire puds from an American point of view, if you have a crispy outside, soft inside, and mostly hollow in the middle, our closest equivalent would be a popover. I’d usually eat those with butter and jam, rather than with gravy. If we want something to soak up gravy, we would probably use a biscuit (the American kind).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. You’re welcome! And pudding is indeed a class-related word: I would call the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal “afters”. But, when used in the context of a particular item – black pudding, rice pudding, sticky toffee pudding etc – it’s not class-related.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I gave up on trying to track class-related words (although I still love hearing about them) when I read a careful explanation of dinner, tea, and supper–it was at the point where I read that dinner and supper traded their class affiliations depending on what region they were in.

      It’s okay. With my accent, no one expects me to get it.

      Liked by 2 people

        • I grew up thinking supper was everyday and dinner was–well, we wouldn’t have said posh but it’s what we would’ve meant. Then I ran into very un-posh people–this is still in the US–who talked about dinner. I think it’s a regional difference there, but I can’t even swear to that much. Basically, it all left me confused enough that I have no idea what I’m signalling when I use the word supper, but it’s still the one that comes naturally to me.

          No perfume involved, I promise. I can’t think of a single recipe that’s improved by it.

          Like

  5. I never really thought about the varied things that are called “pudding” in Britain – are there no puddings in the US? On a different note , one of the things that surprises me about living in Ireland, is that no one eats pasties, Cornish or otherwise. Not even in NI where you can get marmite (not in RoI obviously no one likes it)! I really think they are missing a trick. Especially as its so cold here and a nice pasty would warm you up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there are puddings in the US–first the stuff we call pudding that you’ve never heard of and then the stuff we call dessert, which could include pudding.

      It’s hopeless trying to make sense of this, isn’t it?

      No pasties? Hmm. So we can probably deduce that they’re a post-Celtic innovation. I wonder how far back food historians can date them.

      Like

  6. Despite being a Brit, I grew up overseas around Americans, until I was sent to an English boarding school. This whole piece reminds me of the utterly bewildering conversations I had, and I have laughed myself silly – thank you :)

    Have you done a piece on the subject of cricket? ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eeeek! Cricket? Terrifying. An American friend once asked about the rules of cricket at a party. My partner and I bailed out of the conversation, but when we came back two hours later they were still talking about them.

      The only thing I know about cricket is that a game goes on for days. Possibly months. Or lifetimes, involving several generations. I’m not sure I could possibly–

      Oh, go on. That’d be fun. Want to place bets on how many things I get wrong?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I felt sure you’d be game (pun intended) for the challenge :D I’m afraid I’ll be no use to you as the sound of (cricket) bat on ball puts me to sleep. I played softball as a kid, and I enjoyed watching baseball. Then someone tried to persuade me to play rounders in school…. it did not end well.

        Oh & I forgot to express my absolutely ADORATION of biscuits and gravy. They are simply the best Southern invention ever!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve had to skip making the gravy, to the disappointment of my Texas-born partner, since it depends (or at least so I’m told) on using sausage fat, but I make a mean biscuit and even with nothing but butter, they are wondrous inventions. I tried to convince someone British–I can’t remember who now–that no, biscuits aren’t scones, so biscuits and gravy make sense together, but it was pretty clear I was losing the battle. So thanks for your testimonial.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Oh, yes, I can see it wouldn’t be the same without the sausage fat. I learned how to make gravy the American way, still can’t quite get my head (and taste buds) around British (and French) gravy – or is it just jus? Either way, I totally understand your partner’s disappointment. My gravy and your biscuits would be a marriage made in heaven. Pity Cornwall’s such a long drive.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. So – omg, just thought of this, thanks to you – when Luna says in that scene in Harry Potter “I hope there’s pudding … it’s DEFINITELY not the Hogwarts cafeteria version of what all us Americans think it is! (I, for one, was thinking butterscotch.) Kind of sad to find that out, alas.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. By amazing coincidence, my 13 year old and I were just discussing the British use of “pudding” last night. We watch a lot of baking shows together and he was perplexed. I realized that, having moved here when he was 4, his pudding culture is almost entirely American. Anyway, you have now done my research for me and I can furnish him with the history of British pudding. Thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fascinating to read about the origins of pudding in Britain. I’ve always thought of pudding as a a sweet cake-like thing at the end of a typical British meal or Christmas pudding which you mentioned. Like having potatoes or pie followed by pudding. I vaguely remember hearing savoury pudding somewhere. But for most part, I’ve thought of it as as dense cake-like, maybe served with some sweet sauce. Here in Australia, pudding is commonly thought of as like a sweet cake.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mincemeat pies were common in our household, usually around the winter holidays. But they never really was any meat in the ones my folks made. The “Borden’s Nonesuch ” Mix has apples and raisins in it (and comes in a smallish box)- if you want meat you have to add your own. So that is one meat/sweet concoction that made it to the Former Colonies. My family has a long relationship with sausage too, including making it, but just sage-y sausage, nothing too exotic. Some of my friends whose families were closer to the Old Country had some of the variations you mention.
    The Christmas plum pudding I envision is the Cratchit’s version.

    American pudding is sort of the consistency of custard, but you are correct when you say it is not custard. Sweeter, I think.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post. Haggis is considered a pudding then ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I asked Lord Google, who led me to the Britannica, which told me that haggis is indeed a pudding–only the Britannica left of “indeed,” since it hadn’t really heard the question.

      Your mention of sage-y sausage reminded me that I’ve heard of sage-and-apple sausage, although I have no idea where, so (unless my rather odd mind invented that) the tradition of sweetening sausages a bit lives on.

      The history of mincemeat really does start with meat–which it sounds like you know but I can’t resist the impulse to sound clever. I’m grateful that it’s wandered away from them. When I first read about it as a kid, I was baffled by the “meat” part of it. I’d heard of mince pies, but -meat? In the world I grew up in, at least as I understood it it made no sense at all.

      Like

  11. As a Pescatarian (A vegetarian who occasionally eats fish/seafood) It looks like I’ll have to sleep in the hallway with the summer pudding or on a floor mat in the kitchen with the rice pudding next to the hob as you call it. I think I prefer that spot, as I’m always cold and the movies and shows I’ve seen all imply that British homes are drafty. I am rather catlike in my intolerances to such things. I’ll also keep my “whipped” cream as it sounds like it had some sexy time fun first, instead of “clotted” cream which makes it sound like it came from the infirmary.

    Like

    • Yeah, the focus group that let clotted cream get through to the final naming stages–well, you know how focus groups can go rogue. This one, I think, turned on whoever was running it and smiled enthusiastically–even clapped and whooped–at the name, knowing what a lousy idea it was.

      Older homes are probably drafty, and often damp, and come with a lifetime of repair projects. And the don’t necessarily have central heating. So yeah, the kitchen sounds good. Just make sure they have one of those ecologically disastrous things called an Aga (or something like it w/ a different brand name). They’re on all the time and will keep you toasty. They used to be a farmhouse thing, but now they’re a status symbol.

      Newer ones can be pretty draft-proof.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. My mother made Yorkshire pudding for Christmas dinner as long as I can remember (it went with the standing rib roast) as far back as I can remember. For some reason, I never thought it was weird that it shared a name with chocolate pudding. I guess it’s just whatever you’re used to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is. You accept these things until (maybe) suddenly you notice them. I remember the first time I understood that the tongue my mother had cooked was a–gack–tongue. I don’t think I ever ate it again, although I’d liked it before.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I think what you’re describing as the American pudding is what we would call (or in my childhood would have called) blancmange (pron. blamonge), a staple of school meals and standby for mothers running out of ideas for lunch, as well as invalids. Despite the name, it could be in different flavours or colours – pink usually preferred to plain white.

    I always think of Yorkshire pudding as a pancake batter (for French-style crepes) baked in the hottest oven possible but mine have never turned out as they should, so what do I know?

    And, for the sake of completeness, you should know that the pudding club is what a woman joins when she has a bun in the oven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I asked Lord Google about blancmange and he dealt me a handful of photos (along with some recipes) that convince me we’re talking about two different things. Blancmange has gelatin in it, so it can hold those fancy shapes. American pudding just sits in the bowl looking semi-solid. Someone else suggested that it might be a relative of Angel Delight, and the photos look a bit more like it, although I have a hunch–based on nothing but the name–that A.D. is fluffier.

      I had no idea about the pudding club. No matter how long I live here, I’ll never really get the nuances.

      Like

    • I’ve read a couple of arguments and counter-arguments about what language is hardest to learn but I’m left with great sympathy for any language learner who has to learn English spelling. English-speaking children spend crazy amounts of time memorizing spellings–time that speakers of many other languages don’t have to put in since spellings in their languages are at least fairly obvious.

      Like

  14. Pingback: Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain? – Get A Sunshine

  15. Just to throw this into the mix. Possibly one of the most well known streets in London is Pudding Lane, wrongly sited as the location of the Great Fire of 1666. Most people will know that the fire is believed to have started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery and draw the conclusion that the referred to Pudding in the street name is connected to an edible confection. Unfortunately it couldn’t be further from the truth although there are some connections with the list of items that can be described as a pudding. A pudding in this sense is usually a bag of offal and intestines that were surpass to the requirements of the butchers of the City. These were either crammed into a sack or wrapped in an old cloth and then dumped in the River Thames. The shortest route betwix the medieval market and the river, the route later known as Pudding Lane. Personally I would question the inclusion of toad in the hole as a pudding to me it’s just a thing! Obviously a main course but doesn’t really have a clarification.

    Liked by 2 people

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