Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Biscuit - This Takes It

Bourbon biscuits, Cookies,
A stack of biscuits. Or are they? Yes. They clearly are.
(photo by Caro Wallis)


Noun & adjective. Also bisket (obsolete). Middle English.
[Old French bescuit (modern biscuit), ultimately from Latin bis twice + coctus past participle of coquere to cook.]

1a. A piece of usually unleavened cake or bread of various ingredients,
usually crisp, dry and hard, and in a small flat thin shape. ME

1b. A small round cake like a scone. N.American. E19

2. Porcelain or other ware which has undergone firing but no further treatment. L18

3. A light-brown colour regarded as characteristic of biscuits. L19

4. Each other the three square sections of a soldier's mattress. E20

5. CARPENTRY. A small round or oval piece of wood, a row of which are glued or wedged
into semicircular slots in each of two pieces of wood in order to join them together. M20

B. Attributive or as adjective. Of the colour of biscuit, light-browned. L19

biscuit-like adjective resembling a biscuit M19
  biscuity adjective resembling a biscuit in texture, flavour, colour, etc. L19

The other day at the beach, some friends and I entered into a spirited debate on the difference between a biscuit and a cracker. This discussion was precipitated by me calling TUC crackers "biscuits" and, as I apparently have a reputation as a bit of a pedant, some were quick to pounce on this perceived bêtise. "They're not biscuits!" they hollered. "They're crackers! Look! It even says 'crackers' on the packet!" So sad. So very, very sad.

It should be noted that we were on the rather remote beach at Fanore in Co. Clare. Therefore, our smartphones rendered impotent by lack of coverage, it was just like days of yore, arguing by wits alone, without some numpty sitting in the corner spoiling everyone's fun by looking up everything on Wikipedia and smugly announcing the answers as if he were the font of all knowledge.

So, what is the difference between a biscuit and a cracker? Various arguments were put forward. I maintained that a cracker is a type of biscuit, one that is typically thinner and more brittle. Others posited that a cracker is a type of bread while a biscuit is a type of cake, or that crackers are always savoury while biscuits are always sweet. I asserted that biscuits are not always sweet, and put forward Weetabix as an example of a savoury biscuit, to which someone countered that Weetabix cannot be savoury because you can put sugar on them. I think the moment someone shouted "What about Christmas crackers?" was the moment we realised it was all getting a little silly, and an awkward silence fell over Fanore.

As silly as it was (and as wrong as they all were), it well illustrates both the pettiness of man and the intrinsic difficulty in defining words, especially those words that have some kind of cultural significance. Biscuit is a prime example of a familiar word with a difficult definition. Americans and Britons, for example, have very different ideas of what a biscuit is. The British or Irish biscuit would be called a cookie in the US, whereas if someone here offered you a cookie and then handed you a digestive biscuit, you'd feel a little hard done by (akin to someone saying they're taking you out to a restaurant, only to take you out to a McDonald's Restaurant).

Biscuit, incidentally, literally means twice cooked (Latin bis + coctus), which is rather interesting. And if you're still wondering what constitutes a cracker, the OED defines it as "a thin dry biscuit."  Which seems to settle the argument in my favour, right? I mean, I don't want to go on about it but it does. So there. Twice cooked? Twice burned, more like. Ouch.

How do you differentiate between a biscuit, a cookie and a cracker?

Are there any pertinent factors that our skilled debaters failed to consider?

Do we need to ask ourselves what we're doing with our lives?

Do please comment below (with extra points for biscuity puns).


  1. In English law, a biscuit goes soft as it gets stale, and a cake goes hard. This was established during the great Jaffa Cake case.

    1. Very true! Frustratingly, no one introduced cakes into the debate. I was ready to pounce with that little gem, which always makes one look most erudite indeed ...

  2. Sometimes these things need to be decided in the courts.



    1. This is what legal systems are for - it's comforting to know that the system works.

  3. http://youtu.be/B0IJpjQbPHw
    The Ultimate Biscuit

    1. Peter Kay would have known the difference between a cracker and biscuit - that I'm certain of.

  4. Wikipedia easily solves the debate in your favor, Ed!

    "TUC is a brand of snack biscuit available in Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa. The biscuits are octagonal in shape (like a rectangle with the corners cut off) and are golden yellow in colour."

    My mom used to buy us bacon flavored TUC biscuits/crackers when we would travel by bus. I love them! :)

    1. Wikipedia, Google and smartphones have killed that kind of debate though, Evi. It makes me a little sad; there's nothing better than a good wrangle over the differences between stuff, like ... I don't know ... a street and a road.

      Hey! What *is* the difference between a street and a road? Anyone up for a pointless argument?

  5. Ed, you really need to get over it!
    Biscuit! Cracker or cake?
    Everyone's a winner :)

    I have to confess I will open a packet of biscuits and when my coffee or tea is gone I'll make another cup just to finish the packet! Omg...
    It's my only deadly sin!

    Evi .... I have never had the bacon flavour ones..... I'm with you though I would love them too.
    The Tuc sandwich ones are the best though, it's some kind of cream cheese in the middle of 2 original Tuc biscuits......


    1. Never! I'm a small and petty man, T, and I will rebake this victory with every word I can - cake, cookie, cracker ... umm ... I'm sure there are more anyway. And, after that, if I have any readers left, I might just initiate my own legal case to have the differences between them established by law. So there. What a blog that would be!

      And now I fancy a biscuit, but we haven't got any in the house.


  6. I live in Texas, so I have MUCH different ideas about such things. A biscuit is light, often flaky, bread-like, and generally round, but sometimes hexagonal. They are buttery-tasting, although people have been known to add cinnamon to them. Cookies are round, sweet, cake-like confections that can range from crisp to soft. Crackers are crispy pieces of a grain-based substance (e.g. wheat, graham) with a wide variety of flavors.

    1. I've had many a pointlessly heated but jolly funny discussion with Americans regarding what a biscuit really is! And you used the word 'confections' - which I love. We should use that noun more often; I will definitely write about it when I get to C. Thanks for commenting Emily : o )

  7. I bet you have! When I was younger, I spent a lot of time reading books set in England and, occasionally, Ireland, therefore becoming acquainted with the English definition of "biscuit" earlier in life than most Americans. Especially considering a lot of Americans don't know that there's a difference anyhow.

    I also love the word confection. It's a picture-painting word.

    (I posted this earlier, but it posted under my school account.)

    1. Yes, English and Irish literature has done much to spread awareness of our particular cultural and linguistic oddities, although we don't all love crumpets and tea. Well, we do a bit. Actually we do - every last one of us - there's nothing more delicious in the world!

      *is off for some tea and crumpets*