Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Éclair - Why Is It Named After Lightning?

Chocolate-filled éclairs - because clearly they weren't already sweet enough
(photo by LMDCWIKI)


Noun. Mid-19th century.
[French, literally 'lightning'.]

A small finger-shaped cake of choux pastry,
filled with cream and iced, especially with a chocolate icing.

OK. I'm just throwing this one out there, because lo and behold sometimes Lexicolatry doesn't have all the answers: éclair literally means 'lightning' in French, and I want to know why. There are a couple of rather unconvincing theories out there - one is that they're so delicious, they get eaten lightning quick (pff!), and the other that the gleam off the top of the icing sometimes resembles lightning (double pff pastry!). The OED is frustratingly silent on this matter, so it's possible we will never know. Therefore, let us speculate, theorise and conjecturise as to why this humble, ridiculously delicious cake (which is a member of the 'pie family', would you believe?) is named after this meteorological phenomenon.

Do please copy and pastry your sweetest comments in the choux box below.


  1. Well, it's true that in French the adjective "éclair" has the idiomatic meaning of "very fast" and the original French éclairs were smaller than our modern day éclairs so the "petit gâteau de forme allongée qui se mange très vite" (small elongated pastry that is eaten quickly) theory seem to make sense? However, if you want speculation, theorising and (wild) conjecture how about this....

    Victor Baptistin Sénès (1857 - 1915) was a French naval officer and admiral who in 1891 took command of the French torpedo boat called L'Éclair. So which came first the elongated torpedo shaped boat or the elongated torpedo shaped cake and is it a mere coincidence that up until the mid 1800s éclairs in France were originally known as "pain à la duchesse" or "petite duchesse" before suddenly becoming renamed as "éclairs"? How's that for me wildly conjecturing!

    1. Now this is the type of wild speculating I was looking for!

      And, d'ya know, I think this theory has legs (or fins, or something). I've been looking over some pictures of 19th century torpedo boats, and I dare say that, from above, they could easily be mistaken for an eclair of the delicious variety. I think it's absolutely plausible that a French pilot, returning to the mess after a recon run, would be served his pain à la duchesse and coffee, only to remark: "Mange tout! This delicious pastry looks like one of those torpedo ships I just saw!" All that needs to happen is for someone to ask which torpedo ship he saw, for him to reply L'Éclair, and the name is set in scone.

      Rudderly brilliant, Mwncïod! You've cracked the case.

    2. I'm waiting for my medal in recognition for my services to the French language from The Académie française, any time now I'm sure there'll be a knock at the door. ;-)

    3. Make sure you accept it while wearing your Lexicolatry t-shirt!

  2. Foudre is another French word for lightening.

    L'arbre a été frappé par la foudre - The tree was struck by lightning

    Il est parti avec la rapidité de la foudre - He left quick as a flash

    Also the French have a phrase "coup de foudre" (literally "strike/blow of lightening") which means to fall in love at first sight.

    1. Hey Razzle Dazzle ... thanks for commenting.

      I actually covered 'coup de foudre' when I wrote about all the different types of 'coup' there are. And then I forgot about it. But you reminded me! So thank you : o )

  3. Many historians said that the name comes from the phrase:”This cake is so good that you can eat at the speed of light”. Others cite the “éclaire” is so bright that it evokes the light of the lightning.

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