candy and sweets

Did you know that the word candy comes from the Arabic word for 'sugar'? Well, I didn't until just now.

Since my post on baked goods has inspired comments on wine gums, I should say something about candy and sweets.

In BrE, candy refers to things that are made from sugar that's been melted (usually with water and some flavo(u)ring) and resolidified in some form, including boiled sweets (AmE = hard candy) and candy floss (AmE = cotton candy). Candies belong to the wider category of sweets, which includes chocolate, toffees, and anything else that you'd eat on its own in order to rot your teeth. When talking with children, they're often called sweeties. Sweet shops speciali{s/z}e in selling sweets.

In AmE you'd get them at the candy store, and they'd be called candy, even if they're made from chocolate or nuts or whatnot. Thus, in the US one eats candy bars such as a Milky Way, while in the UK one eats chocolate bars such as Milky Way. (Click on the link to read more about the difference between Milky Ways and other candy/chocolate bars in the UK and US.) Candy store also has its place in an AmE idiom: (to be/feel) like a kid in a candy store--that is, really excited and happy, due to some external stimulus. For example:
Lately he even gets offered more interesting work than he can handle, a problem he tends to solve by accepting all of it. He feels like "a kid in a candy store." [International Herald Tribune on jazz musician Chris Potter]
Like a child/kid in a sweet shop is used in this way in BrE, but it's not as established as an idiom.

Of course, there are lots of sweets/candies that are produced in the UK but not the US and vice versa (though Canada provides an interesting middle ground with some of both). But here are a few whose names create cross-dialectal confusion.

In BrE sherbet is a sweet-tart powder consisting of sugar, tartaric acid, bicarbonate of soda (AmE prefers baking soda), and mostly artificial flavo(u)rings and colo(u)rs. The closest thing in the US is probably the stuff in Pixy Sticks (straws filled with sweet-tart powder), but it's a bit different because sherbet is more fizzy (due to the soda). English friends my age get very sentimental about flying saucers (pictured left), which are (BrE) sherbet surrounded by a material that tastes and feels like communion wafers. When I was young, we played "church" with Necco wafers (pictured right). I wore a half-slip on my head to be a nun or a bride, depending on my mood. I feel rather cheated that we didn't have flying saucers to play church with, but other than their similarity to papery-tasting hosts, I don't really understand the appeal. But then, physical resemblance to communion hosts was just about the only appeal of Necco wafers as well.

In the US, sherbet is a frozen dessert that is like sorbet, but which usually has some dairy content (though not as much as an ice cream would). I don't think it's eaten as much now as when I was a child, since sorbet has become available and popular.

[This paragraph added later due to a comment from kathyf.] Smarties are small, colo(u)rful sweets/candies in both countries. UK Smarties (pictured left) are like M&Ms--milk chocolate in a candy shell, made by Rowntree/Nestle. They differ from M&Ms in the colo(u)r assortment, the quality of the chocolate (people tend to prefer the one they grew up with) and the fact that orange smarties have orange-flavo(u)red chocolate. (There's a lot more orange-flavo(u)red chocolate in the UK than the US.) US Smarties (pictured right) are little discs of mostly-sweet-with-a-little-tart pastel-colo(u)red sugary stuff, which crumbles when bitten. I've just described them to Better Half, and neither of us can think of something similar in the UK. They come in a stack wrapped in cellophane and are mostly known for being a candy/sweet one gets from cheap/tight grown-ups on Hallowe(')en.

BrE speakers are often amused by and curious about the AmE candy/sweet name taffy, as here Taffy is a derogatory name for a Welshman. The word is a variation on toffee, which is what BrE speakers would call the stuff. You don't want to go to the US and just start calling all toffees taffy, however. (Well, maybe you do want to, but you shouldn't.) For me, taffy is reserved for pulled taffy, which is a light colo(u)r or white because it has been repeatedly pulled into strings and reshaped, and has a fruity or minty flavo(u)r. Anything else that is toffee in BrE, for example chewy caramels, would be toffee in my AmE dialect as well. (Note that salt water taffy, despite its name and the fact that it's sold at the seaside, contains no sea water.)

Globali{s/z}ation means that the confectionery world is becoming smaller. I've already discussed some chocolate/candy bar names that have become more similar in the US and UK (click the Milky Way link above for the Marathon/Snickers story). Another source of UK resentment is that Opal Fruits changed their name to Starburst in 1998 to be in tune with the US brand. The confusing thing about this is that they're not quite the same. UK Starbursts are paler than the US ones, and a bit different in consistency, since they're vegetarian (the US ones contain gelatin). To my mind the worst part of this US name-imperialism is that the UK consumer gets the new name without the main benefit of US Starburst--the cherry-flavo(u)red one. UK Starburst has lime instead--but everyone knows that cherry is the best flavo(u)r.


  1. I thought for sure you'd mention Smarties. Two entirely different candies/chocolates in the U.S./U.K.

    1. US "Smarties" are called "Rockets" in Canada. Maybe that is the British name as well??

  2. Good one. I'll cheat and go back and add it now.

  3. These posts are making me hungry! I remember my English friend liked chocolate oranges and he once asked me if we could get them here. I said I'd never heard of them, but then when I checked in the store they did indeed have Terry's Chocolate Orange. I'm not such a fan of flavored chocolate.

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that Marathon bars are (or were) different in the US/UK.

  4. I've already covered Marathon bars. Click on the link to 'Milky Way' in this post.

  5. Ah, now I know where I read that - on your site. Oops!

  6. In Australia we have lollies (not ice ones, either, they're ice blocks). This isn't helping, is it?

  7. This is the same in UK. Ice lollies are what Americans woudl call popsicles. I could do another post on frozen treats, but I think I'll wait for the next heatwave, as it's getting a bit too foody around here. (Around here, that means anything above 22C. Everyone but me starts complaining "It's so hot!")

  8. Is a US Smartie like a Loveheart (that's what I'm imagining it to be like).

    I had a friend send me a Hershey's bar a few months ago and was disgusted at the quality of US chocolate - grainier, oilier and it seemed like it had less cocoa powder?

    Opal Fruits - I miss them practically every day, I swear I do. They had four flavours - strawberry, orange, lime and lemon - seperately. Then Mars got in on the act and changed them to Starburst and now they combined lime and lemon flavours and added that godawful blackcurrant flavour.

    As an aside - when at university in York (York St John) I lived near the Nestle factory and the street always smelt of KitKats!

  9. Better Half also suggested Love Hearts, but the love hearts I know are still a little harder than US Smarties.

    I've never met a non-American who thought a Hershey bar was worth eating. They are grainier than Cadbury or Galaxy. I do always have a Hershey with Almonds when I'm in the US, though, as it does combine well with Almonds, I think. Chocolate with almonds to me is heaven, and a lot less common in the UK, where hazelnuts rule (as I'm sure I've written before...).

  10. I'm intrigued by US Smarties now.

    In Europe chocolate and almonds is popular. Like Toblerone, which I love. They definitely do the best chocolate in French supermarkets.

  11. Believe me, they're not that interesting! Cybercandy doesn't even bother to stock them.

    Here's another candy/sweet mystery. Why are Altoids so popular in the US, though they are made in the UK and not so common here?

    Apparently, the brand has been bought out by Wrigleys and will soon (if not already) be produced in Chatanooga, thereby reducing the food miles on them.

    Has the term food miles got any currency in the US? I had to explain it to an American friend in Germany last week, but I suppose people who live in Berlin aren't the best exemplars of American English speakers.

  12. I'm getting really into food miles. I work for a charity and we're trying to promote community growing (allotments and stuff), local produce and reducing food miles. It's really interesting (Husband thinks I'm mad when I check packets of food)

    I don't know what an Altoid is but I do remember a small, sweet, puffed rice sweet I used to eat as a child which was called a Spaceoid.

  13. See:

    They're made in Bridgend, Wales, and ubiquitous in the US. They're very nice mints, like Trebor Strong Mints but small. But they're rather pricy because they come in tins (and are imported all the way from Wales to the whole US, where they're apparently best-sold on the west coast--more food miles!)

  14. Oh, and! I remembered that the Yorkshire dialent word for 'sweets' is 'spice'. I think it's still used in the rhyme 'Sugar and spice and all things nice/that's what little girls are made of'.

  15. Food miles are a hot topic on US food blogs, especially the ones in California. There are periodic Eat Local challenges.

    Linguistically, I suppose the phrase Eat Local is more common than food miles. (And why isn't it food kilos in Europe?)

  16. Aigh, I've tried to convince British people that the demise of adjective/adverb distinctions can't be blamed on Americans. Then you tell me about Eat Local. Aigh. And Apple's Think Different. Aigh.

    The UK uses miles, not kilomet{er/re}s.

  17. > UK Starburst has lime instead--but everyone knows that cherry is the best flavo(u)r.

    Well, we Limeys have always had a penchant for lime flavo(u)r ;-) !

    > Taffy is a derogatory name for a Welshman.

    I wonder if 'derogatory' is a little strong? I have several Welsh friends, none of whom mind being called a 'Taffy'; and particularly one who prefers to be known as 'Taff', even though his actual forename is not Dafydd, a popular name in Wales. (Dafydd = David, the patron saint of Wales). The COED has "informal, often offensive" for the word, so pehaps it's not automatically derogatory.

    Other forename epithets I can think of include 'Jock' and 'Geordie'. Soldiers of Scottish regiments are proud to be called Jocks, and likewise people from Tyneside have no objection to being called Geordies, but don't ever call a Sunderlander a Geordie, if you care for your safety!

    I am not so sure about 'Paddy' or 'Mick', though, for Irishmen. I suspect they have gone the same way as 'Dago' (from 'Diego'[?] or 'Iago'[?]), and are almost certainly insulting.

    > the demise of adjective/adverb distinctions can't be blamed on Americans.

    I think perhaps English was never all that over-zealous about the distinction between adjective/adverb forms (adverb = adjective+'ly', e.g., 'swift', 'swiftly'). Consider 'goodly' which would appear from its form to be an adverb, but isn't, and 'quick' which appears to be an adjective, but can also be an adverb. I'm obviously not an expert, but is possible that the contrast between adj. and adv. forms are more rigorously maintained in Romance languages than in Germanic? I'm thinking of German 'Schlauf gut' - 'sleep well', but 'gut' can also be the adj. 'good'.

    ... And on that note, because it's late here, may I wish you all Schlauf gut?

  18. I think those smarties are like those tiny tubes of sweets made by swizzles the purple ones taste like flowers ment to be voilet flavour or something

  19. Popsicle is actually a trademark for what is technically called a quiescently frozen dessert — that is, it is not aerated while being frozen, unlike ice cream.

    I have always taken sorbet to be a Frenchified name for what is anciently called sherbet in English; the thickener need not be dairy, but can also be egg-white or even gelatin.

    Dago is indeed from Diego, but though I understand it still refers to a Spaniard in the U.K., it almost always refers to an Italian in the U.S., oddly enough.

    Diego itself is not really the Spanish version of James, which is indeed Iago, most often in Santiago 'St. James'; it's probably an autochthonous Iberian name.

    As for English adverbs, the original OE adverbial ending was -e, as in læte 'slowly' from læt 'slow'. That ending disappeared with the fall of all final e's; consequently English-speakers have been using go slow and its relatives since ME times.

    An alternative adverbial ending in OE was -lice, a compound of -lic (a shortened version of the noun lîc 'body', whence ModE lich[-gate] and lyke[-wake]) plus the aforementioned -e. By normal sound-change this became the productive adverbial ending -ly in ModE, but never entirely displaced the (usually monosyllabic) adverbs without endings.

  20. You can go so many places with the British/American responses to different sweets. My (British) husband, for example, will not eat candy bars which contain peanuts. To him peanuts are entirely savory not sweet. (I assume you've already covered the concept of "savory vs. sweet" which is not a distinction that Americans make.) The British are accustomed to hazelnuts in chocolate while Americans prefer peanuts.

  21. Re US Smarties, I was thinking they sounded a little like the Rowntree "Refreshers" that were around in the 70s.

    They were slightly tart discs - you got a tube of them - and they were a little thinner than Love Hearts. If I recall - they were concave.

  22. One difference I (American) found with my (English) then-boyfriend was the pronounciation of "nougat." He was endlessly amused at my "NOOgit", where he says something identical to "nugget", which to me can only mean a lump of unrefined gold or the like.

    Also, I must warn one commenter above about conflating Hershey's chocolate with American chocolate. There are some very good American chocolates, and Americans who love chocolate don't normally prefer Hershey's (some foodies are tediously snobbish about it).

    I like Hershey's because I ate it as a child, but I don't consider it objectively good chocolate.

  23. This is a very late comment, but the US Smarties are definitely still around in the UK, not just from the 70s, either. Not sure they're still called refreshers, but tubes in almost identical packaging containing sweets that sound identical are pretty common.

  24. In response to Alex's post about Smarties/Refreshers....

    As a total Refreshers addict, I need to let you know that there's no comparison. Refreshers have a much stronger flavour and a fizziness that Smarties lack.

    Comparing to another of my addictions, Smarties are like warm, flat, diluted Coke.

  25. The Australian definition of candy is more or less the same as the one you give for British. However, we do not have "candy floss". It is called "fairy floss", and that is its only common name in this country.

  26. Totally late comment... but two things. Smarties in Canada don't have orange chocolate.
    Also, 'kilos' refers to kilograms, kilometre is shortened to "clicks", usually, if it's shortened at all

  27. Another very late posting too (I've been happily working my way through the archives)...
    I have often wondered about the US pronunciation of caramel. I seem to hear it on US television programmes said as 'carmel'. I've also heard Canadian chefs use that shortened pronunciation. It seems to be missing the middle 'a' making it sound like a place where a film star might become mayor.
    Here in New Zealand we definitely pronounce the second 'a'. Is the 'carmel' pronunciation regional in North America or fairly wide-spread?

  28. The 'carmel' pronunciation is fairly standard in the US. In fact, it's the first pronunciation listed in Merriam-Webster's dictionaries.

  29. The us smarties were and still are called Swizzles in the UK. There is also a purple version called parma violets.

  30. Nobody mentioned Sherbet as slang for beer. As in " We're off for a couple of sherbets"

    Being from NW England I think of it as Southern slang, though.

  31. Apropos the Audstralian use of "lollies" for any kind of sweets: Margaret Mead in one of her books (I can't remember which) describes being pursued by children (in New Guinea or Samoa, etc) calling out "lole", their word for candy, not realizing that they were using the Australian term, as they naturally would.

  32. In New York, at least, flying saucers are round ice cream sandwiches with scalloped edges sold by Carvel.

  33. I couldn't help but think of this discussion when I came across this video sketch.
    Dialect, accent, brand names, UK / USA differences, what more could you want?

  34. EXCELLENT! I love the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre! And it makes me think that I must do a post on 'comes out a treat'.

  35. Are US Smarties like the Refreshers sweets that we get in the UK?

  36. No, because Refreshers are fizzy and US Smarties aren't.

  37. US smarties look a bit like these fizzers made by Swizzels Matlow, the same people who make Parma Violets(although from all the posts above it sounds like they're not actually fizzy).

  38. My favorite starburst flavor is strawberry even though it does not really taste like strawberry.

    My 7 year old loves smarties! (american smarties)

    And I am a peanut m&m Girl!

    I have had Buttons before( brought from england from a friend) kind of like m&ms, but the candy coating was harder, and the chocolate was not as sweet.

    I have had an Orange chocolate Orange, that you slap down hard and it splits into orange slices. I can not remember the name of them though. Not sure if they are from England or not, but bout them at an import shop.

  39. I consider smarties(US)to be most like Tums brand antacid, bland and chalky.

    While cherry is my favorite Starburst flavor strawberry is a very close second.

    I'm a little surprised that your comparison of sweet and tart candies didn't mention SweeTARTS.

  40. Yum! I am from the US and lollipops are my favorite candy ( not sweet.) I wonder what they are called in the UK...

  41. They are called 'lollipops'.

  42. The closest thing to american smarties are either parma violets or fizzers or maybe love hearts in the UK

  43. We have candies exactly like the US Smarties in Canada, but they are called Rockets. You don't see them often other than at Hallowe'en. We also have the UK-style Smarties, which are quite popular in Canada. My American friend says they have a bitter taste that M&M's don't have and he won't eat Smarties.

    Being a Canadian, I don't really consider chocolate bars candy, at least not "candy" candy, although I suppose you could buy them here at a candy store. Canadians are linguistically a bit in between the UK and US.

  44. Actually, in America it can be called either chocolate bar or candy bar, it just depends on the region you're in. Typically, the west coast says candy bar and the east coast says chocolate bar with the states in the middle having variations.

  45. Since I'm from the East and my people say 'candy bar', I don't think that can be quite right. It would be interesting to see it included in a dialect study, but I can't find one that has included it.

  46. The description of American Smarties sounds similar to that of Fizzers - I know they will have differences but I just thought I should mention it since you didn't have anything for comparison.

  47. The description of US Smarties made me also think of UK Swizzels, the smaller more disappointing cousins of Refreshers and Love Hearts. This article seems to tell the history. They are made by companies linked to different branches of the same transatlantic family and their origins seem to be traceable back to a common ancestral confectionery of the 1930s.

  48. Reopening this discussion years later, I was interested when an Australian friend posted a picture of what I call sweets and which my American friends would have called some candy, but she referred to them as "lollies". For me, lollies of any kind have sticks, but not for her.... discussion (friendly and interested) ensued!

  49. When I was a small boy in Nottingham, I heard (it was never written) the word tuffy — pronounced ˈtʊfɛ with a FOOT vowel followed by a shortened unstressed DRESS vowel. Although obviously related to Standard English toffee it applied quite generally: a tuffy was 'a sweet'.

  50. I am American and I can't stand the "carmel" pronunciation of caramel. I looked it up recently and felt vindicated, so I'm surprised to read here that "carmel" is considered the default. I actually don't hear it much, luckily. I usually hear it pronounced to my liking- care-uh-mel. But maybe I tune out the others without realizing it.

  51. BrE (Scot, late 60s). I’ve just found this post, and I see a few similarly late replies. In Scotland, or at least the SW when I was growing up, caramel was always pronounced carmel. As well as referring to a soft, toffee-like filling, it was a generic term for any individual toffee sweet, chocolate covered or otherwise. McCowans, purveyors of the famous “cow (ScE coo) toffee”, made the “penny caramel”, a, individually wrapped toffee costing a penny. We could also buy a “ha’penny carmel”, smaller, but chocolate-covered.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)