zwieback, rusks--and more on biscuits

We're back in the UK, dealing with a very jet-lagged baby. During our US visit, I had reason to think about another BrE/AmE difference in baby paraphernalia terminology, since Grover's got her first two teeth and is working on her next two: (AmE) zwieback (toast) and (BrE) (teething) rusk.

These refer to essentially the same thing (when it comes to the baby product), although rusk can also be used in BrE to refer to a kind of bready stuff that's added to sausages. Zwieback rhymes with 'lie back' or 'lie Bach' (if Bach has a hard /k/ sound at the end) in my dialect, but American Heritage lists a number of alternative pronunciations. It comes from the German for 'twice baked', as that's what they are: first baked as a loaf, then sliced and baked again. In other words, they're biscotti for babies. (In South Africa, rusks are used just like biscotti--eaten by all ages, dunked into coffee or tea.)

Strangely, we weren't able to buy any of this staple of babyhood in the US, although we searched for it in supermarkets and (AmE) drug stores (=BrE chemist's shop, more or less) in three counties. Sometimes we found the empty space on the shelf where they were supposed to be, sometimes not even that. I searched on the web for signs of a recall or shortage, but found no information, except that, like all finger foods apparently, Gerber zwiebacks now carry stern warnings that they should not be given to children who cannot yet crawl with their stomachs lifted off the ground. They've made them part of their 'Graduates for Toddlers' range, suggested for age 10+ months. But, of course, you need them when the baby is cutting her front teeth, long before toddlerdom. Meanwhile, I just ordered some rusks from my UK on-line grocery and found them label(l)ed 'suitable from 4 months'. (Granted, they do give a recipe for making a sort of porridgy thing from them, so that's probably what's suitable for a 4-month-old.) I have to assume that the warnings on baby foods are the product of the litigious culture...but the warnings are so uniform across the brands/products that I wonder whether they're legally required. (Do any of you know?)

Though we didn't find zwiebacks, we did find some non-zwieback teething biscuits (and ignored age and crawling requirements), which Grover loves (and handles very well, despite being completely uninterested in crawling, since crying for Mum/Mom and Dad to pick her up and carry her wherever she wants to go has worked so well for her thus far). This made me return to thinking about biscuits. As we've discussed before, BrE biscuit is and isn't equivalent to AmE cookie, but in discussions comparing those two words, we tend to only mention the AmE sense of biscuit that refers to a scone-like (in appearance, at least) thing. We should acknowledge areas of overlap with BrE biscuit. Americans do use biscuit in the names for some cookie-like things: teething biscuits and dog biscuits. In both cases, these kind of biscuits are hard--harder than normal (BrE) biscuits/(AmE) cookies. I wonder whether these AmE uses of biscuit remain closer to its etymological meaning 'twice cooked', since teething biscuits (at least) typically are twice-baked (perhaps dog biscuits used to be twice-baked, too?). But note that in both of these cases, biscuit in AmE is used as part of a compound. We don't use biscuit alone to refer to crunchy things like these.

Pressing deadlines mean that I have to reduce my posting even further, I'm afraid. I have told myself that I can only blog once a week now, though it pains me to type that. I promise to work on that backlog of requests from kind readers.


  1. I was started on Arrowroot biscuits (CAN/E), also called digestives, Peek Freens. Hard, not terribly sweet, mushed well. Hard to find these days, so I make my own for dunking.

  2. I thought the warning was that they had to be able to sit unassisted, not that they had to crawl with their tummies up. That's very strange, especially considering that crawling is not even considered a developmental milestone as so many kids don't crawl for various reasons.

  3. I find it really interesting that the i and e in zwieback get transposed in English from what it would be in German, where two is spelled zwei, not zwie. Although, I've never heard the word zwieback before, or really ever seen them used. Perhaps it's because I haven't had any kids yet, and was too young to remember a word like that when my sisters were little. My parents always used frozen mini-bagels for teething kids.

  4. @mamunipsaq: yes, the German word for two is zwei, but in some words, zwie is used. Other examples: zwiespalt, zwietracht, and zwielicht (twilight).

  5. The 4 month recommendation for rusks in the UK probably stems from advice that babies aren't given any wheat products before that age. (That was certainly the advice when I had my children, although my youngest is now 14 and the advice may well have changed.)

  6. Pressing deadlines mean that I have to my posting even further

    OMG, I can see the cuts are effective immediately!


  7. sort of off topic.. but what do you mean by 'biscotti'? I'm BrE but have been living in Italy for a few years so am curious as I've never heard it in English.

  8. Just yesterday a friend said to me, "I went in to the coffee place, one of those that has biscuits behind the counter," and though I knew pretty well what she meant I looked quizzically at her and she said, "Dog biscuits, I mean." (Both of us Americans, in New York.)

    And biscotti have gone mainstream in the US, represented by their presence in cello packs at the counter at Starbuck's. I am always a little uncertain when ordering one in a cafe, as I can't bring myself to use "biscotti" as a singular, but to say "biscotto" would be unbearably snob, if it is even correct. I find myself saying, "May I have one of those biscotti?" or just getting a cookie instead.

  9. Farley's Rusks used to be a staple weaning baby food here in the UK - you mixed part of one with a little milk for a very small baby; older ones could eat it as a biscuit.

    I didn't like rusks with my own girl - I was always terrified she would choke on a bitten-off chunk. You used to be able to get them called, repellently, "Bickie-pegs" which had a ribbon and safety-pin so they could be pinned to the front of a child's clothes. The mess was indescribable!

    But it's 28 years since I was a mother, and I am sure things have changed.

  10. For some reason we actually have both words in Danish. Obviously imported at different times:

    Tvebak(ken) is a very crisp thing - Much like overdone toast, but lighter. Usually savoury.

    Beskøjt(en), though, is pretty much the same as "hardtack" and as such I've never had nor even seen it. But it's much a byword of 'ocean lore'.

  11. Zweiback is something totally different to me: it is a bun with a smaller bun on top. Like this. It is a classic Mennonite recipe.

  12. I discovered a number of typos in this post, now corrected, including in the title (*blush*).

    Here, for the record, is the text from the zwieback box:

    "Your child is ready for Zwieback Toast when she:

    * Eats thicker, lumpier foods with larger pieces
    * Crawls on hands and knees (tummy up and off the floor)
    * Uses jaw to mash food with gums
    * Holds small foods between thumb and first finger"

    The 4-month recommendation for rusks is because you're not supposed to feed babies any food before that age (wheat or not). British baby food packages usually say that the government recommends breastfeeding exclusively until 6 mos, but if baby seems ready earlier, you can start at 7 months. Most baby-feeding books recommend that wheat not be introduced until at least 7 months--sometimes 1 year.

    Anon 2, by biscotti, I refer to things that are very much like rusks (baked as a loaf, then sliced and baked again), sold in fancy coffee shops for dunking in your coffee. The most typical ones are flavo(u)red with anise and almonds. Do a Google image search on 'biscotti' and you'll get lots of examples of the English use of the word.

    Like nbm, I tend to avoid the singular (as I did in this post) because few English speakers reali{s/z}e that 'biscotti' is plural in Italian. Another one that gets me is the pronunciation of 'bruschetta' with a soft 'ch'. I always say it 'brusketta' and few English-speaking waiters know what I'm going on about...

    zhoen, they still make arrowroot biscuits too, and they were an option for giving to Grover, but seemed to have a lot of sugar in them, so I ended up with another brand of barley biscuits. In the US, arrowroot biscuits (again, an AmE cookie-like use of 'biscuit') are very much a baby food, but one sees this ingredient in a greater age range for British baked goods. This line from Wikipedia interested me: "If you eat a large quantity of arrowroot it may cause stomach pains and very bad gut illnesses." Do I really want to give that to a baby?

  13. r.e. biscotti - that's v. funny, just to add to the muddle - I looked at English Google images and I know what they are but they aren't what you would get if you asked for biscotti round here. Here in Tuscany they are usually called cantuccini and eaten at the end of a meal dunked in sweetish, slightly fortified wine. Whereas what are called biscotti are a bit softer and usually made for putting in milk for breakfast...

  14. My MIL, who learned her English as an immigrant from Yugoslavia, calls those teething biscuits "cookies," which makes me crazy.

  15. Arrowroot - I have seen this mentioned as a thickening agent for sauces, especially where a clear appearance is needed. Your comment, Lynne, about the gastric effects of arrowroot (surely larger quantities than found in one biccie) reminded me of Jerusalem artichoke. The roots contain an undigestible starch-like compound that also has gastric effects in folk whose guts don't contain the right bacteria - in other words, farting. Great fun to offer JA soup at a dinner party, I've been told - but if arrowroot is also indigestible, why put it in biscuits?

    For an emergency teething rusk, have you tried toasting some bread and giving the crusts to Grover?

    Fantastic to know the correct Italian name for Costa's biscotti, thanks, anon.

  16. nbm, thanks for your info on biscotti. Would you mind also explaining what a cello pack is?

  17. I was introduced to zwieback by my German cousin. It was only because of this that I knew what I was looking at when I noticed them in the supermarket when we moved to the USA!

    Prior to that, we'd been living in the UK, and Farley's rusks were a staple for my daughter, who was 7mo when we left. (Actually, I remember growing up in Australia we had Farley's rusks to - I used to love eating them as an older child!)

    I have to say, zwieback are MUCH neater than rusks. See this picture for proof of that (and yes, that's British spring sunshine!).

  18. mollymooly, "cello pack" isn't in my US dialect, but from my experience with biscotti in America, I recognized it as meaning "factory-packed in cellophane."

    And I've only encountered the word zwieback in some of Walt Kelly's giddier flights of untethered language in the comic strip Pogo. It would be considered a regional (i.e., not normal) thing here in Arizona, I think.

  19. I nearly mentioned the pronunciation of bruschetta yesterday, but decided not to introduce it in the comments. But now that Lynneguist herself has brought it up, I'll add the U.S. two-syllable pronunciation of calzone. I used to bravely sound the final e, but have finally capitulated and usually end the word with a half-swallowed schwa.

  20. Even though (or rather because) the letters are transposed, surely it's pronounced "tsvee..." in German.

  21. No - in German, "ie" is always pronounced "ee" (for me, it's just wrong, plain wrong, not to pronounce it "zweeback" cookies!), and "ei" is always pronounced "eye". As in a stein of beer (pronounced Shtine in German.

  22. Aha! they're for teething! I always wondered why anyone would buy such bland and boring bread products.

    Now, where does "melba toast" fit in to this discussion? In American supermarkets it's shelved right next to the zweiback. I've never been able to distinguish between them (but then, I've never really made an effort).

  23. @mrs redboots.
    >for me, it's just wrong, plain wrong, not to pronounce it "zweeback" cookies<

    But isn't zwieback a misspelling of zweiback? If so, are we not changing a German word to something that doesn't exist, and then re-applying German pronunciation to our new anglicised word?

    I know that 'zwie' does exist in German, as in zwielicht, but AFAIK there's no such thing as zwieback. (I could be wrong. My German is Nordrhein-Westfalen Plattdeutsch, but I've come across quite a few unexpected Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss variations.)

    In English, esp. AmE, we do tend to create our own versions of other languages, and later imbue them with authority. E.g. Bernaise Sauce. I can find no reason for changing Béarnaise to Bernaise other than laziness; yet it prvails. But the sauce comes from the French province of Béarn, not the Swiss city of Berne.

    And BTW, since the discussion is about various incarnations of rusks, how about sippets and croûtons.

  24. I think it is still called Bearnaise sauce in the UK, only perhaps without the accent. Croutons are croutons, but I'm not sure what sippets are.

    As for Melba toast, that's something different again - I didn't know one could buy it; I always make my own.

    I have just had a thought, though - in French, "biscottes" are also a type of rusk - a pre-toasted white bread which is much nicer than it sounds, although apt to explode in a shower of crumbs. You can find them in this country, usually alongside the oatcakes and other cheese biscuits (I mean, biscuits for cheese - I suppose crackers in AmE?). Quite different from what I know as biscotti!

    1. As far as I am concerned, crouton is French and restaurant- speak for sippet - i.e stale bread cut in dice and fried, preferably in dripping from the roast. Added to improve home-made soup. Must be done just before serving soup.

  25. Going back to the very first comment from zhoen: digestives in the UK are a very different type of biccie - definitely for adults. They can be packed with sugar, also a lot of fibre - reaching their apogee in the HobNob which is a sort of homespun version. Less sugary brands of digestives are excellent when eaten with blue cheese or even a mature cheddar (try it!): the more sugary kind (including HobNobs) are also available half-coated with chocolate; plain or milk varieties.
    Digestives are used, mashed up with butter, as the base for a non-cooked cheesecake (would it be Graham crackers in the US?) and we successfully used small chocolate digestives as the outer layers, with toasted marshmallows, of our UK versions of the campfire favourite... called s'more'ums I believe. Definitely yummy but very incorrect in terms of calories, sugar, fat etc.

  26. According to grimm, it's Zwieback, but they say that a Zweiback/Zwieback alternation existed in earlier forms.

  27. The biscuit is most definitely called Zwieback in German and yes, we say it with an "ee".

    It is babyfood here, too, but also eaten when you've upset your stomach. Nowadays you can also get them chocolate-covered or with desiccated coconut.

    This is the best-known German brand but there is also a regional variety which is slightly different.

  28. Thank you Sister_Luck for setting me straight. We are here to learn. I presume zwei and zwie have the same root? Do you know of an on-line German etymological dictionary one can consult before hitting the Send button?

  29. Mrs Redboots, I think I wasn't quite clear. I meant to convey that if it's spelled "ie" in German, surely the pronunciation should be "ee". Apparently it is and it should.

  30. So, in fact, we were both saying the same thing!

  31. Biochemist - oh, a HobNob's not a digestive! Far too knobbly, and I think it's got oats in it whereas digestives are wheatmeal.

    Plain chocolate digestives are the apogee of the biscuit world. Hobnobs are mere johnny-come-lately pretenders to the throne...

  32. Sorry, Trinovante39, I don't know of any online etymological dictionaries for German - I use an old fashioned paper version, which tells me that Zwie- and zwei are variations of the same indo-Germanic root. English two is related to it as well. And just as in English zwi- is like twi- the version used for compounds.

    More about biscuits and the German word Biskuit here.

  33. Let me toss in another BrE baby accessory name that stumped me the first time I heard it: dummy, as in "He's acting like a baby who just threw his dummy out the pram." (That was the actual sentence, btw, I was watching Sky Sports Fanzone on Fox Soccer Channel.) It took me several minutes of googling to figure out that a dummy is what we normally call a pacifier in AmE. (I've also heard them called ninnies, nuks and plugs in casual conversation.) I already knew what a pram was, but when I related the story to a friend, they were more mystified by pram than by dummy.

    I have heard the term cello pack frequently, but only because I am a buyer for a retail store and have to deal with the term when ordering.

    Thanks for clarifying the word "rusk." I've heard it often but never have found such a thorough explanation before.

  34. Dummy has already been discussed elsewhere--click on the 'baby paraphernalia' link in the first paragraph. It would be nice if the discussion of that and related terms could stay at that post so that people interested in the issue could find the discussion.

    Got our first Farley's rusks today and was surprised to see that they don't look like biscotti (i.e. they don't look like South African rusks). They are round like big (BrE) biscuits/(AmE) cookies (at least the reduced sugar variety that I bought are). So, it should be said (again) that a wider range of things are called 'rusks' in BrE than are called 'zwieback' in AmE.

    @jonathanbogart: zwieback is the name used on a national brand of teething biscuit, manufactured by Gerber's and it's not marked as regional in AmE dictionaries. So, there's no evidence here that it's regional, except for your lack of experience with it. But here it is defined on an Arizona-based site. It's not the type of word that anyone should feel bad about not knowing, since it belongs to the baby-related jargon, and may even be a little old-fashioned there (since the fashion for giving them to teething babies seems to be being frightened out of the new generation of parents). So, moral of the story: just because you don't use a word doesn't mean it's not part of your community's dialect.

    Sorry for getting all preachy. Must be time for me to start teaching again!

    Also, just noticed a typo in the comment above where I said I'd been embarrassed by my typos! The UK gov't recommends breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months, but if the baby seems ready you can start them on food at FOUR months (not 7)!

  35. In a completely random and unrelated manner, I'd like to ask a question of the many readers of this blog. What is the derivation of the phrase "alas and alack"? I've been searching for a few days to no avail.

    Please forgive me for bringing this into the comments of this blog... I often enjoy the stimulating discussion in the comments section.

  36. Please read the comments policy for the blog. (See the left margin for the link.)

  37. @lynneguist: Thank you for explaining where to find the link. Sorry about that, I'm still getting the lay of the land here. Really enjoying your posts.

  38. Speaking of apogees (and I entirely agree about the plain chocolate-coated digestive biccie, even more so the plain choc KitKat), here's a lovely British site that that tells you more than you may want to know about the variety of biscuits in the UK and Europe
    The title of the site reflects the housewife's cry halfway through the afternoon - 'Let's have a nice cup of tea and a sit down' - and a biscuit....

  39. Like Canadian, to me Zwieback is a type of roll (see from the Mennonite tradition. It's something my grandparents would always make for family gatherings. I first heard of the hard biscuit/cracker kind when our family hosted an exchange student from Germany. I'm curious how the name came to represent two different types of bread - did they derive from the same original recipe? Or were there two recipes that were created independently?


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