What He Meant Was This

In The Ballad of Jessica James by Geoff Bamber, a comedy play for kids, the heroine works her way around the Wild West using Blueberry and Cinnamon Flapjack as a currency.

What Geoff meant by that was something that looks pretty much like this:

Blueberry and cinnamon flapjack
Blueberry and Cinnamon Flapjack as it appears in The Ballad of Jessica James

However, that’s not what the word would bring to mind in the USA.  In America, the comestibles above might be described as oat bars or (with a little variation) granola bars.  The term Flapjack is generally used in the USA for a small pancake – approximately what I should call a drop scone and, I think, the Scots might call a griddle cake.  So, which is right?  Well, obviously, both.  To channel Lewis Carroll, flapjack is the name of whatever you use the word to mean.  A better question would be “why are there different meanings?”

The name Flapjack has been around since the 17th century.  Shakespeare used it (of all places, it’s in Pericles, Prince of Tyre).  He meant some sort of cooked dessert and, in all probability, a pan cake or griddle cake.  Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the “flap” has a meaning similar to flip, suggestive of the process of flipping the pancake to cook both sides.  (Indeed, Brewer’s only definition of Flapjack is the American one.)

But what about the “jack”?  In my opinion, the most likely meaning was the one I found (amongst dozens of uses of jack) in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang which suggests that between 1500 and 1650 jack was used to mean “the least bit” – so something small or of little significance.  A flapjack would then be a small flipped pancake.
One could further speculate that “jack” in this sense might have been borrowed from Flemish, being very similar to the Dutch diminutive “tje”.  (In modern Dutch, “tje” can be stuck on the end of almost any noun.  Commonly, for example “biertje” which should mean small beer, but usually just means beer.)  So, in the Netherlands, we find “flapje” which has a similar, but distinct meaning:

Take a square of pastry (ideally puff pastry).
Put a dollop of stewed apple onto it.
Fold along a diagonal and seal the edges.
Glaze with egg and, possibly sugar.
Bake it.
That’s an appel flapje.  (In English that flap would be an apple turnover.)

So the American use of flapjack has preserved the older definition. How about the modern British usage?  It seems to have achieved the current meaning in the 1930s, but I have yet to find anyone who knows more than that.  (If there are specialists in the history of flapjack, they are well hidden.)  My guess – pure speculation – is that someone created a recipe for the confection of oats and syrup and wanted a name by which to market the recipe.  (I would not be surprised to find that marketing on the side of an ancient syrup tin.)  “Oatcakes” was already taken (at least in Scotland and – for a rather different item, a soft pancake made from oats and flour – in Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire), so the marketers repurposed “flapjack” on the grounds that we have plenty of other words for the previous meaning(s).

All of which seems to say that Geoff’s use of the word is an anachronism, but at least I knew what he meant.  (There’s a recipe in the Producer’s Copy of the script.)

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2 thoughts on “What He Meant Was This

  1. Not to mention the way the Americans have attached the word muffin to what I would call a large fairy-cake. Muffins are baked and you eat them with butter – as in the Importance of Being Ernest. I wonder how that scene works in the States?

    1. I think in America the difference is acknowledged by use of the term “English Muffin”. (That’s a term I first came across in a Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy had awoken in the middle of the night and wanted a toasted English Muffin with grape jelly. Entirely comprehensible, apart from the grape jelly.)
      I’ve no idea when that particular linguistic division occurred. (More research for another day…)

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